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Southern Africa Report Archive

In a critical analysis of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, the author questions the ability of the TRC to liberate many South Africans from the dismal poverty that has been carried into the post-apartheid era. This is facilitated by the limited attention paid to the ‘ordinary, legalized, administrative violence’ of apartheid and the TRCs focus on the most heinous crimes. The author also examines the nature of the term ‘truth’ and how the search for it has influenced the historical documentation of events. (dkc)

vol 13 no 4

The truth shall make you free? - Reflections on the TRC
Steven Robins

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 4, August 1998
Page 9
"South Africa"



Stephen Robins teaches in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of the Western Cape. He has published on issues related to land and cultural identity. His most recent work is concerned with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the role of the historical narrative and personal and cultural memory.

Claudia Braude recently criticized Antjie Krog's much acclaimed book, "Country of My Skull" (1998), for endorsing a "postmodern" sensibility that celebrates the slippery and subjective character of truth claims ( Mail & Guardian, 12th June, 1998). The book, based on Krog's personal experiences as an Afrikaner radio journalist covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), raises important questions concerning historical truth, Krog writing that, in the end, she has difficulty even pronouncing the word "truth." And yet Braude for her part is profoundly uneasy about this kind of questioning of the very possibility of arriving at the truth of apartheid.

With good reason. To be sure, the TRC hearings have complicated our understanding, and this will make it difficult for the TRC to produce, in its final report, a neat and unambiguous account of the apartheid past. However, if acknowledging the subjective and elusive character of all truth claims were all that were possible, one could easily slip into a kind of perverse relativism that would play into the hands of conservatives who are now claiming that the human rights violations of the liberation movements can be compared to those perpetrated by the apartheid state.

Referring to the limits of representing the Holocaust, Saul Friedlander (1993) notes that we are confronted with the an insoluble choice between the inadequacy of traditional historiographical representation and the need to establish as accurate a narration of the Holocaust as possible. Should we not seek to parallel Friedlander's position by recognizing the problems of telling the complete story of apartheid and yet attempting nonetheless to tell this story as reliably as possible? Acknowledging the complex and ambiguous character of South Africa's recent past need not encourage the kind of celebration of disavowals of truth (whether they be based on post-modern philosophical premises or, as seems most often to be the case, on more mundane and opportunist grounds) that facilitate apartheid amnesia and moral relativism.

The German precedent

Braude's fears of slippery truths, revisionisms and moral relativism have a dangerous precedent in the German Historian's Debate or "Historiker Streit" that raged in West Germany the mid1980s. German revisionist historians argued for an empathetic understanding of the anxieties about the Russians that purportedly led Hitler to the barbaric Final Solution. According to Ernst Nolte, given the historical reality of the Gulags, Hitler had reason to fear that the Bolsheviks would subject the Germans to terrible tortures if they succeeded in expanding westward. From Nolte's perspective, the Bolsheviks were the original perpetrators of global annihilations in modern history, while the Nazi exterminations were acted out of anguish at the idea of being themselves potential victims of the Red Terror. Since, for Hitler, "Bolshevist equalled Jew," it was a short step from this primal fear of Red Terror to the trains destined for Auschwitz. Not surprisingly critics of this and other aspects of revisionist historiography in Germany argued that it represented a displacement of Nazi responsibility for genocide, and contributed towards the blurring of the boundaries between victim and perpetrator.

Nolte and his ilk have called for revisionist accounts of the Holocaust from a German national perspective, which they claim is necessary to counter the biased interpretations that have been written by the victors. What bears emphasizing here is that the recent testimony to the TRC of former Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok sounded remarkably similar to Nolte's contributions to the "Historiker Streit." Could it be that Vlok's testimony marks the beginning of South Africa's own historian's debate?

Thus, in his attempt to counter-act the official account of the national liberation struggle that is emerging from the TRC hearings, Vlok too sought to "contextualize" human rights violations perpetrated by the apartheid state by attributing these actions to anxieties and fears of "communist terrorists" and totalitarian tendencies within the ANC and SACP alliance. In a preface to his 84-page application to the TRC, Vlok portrays himself as a committed Christian who devoted his political career to countering the perceived communist onslaught. While Vlok acknowledges that "apartheid did result in pain and suffering" he ends up concluding that "Marxism/communism's record was more terrible."

Like the German revisionists, Vlok has sought to deny responsibility for state violence by referring to fear of "the Red Peril." While fear and hostility to communism may indeed have been a factor that motivated apartheid state terror, surely this is not a morally acceptable justification for systematic racial discrimination and brutality against the civilian population! One hopes that the TRC Report will serve as an invaluable archive for those wishing to challenge the New Right revisionism and apartheid denial of the likes of Vlok.

Zimbabwe counter-example

For the TRC hearings have indeed provided a wealth of fresh evidence of apartheid human rights violations - even if they have also complicated attempts to produce the kind of seamless heroic nationalist narrative of the kind produced in neighbouring Zimbabwe. There Robert Mugabe's ruling party ZANU has indirectly controlled the production of official histories of the liberation struggle and the Zimbabwean state has incorporated influential academic historiographical accounts of the guerrilla war into a mythology of nation-building that privileged and celebrated the role of ZANU in the anti-colonial struggle. In this account the guerrilla violence was represented as heroic resistance in such a sanitized form as, for example, to merely gloss over the killing of alleged "sellouts." By contrast, in South Africa the media has given prominence to TRC hearings that have opened up a highly visible public accounting of the complexities and ambiguities of "the struggle."

While the official narratives of South Africa's liberation struggle continue to highlight its heroic character, the TRC hearings have nonetheless allowed a multiplicity of voices to be heard. For instance, the TRC has heard testimonies and evidence not only about the torture and killing of anti-apartheid activists by agents of the South African state, but also about the victims of ANC and PAC terror attacks, the incidents of torture in ANC camps, and the "necklacings" of alleged apartheid informers. Although it was initiated by the ANC, the TRC hearings have complicated heroic struggle narratives and allowed for a far less monologic account of the past than was initially anticipated: testimonies of abuses have come from South African citizens situated on all sides of the conflict.

No equivalent process has occurred in post-independence Zimbabwe [or, equally infamously, in Namibia for that matter - editor's note]. Neither guerrilla violence nor the state terror unleashed against civilians during the so-called dissident war in Matabeleland in the 1980s has been dealt with along the lines of a Truth Commission. Instead, an official silence regarding the Matabeleland "disappearances" continues. This silence is maintained by media censorship, as, for instance, in the initial banning of Ingrid Sinclair's "Flame," a film that demythologizes aspects of the liberation struggle by telling the story of the rape of female fighters. (The Zimbabwe War Veterans Association was outraged by the film and demanded that it be banned. The film was initially confiscated on the grounds of being pornographic but was later officially passed with cuts.)

In short, the official versions of Zimbabwe's liberation war reveal none of the ambiguity and complexity that has surfaced at the TRC hearings. However, although such nuance may indeed be preferable to officially sanctioned truth and hagiography, it also reinforces the danger of relativism noted above. For instance, although the liberation movements did indeed commit human rights violations, to equate these incidents with the scale, systematicity and bureaucratic nature of apartheid terror would be a serious mistake. An inventory of violations would readily reveal that the apartheid state was indeed the villain of the piece. One only has to consider the recent revelations of apartheid's multi-million rand chemical warfare research programme - which included plans to manufacture chemical substances that would neutralize political opponents and bring down black fertility rates. So, alongside forced removals, pass laws, and the funding of Vlakplaas death squads, the apartheid state also had its own perverse "Final Solution" on the backburner!

In the next few months the TRC will be finalizing its official report based on almost two years of Human Rights Violations and Amnesty hearings. The report is likely to generate considerable debate and controversy. Already we have heard the criticisms of the likes of Professor Hermann Giliomee who has expressed concern that the report will become an ANC-biased official history of South Africa's past. While the report will no doubt be written from the perspective of those sympathetic to the fight against apartheid, this in itself is not necessarily a problem. After decades of apartheid state propaganda a strong argument can be made for the need of an official account of the past written from the perspective of anti-apartheid activists and intellectuals. Although such an endeavour will inevitably be a partial and incomplete version of South Africa's recent past, this does not mean that there will not be opportunities for the production of alternative histories that fill in the gaps, silences and biases of the TRC's final report. It will also be up to South African academics, journalists, film-makers, artists and writers to take up this challenge. The TRC will have provided us with considerable archival material with which we can begin the long and arduous process of working through the apartheid past.

Truth . . . and reconciliation?

Moreover, the fact remains that, as numerous journalists, academics, writers and political commentators have tried to make sense of the emotional roller coaster that began with the first TRC hearings in East London, the gruesome revelations of the state terror of the apartheid era have shocked and numbed a nation struggling to come to terms with its traumatic past. Of course, while Commissioners and journalists speak of the difficulty of emotionally and psychologically dealing with the raw pain of victims' testimonies of violence, there are those conservative whites such as former President P. W. Botha who continue to be in a state of denial. They derisively label the TRC the "crying game" and complain that it is biased in favour of the liberation movements. They constantly refer to the human rights violations perpetrated by the liberation movements and refer to incidents of torture and killings in ANC camps in Angola the Mandela United Football Club, the necklacings and so on. While, as noted, the TRC Report will address violations perpetrated by all parties, including the liberation movements, it seems likely that these latter incidents will be framed within an overarching narrative of apartheid rather closer to the historical mark than that proffered by such conservatives.

At the same time, many South Africans are profoundly sceptical of the theological language of forgiveness and reconciliation espoused by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his TRC deputy-chairperson, Alec Borraine. The Mxenge family, for instance, have outright rejected the apologies of former Police Captain Dirk Coetzee who was responsible, along with Joe Mamasela, for the brutal murder of ANC activists Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge. Like the Biko family, the Mxenges legally challenged the amnesty provisions of the TRC that offers apartheid killers the opportunity to come clean and escape prosecution.

Despite such challenges to the TRC's rhetoric of forgiveness and healing, however, there is widespread recognition amongst South Africans that amnesty was perhaps an appropriate and politically necessary compromise given the balance of forces at the Codesa negotiations, as well as the real threat of right-wing political mobilization. While this strategic perspective based on an understand of the "larger picture" may not ease the pain of the families of victims, it does perhaps explain why the ANC and its supporters have gone along with this powerful, yet flawed, process.

As the TRC process began to unfold, however, a rather different range of criticisms began to surface with, perhaps, even wider implications. It became increasingly clear, for example, that certain voices and experiences were indeed being marginalized and silenced. For instance, anthropologists Fiona Ross and Pamela Reynolds discovered that even though it was very often women who appeared at the HRV hearings, usually to testify on behalf of their husbands, fathers or brothers who suffered human rights abuses, there was virtually no coverage of the women' own experiences - of, for example sexual abuse - under apartheid. Fortunately, the TRC was relatively quick to respond to this evidence of gender bias and silencing in its proceedings by convening special hearings to address violence against women under apartheid. The TRC also held special hearings into violations against children under apartheid.

The banality of systemic violence

A more subtle but no less dangerous instance of potentially misleading silences has also begun to be commented upon, however: that facilitated by the privileging in the proceedings of accounts of extraordinary human rights violations perpetrated by serial police killers such as Colonel Eugene "Prime Evil" de Kock. While the media coverage of the TRC hearings focused public attention on incidents of "extraordinary" apartheid violence, the everyday bureaucratic violence of apartheid that millions of black South Africans had experienced, and continue to experience, remained outside the TRC frame. In attempting to deal with past violence, the TRC drew a clear distinction between "gross human rights violations" - statutorily defined as murder, abduction and torture - and the "ordinary," legalized, administrative violence of apartheid such as pass laws, forced removals, and racial discrimination and inequalities in health, education, housing, sport and the like. Despite some attempts by the TRC to address the more everyday aspects of apartheid with special hearings into business, the health sector, the media and the military, the dramatic focus has tended to remain on "Prime Evil," the apartheid killers and torturers such as Eugene de Kock and Ferdi Barnard.

The danger exists that, in the process, the everyday realities of the apartheid period - as well as the fact millions of whites kept voting the National Party into power since 1948 - will once again have merely been "normalized" and thus rendered invisible. Such is the charge of critical commentators like Professor Mahmood Mamdani who have taken the TRC to task for focusing too narrowly on gross human rights violations and "extraordinary" violence. This focus, it is argued, has allowed white South Africans to escape moral and political responsibility for the bureaucratic terror of apartheid that they endorsed by so voting for the National Party. It has also allowed the systemic socio-economic legacies of apartheid to recede from public discourse, with important implications in terms of contemporary public debate on social transformation and economic policy.

Pilger's truth

For this focus on extraordinary violations may also permit whites to convince themselves that apartheid is dead and buried, thus obscuring the continuities of racialized poverty produced through decades of apartheid social engineering. While the TRC seeks to bury apartheid and transcend its bitter and divisive history, ghosts from past continue to thwart such endeavours. These legacies of apartheid shape the lives of millions of South Africans trapped within racially segregated ghettoes characterized by extreme poverty and violence. Here, perhaps, is an essential connection between apartheid bureaucratic violence such as the forced removals from District Six and Sophiatown, and post-apartheid criminal and gang violence and poverty. By recognizing these spatial and sociological continuities of apartheid it becomes possible to link the banality of apartheid terror, political, social and economic, to the everyday violence and poverty of the 1990s.

John Pilger's recent controversial television documentary, "Apartheid Did Not Die," directly addressed, on South African television and elsewhere, these more structural traces of racial capitalism. Pilger provided compelling evidence of racialized poverty by contrasting the opulence of the historically white suburbs such as Sandton, Houghton and Constantia with the dire poverty of the black townships. Pilger seemed also to suggest that as much as Archbishop Tutu and the TRC may try to bring about national reconciliation through the revelation of truth, without a fundamental process of social transformation this is likely to be an unfulfilled and incomplete project.

Why then were government spokespersons so quick to dismiss and disparage Pilger's seemingly self-evident documentary? Why was it caricatured as Loony Left polemic? Whereas critiques of racial capitalism were once accepted as truth within the liberation movements, they are now dismissed by the new ruling class as pure polemic and/or naive utopian socialist rhetoric. Clearly this particular truth of Pilger's - namely, that apartheid is far from dead and buried - does not fall within the brief of the TRC. Moreover, without the logistical or statutory means to address the more mundane of apartheid legacies - the systemic character and legacies of racial capitalism - it may be unfair to expect the TRC to have taken on board these more structural dimensions.

And yet, what if it is the case that the TRC's quest for reconciliation in the absence of redress of apartheid's socio-economic legacies is a contradictory one? We can still reassert that compiling an archive of certain important truths about apartheid will have been an invaluable accomplishment, ready to hand when conservative revisionists and moral relativists start claiming that apartheid was not as bad as it is made out to be or when former apparatchiks such as Adriaan Vlok claim that repressive policing and state terror were simply counter-revolutionary strategies deployed to save South Africa from communist tyranny, for example. But we may also be forced to admit that these are not necessarily the sorts of truths that are most useful to setting the present generation of impoverished South Africans free.

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