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Violent Accounts

Understanding the Psychology of Perpetrators through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Robert N. Kraft

Publication Year: 2014

Violent Accounts presents a compelling study of how ordinary people commit extraordinary acts of violence and how perpetrators and victims manage in the aftermath. Grounded in extensive, qualitative analysis of perpetrator testimony, the volume reveals the individual experiences of perpetrators as well as general patterns of influence that lead to collective violence.
Drawing on public testimony from the amnesty hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the book interweaves hundreds of hours of testimony from seventy-four violent perpetrators in apartheid South Africa, including twelve major cases that involved direct interactions between victims and perpetrators. The analysis of perpetrator testimony covers all tiers on the hierarchy of organized violence, from executives who translated political doctrine into general strategies, to managers who translated these general strategies into specific plans, to the staff—the foot soldiers—who carried out the destructive plans of these managers.  
Vivid and accessible, Violent Accounts is a work of innovative scholarship that transcends the particulars of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reveal broader themes and unexpected insights about perpetrators of collective violence, the confrontations between victims and perpetrators in the aftermath of this violence, the reality of multiple truths, the complexities of reconciliation, and lessons of restorative justice.

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Introduction: Crimes of Allegiance

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pp. 1-12

In July 1997, Captain Jeffrey Benzien sat before the Amnesty Committee of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and gave testimony about his illegal activities during apartheid. In the course of this testimony, Benzien provided extended accounts of his activities with the “terrorist tracking unit” of the South African Police, finding and...

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1. Regarding Perpetrators: Studying Collective Violence

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pp. 13-27

A fundamental question confronts any research psychologist interested in studying the problem of collective violence: How does one conduct meaningful behavioral research on violence? Historically, one approach has been to simulate collective violence within the confines of an experiment, with the two most prominent examples being the Milgram experiments...

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2. Apartheid and Amnesty: Managing a History of Sustained Oppression

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pp. 28-52

Apartheid was a sustained program of segregation imposed by South Africa’s ruling National Party to maintain control over the nonwhite population of South Africa and to preserve a privileged way of life for the white minority. Through a succession of laws from 1948 through the mid-1980s, the National Party strengthened and codified its subjugation...

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3. Understanding Crimes of Allegiance: Patterns of Violent Influence

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pp. 53-94

Any study of violent perpetrators confronts a fundamental paradox: the abundance of cruelty throughout human history and the absence of people who think of themselves as cruel. To help resolve this paradox and to account for systematic, widespread brutality, this chapter analyzes the testimony of violent perpetrators, identifying the influences and choices that...

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4. Uncovering Truth: Confronting Perpetrators and Victims

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pp. 95-110

The testimony given by perpetrators to the Amnesty Committee of the TRC revealed the kinds of explanations that people give when their very lives depend on perceived truthfulness. The perpetrators recounted their misdeeds to persuade others to grant them amnesty and to organize their past experiences so they could coexist with memories of their...

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5. Reconciling Testimony: A Work in Progress

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pp. 111-132

The most resonant conclusion about reconciliation from the amnesty hearings is as fraught as it is direct: sincere disclosure is necessary for reconciliation. In testimony after testimony, when victims and their families responded to the perpetrators during the amnesty hearings, they reiterated the need to know who perpetrated the destructive...

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6. Beyond the TRC: Negotiating the Aftermath of Collective Violence

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pp. 133-146

To focus solely on the deep and persisting societal divisions in South Africa today is to ignore the reverberating example set by the TRC as a national institution for gathering truth and promoting reconciliation after decades of violent conflict. Even with its setbacks and limitations, the TRC stands today as an enduring example of the potential for...

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Conclusions: Learning from the Violence of Others

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pp. 147-154

The amnesty hearings of the South African TRC provided an unprecedented opportunity to study perpetrators of political violence and the difficulties and intricacies of reconciling in the wake of this violence. The Amnesty Committee of the TRC granted complete amnesty to the violent perpetrators of apartheid South Africa in exchange for full...


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pp. 155-160


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pp. 161-174


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pp. 175-190


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pp. 191-200

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9781479870288
E-ISBN-10: 1479870285
Print-ISBN-13: 9781479821600
Print-ISBN-10: 1479821608

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 879306210
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Violent Accounts

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • South Africa. Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • Apartheid -- South Africa -- Psychological aspects.
  • Violence -- South Africa -- Psychological aspects.
  • Restorative justice -- South Africa -- Psychological aspects.
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