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  • Truth Commissions and Unspoken Narratives in Gillian Slovo's Red Dust and David Park'sThe Truth Commissioner
  • Lisa Propst

Over the past two decades, truth recovery projects, which unearth information about systematic human rights violations, have become central to societies trying to move past mass conflict. Since the 1990s, the hope invested in truth recovery has become tied to the conviction that building shared narratives can bring people together. Truth commissions prior to 1995, such as those held in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Uganda, sought to develop a historical record but did not include reconciliation as part of their mandate. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which operated from 1995 to 2002, introduced the widespread association between truth recovery and reconciliation, operating on the principle that creating a forum for testimony about atrocities could help victims of violation to reclaim dignity and force the nation to acknowledge injustices that many had denied.

The South African TRC was a ground-breaking achievement. It provided official acknowledgment of violations previously denied by the apartheid government, motivated perpetrators to come forward about their crimes in return for amnesty, and offered victims of violence a public forum to give voice to their experiences. As Paul Gready writes, the TRC "gave South Africans a shared vocabulary—truth, justice, reconciliation, reparations, forgiveness, accountability, apology—with which to discuss the past and present" (The Era 74). At the same time, the capacity of the TRC to "make good the wrongs" of apartheid was inevitably limited, and the commission itself acknowledged that it could only be a starting point for reconciliation (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa 3–4). In the intervening years, many political scientists, philosophers, artists, and writers have sought to complicate the premise that producing shared narratives engenders reconciliation. Scholars such as Mahmood Mamdani, Rosemary Jolly, Fiona Ross, Sonali Chakravarti, Jill Stauffer, Bill Rolston, and Claire Hackett have explored what the narratives produced by truth and reconciliation commissions exclude. Mamdani criticizes the South African TRC for de-emphasizing day-to-day structural violence through a focus on individualized, corporeal human rights violations. Jolly and Ross argue that the TRC often failed to hear the narratives of female loss and suffering [End Page 288] embedded in women's testimonies about violence perpetrated against their husbands, sons, and other male relatives. Chakravarti contends that the TRC's emphasis on forgiveness risked delegitimizing expressions of anger. Rolston, Hackett, Stauffer, and Chakravarti, among others, point out that truth commissions can push people into narrow roles as victims in need of healing, preventing them from being heard when they articulate claims to agency or demands for justice. Numerous scholars have addressed ongoing inequalities that persist in the wake of TRCs (see, for example, Attwell and Harlow; Barnard and Farred). Many South African novels, too, have questioned the idea that the construction of shared narratives enables reconciliation. Some of the best known are J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999); Gillian Slovo's Red Dust (2000); Achmat Dangor's Bitter Fruit (2001); and Zoë Wicomb's David's Story (2000) and Playing in the Light (2006).

Still, the ability to produce shared narratives remains a touchstone for contemporary efforts at nationwide reconciliation. As Gready notes in his 2009 article "Novel Truths," "Victims and survivors demand truths the hand can touch," forensic information about the deaths and burials of their loved ones and acknowledgments of their own torture and violation (161). Manipulations and lies must be publicly refuted to develop a societal commitment to justice. Hence the South African TRC has become a model for a diverse range of countries in political transition, from post-civil war Liberia and Sierra Leone to Northern Ireland in the wake of the "Troubles," the sectarian violence of 1969 to 1998 (Kruger 185). The TRC of Sierra Leone, established in 2002, and the TRC of Liberia, established in 2006, employed instructional handbooks based on the South African commission. In Northern Ireland, where there has not been a national truth-recovery initiative on the scale of a TRC, ongoing debates about how to heal sectarian division center on efforts to develop shared narratives, with the South African TRC regularly invoked as a precedent.1...


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