An open door for closure

Coming to Terms - For Humanity

September 28, 2001

Coming to terms with the past has emerged as the grand narrative of recent times. These books represent a new focus on remembering and dealing with traumatic experiences in societies undergoing democratic transition.

Martin Meredith's work on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeks to examine the political and moral implications of the TRC. The book encapsulates many of the key controversial cases within the commission's ambit. It also attempts to contextualise the difficult environment in which the TRC was forced to work. Meredith provides information on how it was set up, the security mechanisms and climate of fear that pervaded South African life for the vast majority, the chains of command, testimonies of key players and analysis of the commission's results.

Meredith's book is not academic and should appeal to an audience seeking insight into the shape of the new South Africa. The cases he deals with are mainly high profile, including Eugene de Kok and the state death squads that operated out of Vlakplass. The new South Africa, like the old, is a damaged place and it will take decades to instil a democratic social fibre. Recognition, acknowledgement and closure on the problematic events of the past are necessary for the new dispensations to legitimate themselves politically. There are two crucial things that the TRC has constituted towards this. The first is its remarkable and far-ranging public exposure of human rights violations and crimes committed under apartheid. Second, it has allowed ordinary people to find expression for their suffering. For many of the victims, its function has been cathartic, and it has therefore already achieved some form of reconciliation.

Richard J. Goldstone is one of South Africa's best-known and most respected jurists who has been promoting justice and human rights at home and abroad, serving on commissions and inquiries into violence in South Africa, Rwanda and Yugoslavia. For Humanity traces his career from his activist days fighting apartheid to his rise to the world stage as an independent war crimes prosecutor.

It is an engrossing story. The text provides an overview of how South Africa made the transition from apartheid to democracy and outlines Goldstone's role during the early 1990s in investigating the criminal conduct surrounding the change. The Goldstone Commission between 1991 and 1994 helped to create a climate in which the TRC could emerge. It detailed the serious human rights abuses in the final years of apartheid and the involvement of senior police officials.

Goldstone argues for the development of an international criminal court on a permanent and full-time basis that will deal more effectively with victims of war crimes and genocidal actions. The dilemma facing many transitional states is that prosecution might lead to political violence, which would weaken an already-vulnerable democracy. In the complex case of South Africa, this would have been difficult without widespread political violence. Justice has not been sacrificed for the sake of stability, however. Only a minority of the applicants have actually been granted amnesty, paving the way for civil action and retributive justice. Amnesty was given to some, but only in return for the truth and the hope of reconciliation.

Kenneth Christie is professor of comparative politics, University of Bergen, Norway.

Coming to Terms: South Africa's Search for the Truth

Author - Martin Meredith
ISBN - 1 89162 0 33 9 and 1 903985 09 9
Publisher - Public Affairs
Price - £19.99 and £9.99
Pages - 380

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