An Essential Intervention: Civil Society Responses to Redressing and Preventing Violence Against Women in Post-apartheid South Africa

Authors Andrea Durbach

ISSN: 1996-2088
Affiliations: Professor of Law and Director, Australian Human Rights Centre, Faculty of Law, UNSW Australia
Source: Acta Juridica, 2016, p. 202 – 224


Despite pervasive accounts of sexual violence against women throughout South Africa’s apartheid history, the definition of ‘gross violations of human rights’ in the legislation establishing the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had no distinct reference to acts of sexual violence or gender-based crimes. Lobbying by women’s NGOs and civil society resulted in the TRC convening special women’s hearings and the expansion of the definition of ‘severe ill-treatment’ to encompass a range of abuses, including sexual violence. However, the TRC’s predominant focus on crimes of killing, abduction and torture resulted in the criticism that it exhibited ‘a blindness to the types of abuse predominantly experienced by women’,[fn1] excluding the possibility of accountability or reparations for these violations. This article explores the ‘essential relationship'[fn2] between civil society and the TRC at various stages of South Africa’s transition in holding the Government to account for restoring the ‘human and civil dignity’ of women who suffered gross violations of human rights, ‘many of which were gender specific in their exploitative and humiliating nature’.[fn3] Given that ‘violence against women has been one of the most prominent features of post-apartheid South Africa’,[fn4] the article further considers the innovation by South African civil society in developing various responses to this enduring harm, which extends beyond a compensatory model of reparations towards a transformation of the conditions that perpetuate the violence. footnote 1: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report vol 4 (1998) 318 para 144 (TRC Report). footnote 2: ‘Truth Commissions and NGOs: The Essential Relationship — The ”Frati Guidelines” for NGOs Engaging with Truth Commissions’ 2004 The International Center for Transitional Justice Occasional Paper Series. footnote 3: TRC Report vol 5 ch 6 para 161. footnote 4: L Vetten ‘Addressing Domestic Violence in South Africa: Reflections on Strategy and Practice’ 2, available at