South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

Importantly, the TRC examined gross human rights abuses committed by all sides in the political conflict. The legislation also made space for a public process; the requirement that victims be allowed to tell their own stories opened the way for public victim hearings and -- thanks to NGO intervention -- all amnesty application that involved a gross violation of human rights had to take place in public.[4] This was perhaps the most powerful of the South African TRC's innovations. While the work of prior truth commissions had largely taken place out of the public eye, the South African TRC opened its hearings to all and via the media beamed its proceedings on radio and television to a wider South African and international audience. Initially hearings were broadcast and televised live and while a weekly compilation of TRC testimony was watched by 1.2 million viewers (cited in Hamber et al., 1997). Newspapers also provided prominent coverage of TRC proceedings.[5] The impact was profound: "The expressions of human pain in the faces, voices, and images of victim testimony, the bleak accounts from perpetrators of torture and killings, the images of exhumed skeletons bearing bullet holes, marked a distinct rupture of the highly segregated forms of historical knowledge that characterized South African citizens. An important component of this rupture was the decimation of the moral underpinning of the NP and white right wing, the associated de-legitimization of the entire apartheid project and the destruction of the facade of legalism to which the apartheid state clung." (Fullard and Rousseau, 2003b: 82). This was no small achievement.

Debating the Mandate

If the TRC effectively managed to discredit the former apartheid government, the extent to which it was able to translate this success into a resultant agenda was less than effectual. Critiques of the TRC are wide-ranging and the focus here is on those critics concerned with the TRC's nation-building agenda (Mamdani, 1998; Bundy, 2000: 19-20; Wilson 2001, 1-30; Posel, 2002: 152-153; Ross, F. 2003: 8-26). A strong line of criticism cast the TRC as creator of the "founding myth of the new South Africa" (Mamdani, cited in Hayner, 2000: 74). The function of the TRC, in this view, was to legitimize the new ANC government, a government seen to be following a primarily nationalist agenda. According to this critique, via the testimonies of victims and perpetrators the TRC was meant to "construct a revised national history" based on reconciliation (Wilson, 2001: 14). In this regard, the TRC was seen as enacting the break between the apartheid past and new democratic South Africa, allowing the "imagining" of a new nation (Andersen, 1991), a "rainbow nation" based on reconciliation. Yet in so doing, the TRC masked what critics argued is the defining feature of the "new South Africa," the grinding poverty of the masses.

The TRC uncovered damning findings about apartheid, including that apartheid was a crime against humanity; that the apartheid state sought to "protect the power and privilege of a white minority"; and that racism was the "motivating core of the South African political order" and black citizens were demonized as the "enemy," thereby creating a climate that enabled gross violations of human rights (TRC, 1998d: 222). Yet, notwithstanding these findings, apartheid became the backdrop or context rather than a central focus of its enquiry (Posel, 2002: 153, 162-166). The TRC focused on a narrow band of political violations (torture, killing, abduction, and a range of violations subsumed under "severe ill-treatment"[6]) rather than fixing the spotlight on the structural violence that was systemic to the apartheid order.
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