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Diacritics 29.3 (1999) 3-20

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Review Article

Reading Lessons

Mark Sanders

Thomas Keenan. Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicamentsin Ethics and Politics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report. 5 vols. Cape Town: Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1998.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Website. CD-ROM.

In response to a questioner, a witness speaks. The witness's words are translated for the questioner, as were those of the questioner for the witness. Carried out by interpreters in soundproof booths beside the separate tables at which witness and questioner sit, the translation, which the parties receive over earphones, is simultaneous. Many of the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a statutory body charged with establishing the truth about abuses in apartheid South Africa, assumed the form of mediated question and response: of a witness responding to questions; of a responsiveness, in questioning and translation, to the witness and to the mother tongue of the witness. The goal of the human rights violation hearings was to let victims speak, to grant them a hearing, to hear them, in their own languages [Truth 1: 110, 112-13, 146-47; 5: 4-5, 7-8]. A scene of question and response and of responsiveness, the hearing is a serviceable example, or allegory, of responsibility.

The Commission was mandated the task of establishing "as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights" of apartheid and the struggle against it. 1 Such violations included murder, torture, abduction, and severe ill-treatment. The Commission drew its data from official and unofficial documents and from the testimony of those it termed "perpetrators" and "victims." To take statements from victims, the Commission devised a practical formula designed to render testimony suitable for processing and capture in its database of human rights violations and, eventually, in the narrative of violations presented in its final report [Truth 1: 140 ff.]. As part of its accompanying mandate to "restor[e] the human and civil dignity of such victims by granting them an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations of which they are the victims," some victims were asked to testify at public hearings. 2 Pursuant of these twin goals, at these hearings the questioner would adopt a dual approach, first asking witnesses to give a short account of their life, and then soliciting data on violations of their rights [Krog 217]. [End Page 3]

At another level, the hearings were a concrete enactment and realization of a founding concept of the 1993 interim constitution, the basis of the Act providing for a truth commission, which, as part of its outline for national reconciliation, identified "a need for ubuntu but not for victimization." 3 Variously determined as a theological, moral, political, and juridico-legal concept, ubuntu also informs the thinking of those who promoted the idea of a truth commission, particularly Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [Truth 1: 125-28; cf. Krog 110, 263]. Ubuntu can be understood as a notion of reciprocity: a human being is a human being through other human beings. One is, it follows, responsible for the other in a way that, according to constitutional jurists, regulates and limits the rights of the individual in favor of the collective [Langa ¶224]. The public hearings, held most weekdays for two years, represent ubuntu as responsibility and reciprocity, as a scene of hearing, of "reading" in a general sense; though, as I will argue, it does so in a more radical way than the jurists who deploy it in their day-to-day decisions. Even before a witness departs from the questioner's script to make unanticipated claims--for the exhumation of a body, for instance--its staging sets to work ubuntu as hearing in a way that, so to speak, removes the parties from themselves. In the scene with which I began, witness and questioner alike are heard in a tongue not their own. Response, responsiveness, responsibility--all appear, paradoxically, to require this apparatus of removal or...