Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence
Revisiting the Debate on the South African Truth Commission's Mandate
By Nicky Rousseau
Truth commissions have become increasingly popular mechanisms of transition for many countries emerging from authoritarian pasts. While South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- or TRC, as it is more commonly known -- was by no means the first such commission, the enormous publicity it generated spawned numerous other commissions.
The literature on transitional justice relates mechanisms such as truth commissions to the politics of negotiations. Such mechanisms are considered necessary to effect a smooth transition in circumstances where the institutions of the old order remain to a greater or lesser degree in place, yet are perceived as being unable or unwilling to facilitate the transition to a more democratic culture. In South Africa, as in many other emerging democracies, a crisis of legitimacy afflicted institutions such as the judiciary and security forces; they were thus seen as being constrained in their capacity to usher in a new order founded on democratic values -- especially for issues of accountability and prosecutions. Yet the need for these "special" transitional mechanisms implies a weakness or vulnerability in the new democracy's ability to effectively impact the institutions of the old government and ensure political stability and peace. Thus in South Africa, for example, the amnesty provisions that formed one of the key planks of the TRC resulted from an effective refusal by the former apartheid government's security forces to guarantee peaceful elections without a reciprocal agreement by the premier liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), to provide some form of amnesty.
Born out of political negotiations, truth commissions are shaped, and in some cases, constrained by the struggles among and within the negotiating parties. These struggles do not always end with the settlement. Truth commissions are far from being merely a technical bridge between old and new; rather, they reflect the lines of ongoing contestation among and within opposing camps. The parliamentary debate that shaped the South African truth commission, for example, was extremely lengthy and heated, with the forces of the old order trying to limit the power and scope of the commission. These political skirmishes did not end once the legislation was passed but continued throughout the process, with numerous challenges from politicians and their spokespeople. Lawyers representing the former ruling party and its security forces consistently, and somewhat effectively, "picked up the cudgels from erstwhile politicians and fought a relentless war of attrition and protection at every seeming whiff of potential bias" (Fullard and Rousseau, 2004: 27). Transitional is thus not necessarily a step of progression to the next, and better, stage but marks a site of ongoing struggle and challenge as old leaders attempt to shore up their earlier power and blunt future possibilities through a struggle over the representation of the past. Similarly, debates within the democratic forces often reflect different approaches to the past as well as the imagined future. As much as truth commissions are shaped by the contests and compromises of negotiations, they too determine the trajectories of power and nature of the transition.