Does Truth Lead to Reconciliation? Testing the Causal Assumptions of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Process


  • This is a revised version of an article delivered at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Hilton San Francisco and Towers, August 30–September 2, 2001. This research is supported by the Law and Social Sciences Program of the National Science Foundation (SES 9906576). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The project is a collaborative effort between Amanda Gouws, Department of Political Science, the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa), and me. I am indebted to Charles Villa-Vicencio, Helen Macdonald, Paul Haupt, Nyameka Goniwe, Fanie du Toit, Erik Doxtader, and the staff of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (South Africa), where I am a Distinguished Visiting Research Scholar, for the many helpful discussions that have informed my understanding of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa. I am also thankful to Anthony J. Gill (University of Washington) for his comments on an earlier version of this article. The original paper is the recipient of the Sage Paper Award for the Best Paper in the Field of Comparative Politics presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 2001, Comparative Politics Organized Section, American Political Science Association.

James L. Gibson is Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1063, 219 Eliot Hall, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899 ( Professor Gibson is also Distinguished Visiting Research Scholar, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (South Africa) and Professor Extraordinary in Political Science, Stellenbosch University (South Africa).


Throughout the world, truth commissions have been created under the assumption that getting people to understand the past will somehow contribute to reconciliation between those who were enemies under the ancien regime. In South Africa, the truth and reconciliation process is explicitly based on the hypothesis that knowledge of the past will lead to acceptance, tolerance, and reconciliation in the future. My purpose here is to test that hypothesis, based on data collected in a 2001 survey of over 3,700 South Africans. My most important finding is that those who accept the “truth” about the country's apartheid past are more likely to hold reconciled racial attitudes. Racial reconciliation also depends to a considerable degree on interracial contact, evidence that adds weight to the “contact hypothesis” investigated by western social scientists. Ultimately, these findings are hopeful for South Africa's democratic transition, since racial attitudes seem not to be intransigent.