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Colin Bundy considers the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so dramatic in "its emotional, cultural and symbolic power" and in the deeply human truths about apartheid that it has revealed. Nonetheless, Bundy reminds us, there is also the fact of the TRC's own very narrow premises. Haven't these premises threatened to reduce, for too many whites, the resonance of the systematic horror of the apartheid era to the baroquely evil acts of a handful of rogue cops? And haven't they tended, in this way, to obscure the full meaning of an era that embodied the wholesale degradation - for purposes of guaranteeing capitalist profits and white privilege - of an entire people? How much less pressing, the article seems to ask, is the urgency of redressing the chief legacy of that period - the deep-seated socio-economic inequalities it created - if mere police brutality (however horrific) is what is primarily to be remembered? (jbv)

vol 14 no 4

Truth . . . or Reconciliation
Colin Bundy

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 4, August 1999
Page 8
"South Africa"



Colin Bundy, a noted South African historian, is currently Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand. This article is drawn from a presentation given recently by Dr. Bundy at a meeting organized by the Harold Wolpe Trust.

One of the difficulties of discussing the TRC analytically is that one can too easily overlook or fail to recognize its power. I am referring to its emotional, cultural and symbolic power: above all to the potency and intensity of the testimony it elicited - both in the public hearings and in the written statements dictated and painstakingly transcribed in their thousands. To revisit these in five volumes of the TRC report, or to have encountered them on radio or television during live broadcasts, is a confrontation with the human condition; it requires each of us to come to terms with the worst and best in our fellow citizens. There is horror in the testimonies, and grief and pain and anguish; there is courage, cowardice, resilience, self-knowledge and denial. The cumulative account provides an explicit and terrible record of torture, vindictiveness and brutalization.

And in addition to the TRC report and the great body of documents now handed to the State archives, we have the extraordinary account by Antjie Krog [1998]: reportage and autobiography woven together with poetic language and insights. As will be quite clear, I am not trying here to add to this kind of analysis of the TRC. Nor am I going to deal with the legal and political dispute to which the TRC process and its report have given rise.

My focus is on history and the TRC. I want to make some comments on the nature of the Commission and its report in relation to the discipline of history. The TRC raises direct epistemological issues concerning historical evidence, and historical understanding. It poses in virtually unmediated form questions of how the past is constructed and presented, how it is contested, and what the role of history is in shaping values and institutions in civil society. All of these aspects have been analyzed and debated by others - and much of what I have to say draws upon their work.

The TRC in history

How does one begin to think historically about the TRC? How might one locate the Commission within a broader account of contemporary South African history? In particular, how might one characterize it in fairly conventional social science terms - as an item of legislation, as a political and social process, and in relation to other political and social processes? In other words, if analysis distances itself from the TRC as political drama or morality play, and eschews rhetorical celebration or denunciation of the Commission, what are we actually dealing with?

Basically, it is impossible to make much sense of the TRC unless one relates it to the political settlement arrived at between 1990 and 1993. The TRC was not merely a legal by-product of the political settlement, but in a more fundamental sense a crucial element of that settlement. And to take one further step back in time, any account of the settlement necessarily depends upon the circumstances which led to it.

One of the earliest, most influential and durable analyses of those circumstances was written by Harold Wolpe. In his Race, Class & the Apartheid State [1988, p. 103], Wolpe identified the prevailing conjuncture as one of an unstable equilibrium

in which the white bloc, while holding state power and having at its disposal the armed and security forces, was unable to suppress the mass opposition which, in turn, did not have the immediate capacity to overthrow the regime and the system. In this situation a space was opened up for initiatives for a reformist solution to the country's crisis on the basis of a "negotiated settlement."

This was prescient - and a far more useful starting point for understanding the negotiations process than many on offer. It is instructive to begin where Wolpe pointed - which was also where the government and the ANC found themselves in 1989. The state was unable to reimpose order from above; the oppositional forces were unable to seize power from below - and both had come to a reluctant recognition of this stalemate. Mandela's letter to P.W. Botha in March 1989 (the crucial section of which proposed that: "The key to the whole situation is a negotiated settlement") and de Klerk's speech to parliament on February 2nd 1990 voiced the same logic. Although neither leader said so, their forces resembled the armies in Macbeth: "As two spent swimmers, that do cling together." Having both conceded, under enormous pressure, that a negotiated settlement was the only viable option, together they clung to the process.

To appreciate the tenacity of their grip, it is worth recalling the series of disclosures and disasters that threatened: Operation Vula, Inkathagate, Sebokeng, Boipatong, Bisho, and the seemingly endless killings on the East Rand and in Natal. Despite these, to a degree and at a pace that surprised many observers, the broad outlines of the settlement actually emerged quite rapidly. And they could do so because both the National Party and the ANC agreed on terms that deviated quite significantly from their initial negotiating positions. In particular, in November 1992 the ANC adopted its "Strategic Perspectives" on negotiations. This committed a post-election government to a form of power-sharing for five years; entrenched the posts of white civil servants; and agreed to a form of amnesty which indemnified politicians, soldiers and security agents from civil or criminal prosecution in return for disclosure of their crimes.

Underpinning these explicitly political concessions - Hein Marais [1998, p. 89] argues - was a retreat by the ANC with arguably longer term implications. The ANC retreated from economic and social policy positions that would threaten, weaken or dismantle the structural foundations of a two-nation society. Blade Nzimande [quoted in Marais, 1998, p. 90], citing the Mexican sociologist Carlos Vilas, was one of few to warn at the time that transitions initiated by previous regimes "do not project into the economic sphere," and do not impact on income redistribution, employment and living conditions.

During CODESA, verily, the ANC sought first the political kingdom. The form of state (the balance between central and provincial powers), the terms of power-sharing (in the GNU), the details of entrenched legislation and veto powers, and the sustained efforts to bring the IFP and the Afrikaner right into electoral politics were the main focus of negotiations. There was an understandable concern with attaining, defending and reshaping state power - but concomitantly there was a tacit acceptance that negotiations would leave the structures of production, property, wealth and poverty virtually intact. From 1992 onwards, the ANC backed off from redistribution and state regulation, dropped demands like progressive taxation and a restructuring of the financial sector; and accepted a property rights clause sponsored by big business. In the process, it was assimilated into a web of institutional relations, systems and practices that historically had served white privilege and capital accumulation.

The ideology of the historic compromise dealt increasingly with the "new" South Africa, with nation-building. "The dominant discourse" (writes Marais [1998, p. 93]) "came to orbit around postulated common interests and destinies - rather than difference, contradiction and antagonism - as the fundamental dynamics at work in society." Tutu's "rainbow" metaphor translated this aptly into a folk or popular register.

Viewed within this reading of the negotiated settlement, the TRC emerges as a crucial element of the historic compromise. It balanced off demands for justice with those for a blanket amnesty. "Dissected by political parties in a process that saw twenty drafts," the Promotion of National Unity & Reconciliation Act was drafted less by lawyers than it was "founded on compromises thrashed out in the steamy, often late-night sessions which brought the country a political settlement" [Davis, p. 6]. The trade-offs in the Act which created the TRC "neatly matched those of the political settlement itself - defusing the threat of `counter-revolution' by harnessing opposing social and political forces into agreements aimed at stability and national consensus" [Marais, 1998, p. 258]. The process of appointing its members was a two-act play in nation-building: the nominations and public hearings, and the submission of a short-list of 25 names to the President - and then the last minute addition of Rev. Khoza Mgojo and Adv. Denzil Potgieter in order to give greater representation to Kwa-Zulu Natal and to appease apparent unhappiness over the absence of coloured people on the list [Krog, 1998, p. 20].

The TRC and historical understanding

This background helps underpin the basic point I wish to make here in evaluating the TRC (and I do so in the knowledge that the point has been made, in related terms, by a number of others, perhaps most effectively by Mahmood Mamdani). This seeks to evoke the way in which the TRC has the potential to shape historical understanding, and in so doing to narrow, to constrain and even to distort such understanding. I am not referring merely to the researchers of the TRC, the writing of the report, and the deposit in the state archives of the evidence it collected. I am referring also to the Act which constituted the Commission, its mandate in terms of this legislation, and above all the ways in which this mandate delimited the drama of the TRC. The TRC, as you all know, was charged with the objective of promoting national unity and reconciliation by:

establishing as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of the gross violations of human rights from 1960 to 1993, including the antecedents, circumstances, factors and context of such violations, as well as the perspectives of the victims and the motives and perspectives of the perpetrators.

Certainly, the Report is uncomfortably aware of the narrowness of this investigative mandate. It notes that the systemic and all-pervading character of apartheid provided the background for its investigation. It speaks of the difficulty of concentrating only on those who had been killed, tortured or severely mistreated against awareness of "systematic discrimination and dehumanization." It says that a strong case can be made that the violations of human rights by pass laws, migrant labour, forced removals, Bantu Education and so on had "the most negative possible impact on the lives of the majority of South Africans [TRC, 1998, vol. I, pp. 62 - 64]" Yet, despite these important caveats, the TRC report is not in any important sense shaped by an intellectual or political critique of its mandate, nor by analysis that extends or transcends that mandate.

Look, for example, at the very beginning of the five volume report, the Foreword that appears over Tutu's signature. In paragraph two, it accepts the time-frame of the Act uncritically. Contemporary history "began in 1960 when the Sharpeville disaster [sic] took place" and "it is this history with which we have had to come to terms." It is arguable that the years 1960 to the early 1990s constitute an identifiable historical period: one in which apartheid policies were most expansive and aggressively pursued; in which the state made a decisive shift towards more overtly authoritarian forms of social control and political repression; and in which mass transgressions of human rights in South Africa became internationally notorious.

But to treat this period as "the history with which we have to come to terms" effectively frees us of the obligation to arrive at a similar reckoning with any other history. The high noon of human rights violations was preceded by a long dawn: a pre-history of dispossession, denial, and subordination. Colonial conquest took 200 years. Racial identities ascribed by colonial rule were rewritten - italicized - by a distinctive form of industrialization based upon the cheap labour of disenfranchised natives. Segregation policies, long before 1948, drew deeply discriminatory lines across housing, jobs, education and welfare.

What the TRC threatens to do is to uncouple these histories: to define three decades of the past in terms of perpetrators and victims and tightly defined categories of wrong, and to suggest that this is "the beast of the past." Let me illustrate the general point with a sub-theme, but a telling one. A substantial body of the testimony collected by the TRC dealt with torture at the hands of South African police officers. The Report provides a brief but chilling history of how torture was professionalised within the police, but especially in the Special Branch: how certain officers received training in torture techniques in France in the early sixties, and subsequently in Argentina, Chile and Taiwan. It details the legislation which drew new zones of penal license - permitting solitary confinement and detention without trial. It quotes Joe Slovo: "However firm the old type of policemen were ... they were not torturers ... In a sense, up to about 1960/1, the underground struggle was fought on a gentlemanly terrain. There was still a rule of law. You had a fair trial in the courts." And while it demurs slightly - it received evidence on extensive forms of torture during the Pondoland Revolt of 1960, and it notes in a throwaway line that "such methods were widely used in criminal investigations before the 1960s" - the Report essentially confines its account of violence at the hands of policemen to the years after Sharpeville [TRC, vol. 2, pp. 194-7].

This is poor history. Without trying to make a full case for a different history let me provide a couple of snapshots. In 1930, working in the locations of East London and Grahamstown, the anthropologist Monica Hunter [1961] noted: "In collective dreams, I found that by far the most frequent motif was a police raid." In 1937, a Police Commission of Inquiry appointed by Hertzog's government warned of the "attitude of mutual distrust, suspicion and dislike" between police and black South Africans. This was due to the "unnecessary harshness, lack of sympathy, and even violence" used by police during the constant location raids to enforce tax, liquor and pass laws. These had "a brutalizing effect on the police [quoted in Simons, 1949, p. 75]" As Jack Simons [1949, p. 76] drily noted "It is a short step from brutality to illegality" - and, he added, "In specific cases, policemen were shown to have flogged prisoners, beaten the soles of their feet, or ducked them in water until they were nearly unconscious."

The short memory span of the TRC in this specific instance is symptomatic of a more far-reaching incipient amnesia. Analytically, how helpful is it to focus on police torture and ignore bureaucratic terrorism? By bureaucratic terror I mean the use of state power against individuals and groups who are politically rightless, socially discriminated against, and economically subordinate. I refer to the rote, routine, relentless denial of first generation human rights; the quotidian and unthinking realities of a social order that took root long before 1960. When Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil," she concluded that "The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, but they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal ... This normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together."

It is this terror that escapes the TRC. By focusing so selectively on some of the horrors of the apartheid past, its hearings, paradoxically, have the effect of diminishing the full iniquity of the past. By highlighting the trauma of families of activists, the Commission unwittingly silences the lived realities of the multitude, the thousand unnatural shocks that apartheid flesh was heir to. It defines the resistance by the active challenges of a heroic minority but writes out the stoic endurance of the majority.

As Mamdani [1998, pp. 38 - 40] puts it, "The TRCs version of truth was established through narrow lenses, crafted to reflect the experience of a tiny minority" of victims and perpetrators. By individualizing victimhood it surrendered the task of comprehending the social nature of dispossession. "Perhaps the greatest moral compromise the TRC made was to embrace the legal fetishism of apartheid. In doing so, it made little distinction between what is legal and what is legitimate, between law and right." The result is laconically expressed by one of the foot-soldiers of the TRC, Mahlubi Mabizela, a member of the research department: "Farm labourers saw the TRCs coming as a sort of Messiah. But the policy decision was that their suffering was not covered by the Act, it was not a gross violation. The statement takers were the ones who had to say sorry, we are not talking to you [quoted in Davis, 1998, p. 8]."


I want to end by referring to an incisive little book by Paul Connerton, called How Societies Remember [1989. pp. 1 - 2]. He begins with a general point about social memory.

All beginnings contain an element of recollection. This is particularly so when a social group makes a concerted effort to begin with a wholly new start ... It is not just that it is very difficult to begin with a wholly new start, that too many old loyalties and habits inhibit the substitution of a novel enterprise for an old and established one. More fundamentally, it is that in all modes of experience we always base our particular experiences on a prior context in order to ensure that they are intelligible at all ... The world of the percipient ... is an organized body of expectations based on recollection.

In very specific cases, the "concerted effort to begin with a wholly new start" takes place when a regime seeks to establish in a definitive manner a new social order. This was true for the regicides of Louis XVI, true for the Bolsheviks in 1917, and true for the Nuremburg trials.

The settlement they seek is one in which the continuing struggle between the new order and the old will be definitively terminated, because the legitimacy of the victors will be validated once and for all ... To pass judgment on the practices of the old regime is the constitutive act of the new order.

The TRC may appear to be passing judgment on the practices of the apartheid regime, but its remit and its reach are in fact very different. In its origins, in its mandate and in its procedures, it was incapable of that sort of judgment. It could not come to terms with the underlying structures and processes that have determined our identities and patterned our society. At the risk of over-simplifying an already sketchy argument, do we run the risk of defining a new order as one in which police may no longer enjoy impunity to torture opponents of the government, and failing to specify that ordinary citizens should not be poor and illiterate and powerless and pushed around by state officials and employers? Does the TRCs highlighting of individual memories actually facilitate social amnesia? And finally, to what extent is the truth and reconciliation of the Commission not merely the product of a compromise, but historically compromised? Is its form of nation-building one which can only yield a lop-sided structure - two nations disguised as one, a hybrid social formation consisting of increasingly deracialized insiders and persistently black outsiders?



Paul Connerton (1989), How Societies Remember (Cambridge: CUP)

Gaye Davis (1998), "Overview," Siyaya! 3 (Spring)

Monica Hunter (1961), Reaction to Conquest (London: OUP)

Antjie Krog (1998), County of My Skull, (Johannesburg: Random House)

Mahmood Mamdani (1998), "A Diminished Truth," Siyaya! 3 (Spring)

Hein Marais (1998), South Africa: Limits to Change: The political economy of transformation (London & Cape Town: Zed Books & UCT Press)

H. J. Simons (1949), "The Law and its Administration," in Handbook on Race Relations in South Africa, ed. Ellen Hellman (Cape Town: OUP)

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report [TRC] (1998), Vols. 1 and 2

Harold Wolpe (1988), Race, Class & the Apartheid State (London: James Currey)

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