South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

This is not meant to place blame on any single group: NGOs and other civil society structures were themselves battling to negotiate a position for themselves in the new terrain. Indeed, it has been suggested that civil society was weakest during this period (Hamber et al., 1997). This fact highlights the ongoing contestation and uncertainty that accompanies such ventures. Power and possibility do not just lie in the hands of individual commissioners that are headed by a charismatic cleric; they are far more diffuse. Thus, in order to understand the particular trajectory taken by the TRC, a more careful analysis is required. Such an analysis would need to account for a wide range of factors relating to transition, including:

  • The genesis of the TRC from conception to legislation, and the manner in which it was both a product and part of the transition in the first half of the 1990s. This means more than simply asserting the negotiated settlement as the product of political stalemate between the former apartheid state and the mass opposition, and leading to "a reformist solution to the county's crisis" (Bundy, 2000: 10). Rather, an analysis would need to take into account the shifting alignments and struggles within key components of the political terrain.
  • This subsequent analysis also needs to take into account those outsideof the negotiating chamber, and this, among other things, requires an understanding of civil society during the transitional period. Acceptance of the ANC and PAC in February 1990 was followed by a dismantling of mass-based popular community organizations because community-based women and youth structures disbanded and reconstituted themselves as adjuncts to the liberation movements. In addition, as Hamber et al. (1997) suggest, key civil society structures aligned to the democratic forces in the apartheid period battled to find new voices in the post-apartheid period. This was difficult as many of them suffered from a leadership vacuum after the most experienced and able staff members joined the new government and because traditional European funders started to channel their money directly to government-run development initiatives.
  • The institutional development of the TRC's process and procedures, and the impact of these on the TRC's trajectory, also warrant further reflection. To give just one example, though the legislation determined that victims should be given the opportunity to "relate their own accounts," (Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, 3 [1] c) it was the TRC that translated this into a framework of individual victim statements (which were corroborated for the purposes of reparations) and public hearings. Thus, when individuals and organizations began to lobby for the TRC to define gross violations of human rights more broadly and to include the wider violations resulting from the policies of apartheid, they presented the TRC with an almost unimaginable task. Forced removals (as a result of enforced racial segregation) alone created a potential victim pool of more than 3.5 million people, a number that would render statement-taking impossible.
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