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Africa Today 49.2 (2002) 151-153

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Christie, Kenneth. 2000. The South African Truth Commission. New York: St. Martin's Press. 215 pp.

In the two and a half years in which South Africa's traumatic past was meticulously documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), remarkable and dramatic stories unfolded at hearings across the country. Shortly after the commission finished its work, in 1998 (except for the Amnesty Committee, which continued to hold hearings for nearly three more years), numerous memoirs were published, written by commissioners and those closely connected with the hearings; also in abundance have been academic works analyzing the implications of the TRC from specific perspectives, such as legal studies and faith communities. To my knowledge, however, Kenneth Christie's The South African Truth Commission is the first book-length academic treatise to attempt to provide an overview of the commission's "origins, aims and construction" (p. 7). It is an ambitious project for such a slender volume, and a project perhaps taken prematurely, before the boundaries of the debates had solidified and hindsight had become possible.

The book succeeds best as an introduction to the subject for non-South African readers with little knowledge of the country or its history. Christie begins with "A Brief History of Apartheid," concentrating especially on the escalation of the conflict between the apartheid state and its opponents from 1985, and on the negotiated settlement of the 1990s. He not only presents the facts, but discusses the various "lenses" through which South African history has been viewed: apartheid as a poorly executed but well-intentioned experiment, apartheid as a crime against humanity, apartheid as a form of colonialism, etc. He argues that one of the TRC's tasks is to reconcile these conflicting versions of the past into a common memory.

Christie also makes a valuable contribution by situating the TRC within the context of similar bodies in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. Expanding on the important work of Patricia Hayner in the comparative study of truth commissions, Christie points out that they occur only in tandem with negotiated settlements in which the absence of a clear winning or losing side precludes the "victor's justice" of Nuremberg-style war-crimes trials. Two conflicting interests are at work in the establishment of truth commissions, Christie says: "A state in transition needs to maintain political stability and provide for national unity, but in many cases it also feels compelled to administer justice by punishing perpetrators of heinous [End Page 151] crimes" (p. 62). This generalization certainly describes the situation in South Africa, where the amnesty provisions of the interim constitution by most accounts narrowly averted an all-out civil war and made possible the coalition government that was elected to power in 1994.

The remaining chapters of the book are based largely on interviews Christie conducted with commissioners, intellectuals, politicians, and others in 1998 and 1999. In discussing heated debates over amnesty, reconciliation, and nation-building, he devotes considerable space to some of the louder critics of the TRC, like Mangosuthu Buthelezi (president of the Inkatha Freedom Party, which viewed the TRC as a tool of its political enemy, the ANC) and the Freedom Front (a right-wing white Afrikaner group, which argued that the TRC was a witch-hunt designed to persecute Afrikaners); Christie then goes on to dismiss the IFP as espousing a "rhetoric of sour grapes" (p. 164) and the Freedom Front's claims as "hard to take seriously" (p. 160).

One seemingly important group that Christie omitted to interview is the people who gave testimony at the TRC hearings, both victims and amnesty applicants. Indeed, considering that one of the declared themes of this book is the "way that collective memory is stored" (p. 6), there is surprisingly little attention paid to the hearings themselves and the kinds of testimony gathered there. The victim hearings are especially slighted. What made the TRC different from previous truth commissions in other countries (and, I would argue, what made it so powerful) was its attempt to balance the perpetrator-oriented amnesty process with...


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