South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

More broadly, the failure to situate gross violations in a wider context also meant that the TRC outlived its usefulness and failed to intersect with the imperatives of transformation.

(By) circumscribing the borders of its mandate to violence directed at the body, and by implicitly casting race/racism and politics as two separate domains, the TRC effectively sidestepped the traumatic issues and trenchant debates around race, racism, and the legacy of apartheid. This had an unforeseen price, as in doing so it loosened, perhaps even lost, a vital connection to the national project of transformation in South Africa -- a project increasingly focused on the legacy of racial discrimination. (Fullard, 2004: 1)

This was especially the case in the post-1998 era when the reconciliation-driven presidency of Nelson Mandela was replaced by that of Thabo Mbeki whose inaugural address referred to "two nations in one," and placed the legacy of racism at center stage.[10]

What does this study argue about truth commissions? Clearly, they are not a panacea, a neutral bridge from a state of conflict to a post-conflict society. Rather they are highly charged, contested, and complex terrains that are both the products of and part of wider trajectories of power. While they have the potential to connect society to a profound and disturbing engagement with its past and future, the shape and outcome of any one truth commission cannot be determined at the outset and will depend on the ongoing challenges emanating from both within and outside of the mechanism. The exact trajectory a truth commission follows depends on the outcome of the evolving relationship between the commission, government, and civil society.
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH