South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

The TRC itself was not insensitive to critiques of its mandate. It acknowledged many of the criticisms made by gender activists and introduced a number of mechanisms to ensure greater attention to the experience of women. Arguably, however, the failure to adopt a broader understanding of its mandate made TRC responses somewhat unsatisfactory. In 1997, shortly after a coalition of NGOs called for greater attention to the broader socio-economic violations, the TRC organized a series of institutional or sector hearings that explored the role of key institutions such as the judiciary, the media, the church, and business during the apartheid era. Although an innovative step in the history of truth commissions, the focus of these hearings was somewhat haphazard and cursory. There was no hearing, for example, on forced removals, an abuse that affected some 3.5 million victims and which has been likened to South Africa's "gulag" (Mamdani, 1998: 40). The procedures of the sector hearings were also different: organizations and individuals (often "experts" or "representatives") made submissions: the human face of suffering so effectively captured in the victim hearings was lost. Although in many respects these hearings did highlight the complicity of a range of institutions in creating a climate where gross human rights abuses flourished, they failed to draw beneficiaries into the circle of complicity in any significant way.

The TRC also took great pains in the first five volumes of its Report, issued in 1998, to stress the wider context of structural violence wreaked by the policy of apartheid. It carefully defended its narrow interpretation of the mandate, pointing to several reasons why it had chosen not to regard the wider landscape. Aside from logistical issues such as time and resources, the TRC pointed to the overall direction and intention of the legislation as well as to the government's establishment of a variety of other institutions and programs of redress, most notably the Land Commission and the Reconstruction and Development Programme. Indeed, defendants of the TRC process suggest that the criticisms of Mamdani and others should be placed not at the door of the TRC, but of the Land Commission and other institutions intended to redress the structural legacy of apartheid. These institutions did little to convey at a public level the extent and experience of apartheid abuses, and instead tended to operate behind closed doors with little of the TRC's transparency (See Duphelia-Mesthrie, 1999, for a comparative study of the Land Commission and the TRC). Another common defense of the TRC's narrow interpretation of its mandate argues that while the former government never denied apartheid policies such as forced removals or unequal education, it strenuously denied using torture or killing political opponents. Thus, the TRC focused not on the overt policies of apartheid but on what the covert methods of that system.

The TRC also attempted to shift the focus to the wider legacies of apartheid by recommending ways to prevent future abuse of human rights and by addressing issues of reconciliation. Its key recommendation regarding the prevention of gross human rights abuses is skewed toward tackling the problems of economic injustice, the resolution of which the TRC recommends must involve the private sector as well as other beneficiaries. Similarly, reconciliation was overwhelmingly framed in terms of racial reconciliation rather than individual reconciliation between individual perpetrators and victims (Fullard, 2004: 23).
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