"The TRC was far bigger than Desmond Tutu. According to Priscilla Hayner, an expert on truth commissions, the TRC 'dwarfed previous. . . commissions in its size and reach.' At the peak of its activities, it employed a staff of more than 300, directed by the commissioners and more than twenty additional committee members in four regional offices. It operated three committees — one to investigate violations of human rights, the second to decide on amnesty, and the third to formulate recommendations for reparations and the rehabilitation of victims. At any one time, as many as three or four public hearings might be going on simultaneously, taking evidence from victims or considering applications for amnesty. The commission generated from within its ranks at least eight books — including indispensable accounts from Tutu and Boraine — and a number of other works have dissected its failures and its strengths. What follows, therefore, does not purport to be more than a short account of how Tutu, leading in customary style from the front, tried to create from an act of Parliament an instrument of healing and redemption.

"The TRC's task was to investigate and report on gross violations of human rights — defined as killing, abduction, torture, and severe ill-treatment — in the period between the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and Mandela's inauguration in 1994; to consider applications for amnesty; and to make recommendations to the government on reparations. At the core of Tutu's vision for its work was a sentence in the postamble of the constitution: 'There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation.' The Nguni word ubuntu — or botho in the Sotho group of languages — can be simply translated as 'humaneness,' but this English word fails to convey the African worldview. Explaining it for the predominantly white readers of Johannesburg's daily, The Star, as early as 1981, Tutu wrote of ubuntu-botho as observed in traditional African society:

" 'It referred to what ultimately distinguished us from the animals — the quality of being human and also humane. The definition is almost a tautology. The person who had ubuntu was known to be compassionate and gentle, who used his strength on behalf of the weak, who did not take advantage of others — in short he cared, treating others as what they were, human beings. . . .

" 'Without this quality a prosperous man even though he might be a chief was regarded as someone deserving of pity and sometimes even contempt. . . If you lacked ubuntu. . . you lacked an indispensable ingredient to being human. You might have much of the world's goods, and you might have position and authority, but if you did not have ubuntu, you did not amount to much. Even today, ubuntu is greatly admired and to be sought after or cultivated. Only someone to whom something drastic has happened could ever say that the death of a fellow human being left him cold. Blacks would recoil from anyone in their community who ever displayed such callousness. He had lost his humanity; or was well on the way to doing so.'

"Tutu contrasted the western with the African notion of being human by setting the popular rendition of Descartes — 'I think, therefore I am' — against Sotho and Nguni phrases that can be roughly translated as, 'I am because you are; you are because we are,' or 'A person is a person through other people.' To the western ear, the standard formulation that Tutu developed later brings to mind Donne's 'No man is an island': 'None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings . . . The solitary, isolated human being is a contradiction in terms.'

"In the TRC, Tutu advocated 'restorative justice,' which he described as characteristic of traditional African jurisprudence: 'Here the central concern is not retribution or punishment but, in the spirit of ubuntu, the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships. This kind of justice seeks to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he or she has injured by his or her offence.' "