- Beyond the TRC: Truth, Power, and Representation in South Africa after Transition
Speaking at the Centre for Post-Conflict Justice at Trinity College, Dublin in 2010, Kader Asmal, formerly anti-apartheid activist, recently minister of education, and now professor of law in South Africa, asked the question: “Post-Conflict Justice: Industry or Necessity?” As a critic of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for allegedly sacrificing justice and the criminal prosecution of perpetrators to the ends of national reconciliation (see Asmal et al.), Asmal may have been a controversial choice to inaugurate a center whose website features Nelson Mandela framed by the new South African flag, and whose members honor the TRC as a key model for the resolution of conflict in Ireland. Nonetheless, the TRC has become, as Paul Gready suggests in The Era of Transitional Justice (hereafter Era), both an example for later commissions and the stimulus for commentary on an industrial scale. Gaining “unprecedented attention through the place of apartheid in the international political imagination,” the TRC offered a workable if imperfect way to combine the investigation and documentation of systematic human rights abuses, the holding of perpetrators to account in public hearings if not in courts of law, and the creation of fora for survivors to contribute to a process of national resolution (6). At the same time, it has spawned close to a hundred volumes of analysis, or of instruction in the form of handbooks used more recently in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Gready notes that this proliferation of commentary and high expectations has led on the one hand to “overpromised” but “undelivered” benefits to victims (7) and on the other to the “fetishization of the human rights report” as an end in itself or a means, intentional or not, of legitimating the organizations, governmental or nongovernmental (NGO) that produced the document (34).
Gready’s book and the others under review here, Catherine Cole’s Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Staging Transition and Shane Graham’s South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss, all acknowledge the industrial scale of commentary on the TRC but each makes a case for the impact of its example less from the calculation of deliverable or undeliverable outcomes but than from the imagination and experience of the hearings and of responses to them in creative expression, mediated representation and public response to both.
Keywords and Genres
Beginning with the acknowledgment that the South African government could not deliver reparations to victims and their families, let alone the national reconciliation that was the aspiration of the TRC, especially its chair, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Era of Transitional Justice argues that the TRC’s success should not be measured by delivery alone. Rather, it should be commended as the “first truth commission to make a significant contribution to an understanding” of keywords, especially truth, justice, and reconciliation (Gready, Era 2), and thus to shape the conception and execution of its successors. The South African example has influenced successor commissions by testing a difficult combination of “process” (public participation, including the testimony of two thousand out of the twenty-one thousand survivors who requested an audience, the compelling if uneven debate between perpetrators and survivors at the hearings, as well as the development of local venues and forms of support) and “product” (not merely the official report but also the archives opened by universities and other independent [End Page 185] bodies). As the report has faded from view, the influence of the TRC remains in national, regional, and local efforts at memorialization in institutions like schools and museums, as well as in...