Can truth mend fractured lives?

A Country Unmasked
September 28, 2001

In a world of violent and unresolved conflict, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed South Africa's democratic elections in 1994 has attracted widespread international acclaim, a good deal of internal criticism and a plethora of academic comment. There can be few who can write with such authority on its origins, proceedings and reception, as well as its international applicability, as Alex Boraine. Former president of the Methodist Council of South Africa, member of parliament between 1974 and 1986, co-founder of South Africa's Institute for Democratic Alternatives in 1986, founder in 1994 of Justice in Transition, he was appointed deputy chair of the TRC by president Nelson Mandela in recognition of his groundwork in its establishment.

South Africa's TRC is only one of several truth commissions that have been convened across the world in the past two decades but is widely recognised as the most successful. Not only were the South Africans able to learn from the experience of others but, as Boraine makes clear, the unique character of South Africa's TRC arose directly from the country's delicately balanced negotiated settlement. The republic had neither the judicial capacity for Nuremberg-style criminal trials, nor the military strength to take on the many perpetrators of gross violations of human rights, which the liberation movements advocated; the blanket amnesty demanded by the National Party was equally unacceptable. If South Africans were to come to terms with their bitterly contested past, a commission would need to "hold in tension truth-telling, limited amnesty and reparation". It was on this basis that the commission was established.

According to Boraine, at the heart of the TRC was the belief that the truth matters; that knowing the truth about the past makes a difference to people's lives, and that being able to tell their story makes reconciliation possible. Its victim-centred approach enabled thousands of the previously voiceless and powerless across the country, many in remote rural areas, to be heard. Moreover, although listening to victims was the first priority, nearly 8,000 perpetrators who applied for amnesty also appeared before the commission, which also turned its attentions to the leading political contestants and the civil institutions of apartheid. And although it has been criticised for obscuring the daily humiliations and injustices of apartheid in its search for the individual agents of torture and killing, the public hearings of representatives of business, labour, the health and legal professions, the media and prisons constituted a real effort to set the stories of "horror, of pathos and of tragic proportion" in their wider context.

Boraine has also given us a remarkably frank account of the politics of the commission and the tensions between the commissioners, tensions that inevitably reflected the "ghastly heritage" of a still racialised society.

Politics and religion were further sources of tension. In retrospect, Boraine wonders whether its powerful Protestant symbolism may have left some people out, as "(Desmond) Tutu never hesitated to exercise his role as a church leader and committed Christian". In fact, the opposite would seem to be the case. Not only did the ritual and symbolism of the proceedings speak to the experience of the very large number of South Africans who still identify themselves as Christian but, as Richard Wilson has noted, "the close association between human rights and religious doctrine remains one of the best explanations for the TRC's ability to convert many to its cause of reconciliation".

Among those who were not so converted, however, were some of the leading players in South Africa's political life: P. W. Botha, minister of defence and then premier and state president in the 1970s, who refused to cooperate in any way with the TRC; Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and the last apartheid president, F. W. de Klerk, all of whom expressed their scepticism of the commission and denied their involvement in human rights abuses. In the end, even the African National Congress was to contest its findings. Boraine's accounts are among the most lively in the volume.

The truth told before the TRC has, of course, been only part of the truth, and reconciliation is even less complete, whether between black and white or between resisters and collaborators within the black communities, as Boraine acknowledges. For many, retribution remains more powerful than reconciliation. Boraine is somewhat more reticent on the commission's lack of impact on whites, especially on Afrikaners, many of whom seemed to share the perception of their leaders that they had done nothing wrong and were being scapegoated. Yet, as Boraine says, the end of the TRC does not mean that "the search (for truth) has ended" nor that the search for reconciliation is anything more than the first step in a long process.

Boraine has written a thoughtful, judicious and compassionate account that will grip all those interested in human rights. While he is not the first to analyse the hearings and show their powerful impact on the commissioners, his personal observations on the politics of the TRC are valuable historical documents in their own right. As he himself admits, however, A Country Unmasked is inevitably "only a fragment of the overall experience", which will need to be "weighed up in the context of wider accounts that others have offered and accounts yet to be written". For all its sensitivity, this is still the authorised version. The story from below, from both victims and perpetrators as they return to their own communities to live their still fractured and traumatised lives, remains to be told.

Shula Marks is emeritus professor of the history of southern Africa, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

A Country Unmasked: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Author - Alex Boraine
ISBN - 0 19 571805 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 466

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