South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

How does one assess this critique? Elsewhere it has been noted that while powerful, the critique effectively "reduces the TRC to a rather narrow nationalism" (Fullard and Rousseau, 2003b: 81) trapped in inevitable failure owing to its compromised origins in the negotiated settlement, or suggests that it could have acted outside of power relations as they existed at the time. These networks of power were part of a more complex set of dynamics that includes the relative weakness of civil society in the negotiating period itself and beyond, as well as the failure of those within government to sustain a more profoundly transformative impetus.

Rather, the TRC must be seen as but one of a range of initiatives of the first post-apartheid government such as the Reconstruction and Development Programme and the establishment of the Land, Youth and Gender Commissions. These institutions of redress and transformation "reflected the exuberant ethos of social justice and restitution that is as much enshrined in South Africa's democratic Constitution as are individual property rights" (Fullard and Rousseau, 2003b: 81). While the capacity of such initiatives to effect significant socio-economic transformation has been disappointing, they nonetheless represented a more radically transformative impulse within the new state.

Similarly, the effect of this critique is also to ignore the extent to which the TRC reflected different and sometimes competing agendas. "There were diverse voices and positions within the TRC, several with an uneasy and more critical relationship with the consensual and reconciliatory thrust, identifying the TRC, at least at its outset, within an activist agenda of social change" (Fullard and Rousseau, 2003b: 81).

Thus, if the TRC reflects a narrow mandate bound to the politics of compromise, then one must note that it reflects as well the failure of civil society to have an impact on that process. The TRC was the outcome of an extensive public process that included submissions from extra-parliamentary groups and individuals, a public nomination process for commissioners, and presentations by and questioning of nominees in a public forum. Yet the voices of both the gender, and what can broadly be termed the left critique, is entirely absent from these processes despite the fact that it was very clear from the submissions and deliberations of the parliamentary committee that the TRC was being shaped along the lines of the Latin American truth commissions and would focus on a relatively narrow set of political violations.[8] Once the TRC had been established, its relationship with NGOs was somewhat fractious with many feeling that they were not sufficiently consulted, while both the pace of the TRC and its preoccupation with being viewed impartial militated against a closer relationship.
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