Paul Van Zyl : Why America Needs a Truth & Reconciliation Council

photo by Kris Krug

Challenging Conversations: Paul van Zyl

Paul Van Zyl was an anti-apartheid organizer in South Africa. When Mandela became president, he became the executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and he’s now co-founder and EVP of the International Center for Transitional Justice

He explains that in the four years from Mandela’s release from prison to free elections, an enormous amount of work had to be done. South Africa needed a new constitution, a shared parliament, and, controversially, amnesty for security forces.

Mandela decided that it wouldn’t be possible to end the conflict without such amnesty. But if ordinary people feel their interests are neglected, a peace deal will unravel. And amnesty deals are never popular with torture victims or families of the disappeared.

“I supported transition to democratic rule. But I was determined that it would not happen at the expense of victims. If murderers were able to get away with murder, we needed to address the needs of the victims.”

The South African TRC required perpetrators to confes crimes in public, and be cross-examined by the victims. Only if they did so in public would they receive amnesty. There was an element of shaming, the important acknowledgement of the injustices. And critically, it allowed victims to discover the truth about their loved ones. 

The public testimony continued almost non-stop for 3 years, dominating the newspapers and nightly television news. It was impossible to ignore. And it started South Africa reimagining itself.


PopTech 2009: Paul Van Zyl from PopTech on Vimeo.