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  • Reconciliation Discourse: The Case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • Emily B. Rodio (bio)
Annelies Verdoolaege. Reconciliation Discourse: The Case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2008. 238 pp. ISBN 978-90-272-2718-8, Euro105, $158.00 (hardbound and ebook).

Verdoolaege’s text is an interesting addition to the vast literature on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). While other scholars have focused on the Commission’s structure, function, psychotherapeutic qualities, and impact, Verdoolaege innovatively takes a linguistic approach to the TRC. Adopting a Foucauldian understanding of discourse and archives, Verdoolaege argues that a multifaceted and multilayered “reconciliation discourse” was constructed through the interactive process of the Commission. As such, the TRC was an inclusive, national process, which extended its institutional power through discourse creation. While not everyone will agree with Verdoolaege’s conclusion, as criticism of the Commission’s work and outcomes are substantial, her approach opens the door to another dimension of truth commission inquiry. [End Page 363]

Verdoolaege’s analysis centers on the testimony of victims at the Commission’s Human Rights Violation (HRV) committee hearings. These hearings, the crux of the TRC, included over 1,800 victim testimonies about the violations they or their family members experienced under the apartheid system. A nontraditional autobiography, the testimonies formed a new authoritative, collective narrative in South Africa, where the torture, crimes, disappearances, and murders had been denied for generations. Verdoolaege analyzes a descriptive sample of thirty testimonies in her work, representing key factors such as ethnic background, political affiliation, gender, and attitude towards reconciliation, among others. The testimonies are examined in print and audio-visual form, which allows the author to include important physical data including body language, gestures, and facial expressions.

The core of Verdoolaege’s book is an empirical chapter critically assessing the testimonies according to three types of layering: ideological, historical, and identity. Almost a hundred pages in length, this chapter would have benefited from a division into three. Nonetheless, the author clearly and accessibly deconstructs the archive of the HRV testimonies. In terms of ideological layering, Verdoolaege argues that commissioners consciously constructed a master narrative centered on reconciliation, national unity, respect for victims, and an emphasis on emotions. In doing so, they encouraged and discouraged victims to say certain things, leading a victim as witnesses are often led in courtrooms. For example, commissioners used collective terminology to dispel ideas of “us versus them” and directly urged victims to embrace reconciliation. The testimony of a woman whose husband was killed by a rival political group demonstrates this idea:

REV. XUNDU (TRC Commissioner): Thank you Mr. Chairperson. Mam, I heard your story. I only have one question. According to you what can be done so that there can be peace? Is there a conflict between yourself and this other group?

MRS. PAPU (Victim): What I want is for them to come forward and tell the truth.

REV. XUNDU: You are saying that reconciliation can be built if they can come forward?

MRS. PAPU: Yes, if they can come and tell the truth.

REV. XUNDU: If they can come forward you will forgive them?


(62) [End Page 364]

For historical layering, the author finds that victims and commissioners consistently linked the past, present, and future to purposefully stress the lasting impact of apartheid crimes and the need for reconciliation. Lastly, in the area of identity layering, Verdoolaege argues that the hearings established various discursively constructed identities and mixed identities within individual testifiers. These changing identities concerned the struggles of Afrikaner and white identities, of double identities (individuals who were both victim and perpetrator), and of political affiliation. One of the main strengths of this chapter is the author’s ability to incorporate seamlessly the texts of the testimonies in support of her larger argument.

For Verdoolaege, the result of the hearing process, which was limited, framed, and prodded by the commissioners, was the construction of a unique reconciliation discourse. This discourse was intentionally broad and vague, or “multidimensional and inclusive,” to best appeal to the wider South African population (167). The large umbrella allowed for the idea of reconciliation to mean everything (national reconciliation, religious reconciliation...