South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

This focus made the TRC's determination of "victim" too narrow. The victim was defined as the victim of torture or beating or killing rather than the victim of one of the myriad abuses associated with the systematic racial and economic discrimination that underpinned apartheid, such as forced removals or starvation in South Africa's homelands (bleak and underdeveloped rural zones where the majority of black South Africans were trapped according to their ethnic determination). According to Mamdani (1998: 40), victims and perpetrators of gross violations of human rights were thus drawn from the relatively small pool of political activists and security force agents. Not only did this leave thousands of apartheid functionaries unscathed, more devastatingly, the critics argue, it allowed the majority of those who benefited from apartheid -- mainly the broad white population -- off the hook. Instead of placing the complicity and culpability of beneficiaries at center stage, white South Africans by and large were able to claim a false innocence. The effect of this, as Colin Bundy (2000: 20) suggests, is that
(We) may run the risk of defining a new order as one in which police may no longer enjoy impunity to torture opponents of the government, but fail to specify that ordinary citizens should not be poor and illiterate and powerless, or pushed around by state officials and employers.
Activists have also pointed out that the failure to include a broader range of structural violations also had a gendered dimension (Goldblatt and Meintjies, 1996; TRC, 1998c: 288; Ross, F. 2003: 16). Studies suggest that women more egregiously experienced the effects of apartheid. To give but one example, those trapped in poverty-stricken rural areas were mainly African women. Further, the patriarchal nature of South African society meant as well that far more men than women were directly involved in politics, thus the TRC's iconic victim of torture, beating, or killing was also a male victim. This had profound gender implications for the nation-building project.[7]

This circumscribing of the mandate, according to this critique, would in turn impact the reconciliation project of the TRC, effectively reducing it to a reconciliation between former (male) political enemies, rather than a reconciliation that addressed and challenged the major cleavages in South African society -- principally the racial and economic divide between what Mamdani refers to as the victims and beneficiaries of apartheid. In this regard, the TRC is seen to have accepted and re-enforced the limits of the political compromise made during the negotiations, and failed to challenge the legacy of apartheid -- poverty and racial control of the economy (Mamdani, 1998: 40; Bundy, 2000: 20-21).
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