History for the Future

Wendy Orr was the first doctor to expose torture and abuse of detainees in SA

Wendy Orr graduated as a medical doctor from the University of Cape Town in 1983, just as the organisations of the mass democratic movement were beginning to resurface after the banning and clampdowns of the 1970s.

As a young 22 year old doctor, she began working in the medical examiner’s office in Port Elizabeth. The Eastern Cape was an epicenter for the banned ANC and other organizational activity and produced many activists.

She saw first hand the many political detainees that had been beaten up by the security police

With a Presbyterian minister for a father and social worker for a mother, Wendy and her siblings grew up in a home where people were not discriminated by the colour of their skin.

It was the height of apartheid, but her parents always treated everyone equally, and that shaped Orr's values.

At the age of 24, she made public revelations about the brutality and torture of detainees by police.

She was the first and only doctor ever to do so. With the help of the Supreme Court an interdict was granted preventing abuse of detainees. Many of her white colleagues ostracised her.

Her fight for detainees’ rights was the catalyst that launched Orr on a path of social activism for the rest of her life.

In 1995 then President Nelson Mandela appointed Dr Wendy Orr as a commissioner to the Truth and reconciliation Commission where she served until it ended in 1998.

Her work at the TRC affected her profoundly and she is realistic about the scope of its work and what it managed to achieve.

The Truth Commission should ever have been styled as a truth and reconciliation commission. It was never going to be delivered and it never could be delivered by a commission. And there was certainly a contribution we made, but it needed a much broader societal endeavor to bring about reconciliation. There were powerful moments of victims meeting perpetrators but was never going to be reconciliation for nation.

Dr Wendy Orr, former TRC commissioner

In this series History for the Future , 13 TRC commissioners look back at the experience of the TRC from the first human rights violation hearing 20 years ago until the conclusion of the report. They explore strengths of the TRC and its weaknesses.

They also reflect on where we are now as a nation, and answer the critical question: where to from here?

Listen to this episode below of History for the Future as veteran journalist Pippa Green interviews Dr Wendy Orr about her experiences as a commissioner at the TRC.


This article first appeared on 702 : Wendy Orr was the first doctor to expose torture and abuse of detainees in SA


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