Not Quite So “Democratically Ever After”…

trxIn Native Nostalgia (2009), Jacob Dlamini contended that there was a tendency to present South African history in a “neat telling.”  “In this neat telling,” Dlamini explained, “there is a neat separation between a merry precolonial Africa, a miserable apartheid South Africa and a marvelous new South Africa in which everyone is living democratically ever after” (12).

This notion of a South African fairy tale in which “everyone is living democratically ever after” is tied up in the idea of the “Rainbow Nation,” the mythological entity that was constructed in the minds of South Africans (and the rest of the world) as Nelson Mandela emerged from prison to lead the nation towards a brighter tomorrow.  But before Madiba could guide his people to their brighter day, he would have wait until a bridge could be built to span the decades of abuse and hate.  That bridge was the the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a bridge to the brighter future that would allow victims and perpetrators to find catharsis in public venues and set aside their differences in pursuit of a “marvelous new South Africa.”

But the Rainbow Nation (TRC and all), as we already know, is perfectly imperfect.  And the main reason for this imperfection is the fact that it was a human endeavor; as Verne Harris argued in 2006, it was simply “a work of memory; a work of remembering and forgetting.”  Harris pointed out in a paper for the 1999 TRC: Commissioning the Past Conference, “memory is never a faithful reflection of process, of ‘reality’.  It is shaped, reshaped, figured, configured, by the dance of imagination” (1).  Sean Field pointed to a similar dynamic in his own contribution to this conference; “memories are not static blueprints of the past but are always shaped and filtered in complex ways,” Field explained, “Memories are a set of experiences, images and feelings that are articulated to fulfill the needs and pressures of the present” (4).

This shaping of and pressure placed on memory was put on prime display during the public TRC hearings, as Antjie Krog and Nosisi Mpolweni explored in “Archived Voices: Refiguring Three Women’s Testimonies Delivered to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (2009).  “The TRC,” they argued, “provided an official forum from which seeing could become audible, and the audible to become archived as we build the archives of a ‘new South Africa'” (365).  And this forum was not only about the building of memories for a new South Africa, they showed, but also served as a vehicle for victims’ “refiguring (of) the archives of their own memories in a way that enables their own personal needs for facts of peace and healing to be addressed by the TRC” (371).  These authors used transcripts of hearings, along with video and audio recordings to show how three women used their testimonies to work through their own emotional needs.  “It is only by watching the video of the testimonies,” they argue, “that one fully grasps how the traumatic content and emotional delivery has put everybody under unbearable strain” (368).

One only has to explore the Truth Commission-Special Report site to see the truth of their statement.  Launched in 2013, as an attempt to return TRC into public memory, this site compiles all eighty+ episodes of the television series, standing as an openly accessible archive of the TRC’s public hearings.  The site also contains numerous documents related to the TRC, including transcripts of hearings, applications for amnesty, and transcripts of rehabilitation workshops.  While the site itself provides little contextual information for those unfamiliar with the TRC, each episode begins with a short contextual segment before launching into the actual hearing, integrating du Preez’s commentary at the appropriate moments for further explanation.

Viewing the episodes, the kind of strain that Krog and Mpolweni explored in their piece becomes much clearer.  The raw emotion in the first episode alone bears witness to the strain that the participants found themselves under, working through their traumas in a public venue.  In this footage, we can also see old wounds being ripped open anew.  And, yes, sometimes wounds have to be exposed in order for healing to begin, but then that begs the question of who was meant to find relief from these efforts and at what cost?

Desmond Tutu wrote in 1999‘s No Future Without Forgiveness that, from the outset, the TRC was centrally concerned with “the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he has injured by his offense” (55).  This idea emerged from the notion of ubuntu (humanity in isiZulu; isiXhosa).  “Our humanity was intertwined,” Tutu explained, “the humanity of the perpetrator of apartheid’s atrocities was caught up and bound up in that of his victim whether he liked it or not.”  Furthermore, “in the process of dehumanizing another, in inflicting untold harm and suffering, inexorably the perpetrator was being dehumanized as well” (103).  Through these acts of public catharsis, then the commissioners reasoned, victims and victimizers would find peace and common ground to move forward together into a “new” South Africa, recovering their shared humanity in the process.  But was this goal attained?

According to Harris and Field, it was not. In both of their analyses, they highlight the limited effectiveness of testimony to serve as an effective one-time analgesic for the kind of deep wounds being addressed in the TRC.  Harris, in a 2006 talk given at MSU, found that “the TRC opened up wounds and didn’t provide the means to find healing.”  Field echoed his sentiments arguing that “historical truth cannot be ‘bottled’ (except in the realm of myth) and ‘administered’ as contemporary ‘medicine’ for wounds of the past” (7).

And these wounds are, indeed, deep; not just for the victims but for the perpetrators as well.  As Jacques Pauw found in Into the Heart of Darkness: Confessions of Apartheid’s Assassins (1997), apartheid’s perpetrators faced their own kind of suffering in the post-apartheid era.  The example of Thys du Plessis puts the great stakes into stark relief.

‘I often think I should take a pistol and get rid of this problem.  But when I think of my family and try to come to terms with what I am.  My wife told the children that although their father looks healthy from the outside, he is in fact a very sick man.  When I feel this monster building up inside me, I have to warn them to get away.  I’m still scared I’m going to hurt them.’ (130)

How did the TRC plan to deal with these wounds?  Or were the wounds of the perpetrators (even with the realization of the moral depravity of their actions) to be opened in order for other wounds to be closed?  If their humanities were, in fact, intertwined with those of their victims, shouldn’t there have been a long term plan in place to deal with the deep-rooted, painful injuries that were eant to be handled by the TRC?

All of this is written not to suggest that the TRC did more harm than good; quite the contrary.  From my perspective, the TRC opened the doorway to mass public memory work to mend broken bridges.  The problem is not that they started this process: the problem is that they never finished their work.

As Ashwin Desai put it in 2002’s We Are the Poors, processes like the TRC often do not engage with the long term impacts of their work.

Talk of human rights and citizenship often results in validation of the social order.  It is also tempting to use the processes for adjudication of disputes precisely in this realm, like the courts, provided by the system.  When one wins in these forums, it is easy to vaunt the rule of law but then what happens when you need to break it?  Parochialism, too, has to be warded off and efforts made to be sensitive to the struggles of other subaltern groups (146).

Sean Field also sees the TRC as an incomplete project, with the recognition that “neither the past nor history simply cures emotional wounds.”  “Rather,” he proposed, “the creation of ongoing public spaces and collective processes for people to talk, write, publicize, represent and inscribe the social and political significance of their experiences and emotions have the potential for personal ‘healing’ and the renewal of communities” (7).  Furthermore, instead of simply “putting the past to rest,” Field contends, this kind of public memory engagement should “involve constructively and sensitively keeping open the spoken and unspoken dialogue between present needs and past experiences” (8).

This is where public memory work comes in to play.  “The need for public memory work, across the spectrum of apartheid’s brutalising experiences,” Field contends, “is about the need for spaces for people to tell their stories, and for these stories to be disseminated to as many public audiences as possible” (8).  In this way, the TRC site stands as a fulfillment of this kind of project, now that the testimonies, even in their edited formats, are available online.  And there are other projects throughout South Africa which fulfill similar aims.  Projects like Military Intelligence in Apartheid-Era South Africa, Forgotten Voices in the Present, the Sinomlando Centre, and countless others are working to use oral history as a tool for both remembering and healing.

But these long-term projects, making these testimonies and memories available in an open-access environment is key to long-term reconciliation, not only for individuals who experienced the horrors of apartheid, but also for the reconciliation of the national narrative with the realities of lives lived under apartheid.  There was no fairy tale ending to be had here.  Really, fairy tales seem to end so well because there is, in fact, no ending at all.  South Africa is not a land far, far away and apartheid was not so long, long ago.  The TRC was not a knight in shining armor, rescuing the damsel(s) in distress.  This was a real forum, working through real horrors; and its completion did not signal the end of the struggle, but instead the beginning of another struggle to maintain a nation (and its memories) in the face of monumental odds.


This post is one of the requirements for South African History in a Digital Age, a graduate course in history which I am enrolled in this semester, drawing on the assigned readings for February 20th.

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