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  • Reconciliation Discourse: The Case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • Mueni wa Muiu
Verdoolaege, Annelies . 2008. Reconciliation Discourse: The Case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 238 pp. $158.00 (cloth).

From an ethnographic and linguistic point of view, Annelies Verdoolaege undertakes a study of the Human Rights Violations Committee (HRVC) of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). According to the author, the study's aim "is to analyze how, through a certain type of reconciliation discourse constructed at the HRVC hearings, a reconciliation-oriented reality took shape in post-TRC South Africa" (p. 5).

The book is divided into eight chapters. In the first three, Verdoolaege provides an introduction to the study, a historical background of the TRC, and an overview of the TRC as archive. Some of the questions that guide this study are: what was the impact of the TRC on South Africa's society? Did it unify the nation? What lessons can be drawn from the TRC? Verdoolaege [End Page 136] uses critical-discourse analysis to examine thirty testimonies, which she selected from 1800 cases presented to the Human Rights Violations Committee. This sample is provided in chapter four in a descriptive format, based on geographical area, gender, ethnic background, political affiliation, and whether or not testifiers supported the idea of interpersonal reconciliation. Furthermore, a few applications were made to the commission by members of the National Party, Inkatha Freedom Party, and the South African Defense Force. Most of the applications were from members of the liberation movements and the South African police.

Applicants did not have to show remorse for their crimes. Those who received amnesty were free of all civil and criminal liability. The information presented to the TRC could not be used as evidence to prosecute applicants, who were seen as criminals. Of the twenty-two individuals who testified, eleven were ANC members, three were Inkatha Freedom Party members, and three were United Democratic Front members; one was an Azanian People's Liberation Army member; eight had no political affiliation, one was a member of the Pan-Africanist Congress, and three belonged to Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. Seventeen of the testifiers were for reconciliation, and thirteen were opposed. Fourteen were female, and sixteen were male. Twenty were African, three were white, and five were "coloured" (i.e., mixed-race persons). There were no persons of Indian descent in the sample.

Very usefully, Verdoolaege defines power as the ability to "unify and reconcile." Subsequently, the reader is introduced to power as exemplified by the TRC, which promoted reconciliation as an ideal, not only for nation-building, but also for individual healing. The commissioners were in control throughout the process. Through their careful questioning, they guided the victims toward reconciliation. They reminded the victims that they were respected members of their community in spite of the crimes committed against them; they paid particular attention to the needs of the victims, providing them with water or tissue when necessary, and were careful to address them as "Mister" or "Mrs." The victims who favored reconciliation were encouraged, while those who wanted material reparations or revenge were guided toward reconciliation, and their testimonies were cut short when they became too stubborn. Hate speech or environments that promoted racial hatred were discouraged. Victims were encouraged to speak about details of their suffering.

In chapter seven, the author demonstrates how the TRC as a state agency had the power to shape the present as well as the future of South Africa. Some victims were reminded about the suffering of other members of the community, which forced them to look beyond individual suffering to nation-building. Some victims spoke of how Nelson Mandela had suffered in prison. They were willing to forgive because he provided a good example of the power of forgiveness. In chapter eight, Verdoolaege concludes the study by suggesting that future researchers should use the TRC model to study other communities' attempts to resolve conflict. [End Page 137]

Generally, this is a welcome study, which provides the details of how the TRC, and more specifically how the Human Rights Violations Committee, operated...


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pp. 136-139
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