South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

Defining Political Violence

Setting aside these criticisms of the mandate for the moment, was the TRC more successful in interpreting the more restricted terrain of political violations? Here, too, the TRC has been criticized for its narrow and sanitized approach.

First, and partly as a consequence of its origins in the process of political negotiation, the TRC's legislation was skewed toward the interests of political parties. In order to qualify for amnesty, a person had to show that she or he was a supporter or member of a bona fide political party and that the act committed was part of the broad policy or position of that party. This definition privileged organizations and attempted to impose a far greater sense of order and clarity on what was a diffuse and chaotic terrain. The inability of such a definition to capture the nature of political violence in the mid- to late-1980s and 1990s was especially marked, resulting in arbitrary decisions of inclusion and exclusion on the part of the Amnesty Committee. The TRC Report itself noted:
As the political conflict in the country gained intensity, more gross violations were carried out by members of South African society acting in what they considered to be the pursuit of a political aim than by members of political organizations acting on the express orders of their superiors. Both the state security services and guerrilla organizations such as MK aimed to supply social actors with the means to achieve their aims -- including weapons, information, trained personnel, and, in the case of the state, funding ... By the 1990s, the great majority of human rights violations, especially killings, were being carried out by persons who were not bound to a political authority (TRC, 1998b: 4-5).
Indeed it is perhaps worth noting that critiques of Mamdani and others largely ignore this dimension. What the critiques tend to obscure is the nature of political violence and the groups that bore that cost. While Mamdani et al. present the TRC's concerns with narrow political violence as a focus on a small group of activists versus state agents, the actual TRC record shows otherwise. Most of the victims that made statements to the TRC were either youth, not necessarily organized, who fell victim to state attempts to crack down on dissent in the 1970s and 1980s, and civilians killed during the escalating violence of the 1990s. These were not MK operatives; they were not even by and large organized members of the internal mass movement. Indeed, the fact that so few political activists and combatants made victim statements to the TRC was a source of some concern.

Second, and following from the previous point, the TRC excluded racism in its definition of what constituted a political act. Consequently, the TRC did not regard those who had committed gross violations for purely racist motivations as eligible for amnesty, nor did it regard the victims of such abuses as victims of gross violations. Thus drunken white men who had beaten a black farm-worker to death in a racist rage for walking on the pavement in a small rural town would not be eligible for amnesty, and nor would the victim of their attack be declared the victim of a gross violation of human rights. This was extraordinary in a country in which racism played such a central role -- indeed the TRC itself argued that racism was the "motivating core" of apartheid.
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