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Performing South Africa's Truth Commission: Stages of Transition. By Catherine M. Cole. African Expressive Cultures series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009; pp. 264.

While much has been written about South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy and the archival and juridical processes of its historic, groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), no book-length study has yet used performance as a lens through which to make sense of this moment of truth-telling and public airing of the past. Catherine Cole's Performing South Africa's Truth Commission: Stages of Transition is the first book to deploy the vocabulary and methodology of performance studies to unpack the TRC's principal mode of address—its public enactment. In this deftly argued and meticulously researched study, Cole traces what Diana Taylor might call the "repertoire" of the TRC: "the performed, embodied expressions of the endeavor that stand in contrast to the many traces the TRC left behind in transcripts, photographs, videotapes, and audio recordings in the archive" (xvi). Cole's major contribution to the body of work around the TRC is to move the discourse beyond utilitarian and juridical questions [End Page 664] about the TRC's efficacy and issues of culpability and redress toward a consideration of the ethics within the aesthetics of the commission considered as a performance. Focusing on the complexities of cultural memory, on the simultaneous confirmation and rejection of dominant narratives of the apartheid past and of the TRC's own mission, and on the subtle capacities of embodied expression, Cole attends to the performance dynamics of the TRC—an institution that, in her analysis, was part legal court, part Christian ritual of forgiveness and atonement, and part psychological talking-cure (xvii, 129).

In her first chapter, "Spectacles of Legality: Performance, Transitional Justice, and the Law," Cole outlines her theoretical framework, positioning the TRC as a site of performance where, contrary to the old apartheid order, a multiracial, multilinguistic cross section of South Africans came together to publicly acknowledge acts of atrocity that had remained hidden for fifty years of the nation's history, and where individual and group rituals of witnessing, healing, and transitional justice could occur. In this chapter, Cole marks where the TRC is distinctly not theatre: it was never designed as entertainment, aesthetic event, or pleasurable experience, and it was driven more by storytelling than action. Nonetheless, she argues that the TRC was characterized by performative qualities: it served as a space of dramatic and emotional volatility and expressiveness, where direct conflict between protagonists and antagonists played out and communication occurred through "dense registers of embodiment" (13); it functioned as a cultural stage, in terms of both the physical and ideological platforms on which witnesses testified; and it unfolded as an ongoing process, or stage, of transitional justice in South Africa's new democracy.

In chapter 2, "Justice in Transition: Political Trials, 1956-1964," Cole contextualizes the TRC of the 1990s within what Joseph Roach would call a performance genealogy of political trials in the apartheid era: the Treason Trial of 1956-61, the 1962 Incitement Trial against Nelson Mandela, and the Rivonia Trial of 1964. Using performance as a framework, she reads these events as moments of embodiment and self-expression by black South Africans within a repressive white-controlled state; as repertoires of performance within the archive of official state policy and court proceedings; and as sites of contested cultural memories, ideologies, and acts of expression.

Cole articulates her analysis of the TRC's public enactments across a variety of media in the first four chapters of the book. As she observes, the commission hearings were characterized by the live performances of witnesses and respondents in local halls across the country; they were covered by radio and newspaper reportage; and they were summarized in a weekly television digest that ran for two years (1996-98) called TRC Special Report. Cole's analyses of these media incarnations of the TRC are nuanced and insightful, especially her claim that the televised version of the TRC not only conveyed and reported on the commission, but that it performed evidence and truth in order to legitimate the new post...


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pp. 664-666
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