South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

Third, several critics have further pointed to the TRC's failure to understand the intersection between political and criminal violence (Wilson, 2001: 81-84; Simpson, 2000, 2002b). While the Amnesty Committee did decide that some political motivations appeared on the surface to be simply criminal,[9] a large number of cases were denied amnesty for having no political motive. The vast majority of these cases were undoubtedly presented by ordinary criminals who, by cloaking their actions in a political mantle, hoped to be granted amnesty. However, some critics suggest that the Amnesty Committee approach to these matters ignored the reality of what has been described as the "criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime" and created "a sanitized view of politics" (Simpson, 2002b).

The particular circumstances of economic deprivation and political repression that were engendered by apartheid resulted not only in people breaking the law for political reasons, but also in a more extensive sub-culture of crime in South Africa. This sub-culture deeply penetrated the political sphere, resulting in a considerable and increasingly blurred line between political and criminal, and, given the illegitimacy of the criminal justice system, making contravening the law an act of resistance (Simpson, 2000, 2002b). The difficulty in distinguishing between political and criminal is especially true of the 1990s, yet this was the period where the TRC, by its own admission, made the least headway in terms of investigation. Although lines of command on all sides of the conflict had always been more complex than popular mythology suggests, this became especially difficult to determine and unravel during the 1990s.

Concluding Comments

While the TRC's achievements were in many respects considerable, its role in laying the groundwork for a deeper interrogation of the wider landscape of apartheid violations and violence is more dubious. On balance, it is doubtful (and many critics acknowledge this) whether the TRC could have adopted a definition of gross violation that included the more structural violations. However, the TRC could certainly have done more to place these violations more visibly in the overall picture. Notwithstanding progress made since 1994, South Africa remains a highly unequal society. Undoubtedly, while white beneficiaries expressed great horror at the degree to which their former apartheid government had systematically engaged in gross human rights abuses, they have by and large continued to complain and resist aspects of transformation that affect them materially.

Simpson refers to the need for transitional justice mechanisms such as truth commissions to be focused not just on the past but on the future as well. Assessing the efficacy of the TRC thus means assessing not just the accuracy or "truth" of its interpretations of the past, but also how it facilitates the capacity to understand and transform current political violence. In this regard, while political violence shrunk after 1994, criminal violence burgeoned. Rather than seeing these as two unrelated forms of violence perpetrated by entirely separate groups, Simpson argues for an approach that acknowledges the inter-connection and continuity between the two types of violence (2000, 2002b). Examples of this would include trafficking in arms, the involvement of ex-combatants in armed heists, and community self-defense units in criminal gangs. This points both to weaknesses in the way in which the TRC understood the narrow political violations of torture, killing, and abduction, and the impact this interpretation had on South Africans' understanding of the links and continuities between pre- and post-1994 violence.

A related criticism is that the TRC was successful via the testimony of victims and perpetrators in portraying the horror and cruelty of torture, but this has not been translated into a broader culture of respect for human rights. Thus, while there have been consistent efforts to transform the security forces, these attempts are often viewed by the public as being an obstacle to combating crime, rather than being considered an aspect of a "never again" mentality.
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