On December 26, 2021, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu passed away at 90. A fierce opponent of South African apartheid and a champion of universal human rights, Archbishop Tutu was celebrated as a remarkable force for non-violence and forgiveness.
When negotiations to end apartheid began in May of 1990, the outlook for peace and stability in South Africa was grim. After 50 years of segregation and nearly a century of racist oppression, many feared that the majority Black population would seek retaliation for the enforced brutality, violence, and humiliation of apartheid. Transitioning from the apartheid-era government to a multiracial democracy required planning and tact.
• Donate to the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.
• Follow the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission public hearings to learn more about America’s history and support efforts for reconciliation.
• Join the movement to support Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s bill to establish a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation.
Some suggested replicating the Nuremberg Trials as a model for justice in South Africa by prosecuting members of the old white-run government. Others proposed that the country move on and “let bygones be bygones” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report). But neither approach could adequately account for the unique situation that confronted South Africa. Instead, Archbishop Tutu and other peace negotiators created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to forge a public record of the apartheid from the voices of victims and perpetrators. Employing indigenous African justice principles of confession and collective accountability, the TRC presented a justice initiative that sought to heal instead of punish.
Guided by Ubuntu, a Southern African philosophy that emphasizes the interconnected nature of us all, the TRC relied on shared humanity as an incentive for societal healing. These principles, along with an unyielding capacity for forgiveness and compassion, were at the core of Archbishop Tutu’s work. While the televised hearings were far from perfect, they allowed a nation torn apart by discrimination to air wounds and begin the painful process of moving forward.
As the U.S. fails to enact federal reparations for centuries of violence and inequality toward Black and Indigenous people, activists have turned to Archbishop Tutu’s model of justice. With the support of over 240 organizations, Congresswoman Barbara Lee is calling for the first United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (U.S. House). This truth-telling initiative would shed light on decades of denial and clarify the pipeline of disenfranchisement that runs from enslavement through Jim Crow to the institutional racism still present throughout society.
There have already been truth and reconciliation projects to address U.S. racial violence. In 1980, U.S. Congress set up the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the internment camps for Japanese Americans and during World War II. In Greensboro, North Carolina, a TRC was set up in 2004 to help process the Greensboro massacre of 1979 (International Center for Transitional Justice). A 2012 truth and reconciliation committee addressed the forced assimilation of Wabanaki children by Maine’s child welfare system (Report of the Maine TRC). Currently, the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission is investigating racially motivated lynchings (Maryland).
The underlying goal of each commission is accountability and community healing. In order for a national truth and reconciliation effort to take place, pressure from grassroots racial justice movements is imperative to securing political buy-in. This could be the first step in creating more equitable structures. While the retributive justice model has failed and been distorted into a racist tool for mass incarceration and punishment of Black and Latinx people, a transitional justice model would seek to expose harm and heal society through collective understanding, accountability, and reconciliation.
Archbishop Tutu recognized that pain requires compassion, not punishment. And that change requires an ongoing process of healing. A truth and reconciliation project in the United States would pave a road towards healing a nation too long divided.
- Civil rights champion Archbishop Desmond Tutu passed away in December at the age of 90.
- His support for truth and reconciliation initiatives helped the people of South Africa begin healing from apartheid.
- Transitional justice is a tool for reconciliation that can be used in the United States as part of an ongoing process of racial healing and reparations.