The impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on psychological distress and forgiveness in South Africa
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Legislation to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was passed soon after election of South Africa’s first democratic government. Discourse around the TRC focused on the importance of bearing witness to the past, and on the healing powers of forgiveness. However, there was also a concern that individuals with TRC relevant experience would simply be re-traumatized by participation in the process. To date, there has been little empirical data for either hypothesis.
A nationally representative survey of the South African population (n = 4,351) was undertaken 6–8 years after the TRC process began. Information about subjects’ exposure to and participation in the TRC was collected, and views about the testimony of survivors and perpetrators were assessed. To determine the predictors of distress, anger, and forgiveness, linear regressions were undertaken with inclusion of demographic variables, exposure to TRC variables, and attitudes to the TRC.
Distress was significantly associated with specific demographic factors (female gender, less education), with having a TRC-related experience to share, and with negative perceptions of the TRC (a negative view of survivors’ testimony). Anger had similar associations but was also predicted by lower age. Forgiveness was associated with age and education, with being Coloured, and with having a positive view of perpetrator’s testimony, while it was inversely associated with having a TRC experience to share. Distress and anger correlated inversely with forgiveness. Perceptions of the TRC were moderately positive irrespective of many demographic variables (race, education, age).
In this cross-sectional study, causal relationships are difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, relationships between increased distress/anger, having a TRC relevant experience to share, and negative perceptions of the TRC, support a view that bearing testimony is not necessarily helpful to survivors. However, in the population as a whole, moderately positive attitudes towards the TRC across sociodemographic variables support a view that the TRC helped provide knowledge and acknowledgment of the past.
Key wordstruth and reconciliation commission south africa forgiveness distress
This study was funded by MH 59575 from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Drug Abuse and by the Department of Mental Health, Ministry of Health in South Africa. Dan Stein and Soraya Seedat are also supported by the Medical Research Council (MRC) of South Africa.
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