More than truth: Democracy and South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Hans Peter Schmitz


Transitional justice, South Africa, Democratization, Truth commissions

Subject Categories

Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


In the post-Cold War period, truth commissions have become a standard mechanism for settling past accounts in post-conflict, transitioning states. This dissertation examines the relationship between truth commissions and democratic transitions. At the heart of this study is a key theoretical and practical question: what impact, if any, do truth commissions have on democratization? In other words, what is it that a truth commission does in moving a society and state from authoritarian rule to democracy? Bridging the literatures of transitional justice and democratization, this study argues that truth commissions are tools of democratic transitions that foster democratization by increasing support for democracy on three levels of society: the elite level, the civil society level, and the individual level. This support is achieved by creating a narrative history, fostering political reconciliation, and encouraging rule of law. Using the paradigmatic case of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this study examines the impact of the commission on support for democracy by analyzing: elite-constructed history curriculum, government stability, civil society organizations' commitment to dialogue and political reconciliation, group-related crime, and individual perceptions of institutional legitimacy. The argument demonstrates the positive impact of truth commissions, which has long been defended on normative grounds but never tested.

This dissertation concludes that while the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped increase support for democracy on all three levels of society, more progress was made on the elite and civil society levels than on the individual level. The greater degree of progress on the elite and civil society levels can be attributed to the truth commission's focus on elites via amnesty and to the strength of civil society as a result of the history of apartheid resistance. To improve implementation of the idea of truth commissions, especially in terms of impact on the individual level, this study argues that two key changes should have been made in South Africa's truth commission. First, greater attention should have been dedicated to the reparations policy, which should have been under the full authority of the commission instead of under partial governmental control. Second, the government and commissioners should have taken steps to temper overblown expectations about what the truth commission was able to achieve.

This dissertation also proposes policy recommendations for future truth commissions. It argues that future commissions will have the greatest impact if they internalize and express the idea that reconciliation and democratization are ongoing processes, which require appropriately tailored beliefs about outcomes. Second, truth commissions are inherently contextual and political institutions. Therefore, while states can learn and borrow from previous commissions, a single model cannot be uniformly applied in every context. Third, two elements of South Africa's commission, transparency and amnesty, were beneficial aspects that should be considered in other commissions. Lastly, extensive time and money allow for greater truth commission impact.


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