Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission/Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model?

By Verdoolaege, Annelies | African Studies Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview
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Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission/Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model?


Verdoolaege, Annelies, African Studies Review


Deborah Posel and Graeme Simpson, eds. Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2002. Notes. Index. 256 pp. No price reported. Paper.

Lyn S. Graybill. Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model? Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2002. 231 pp. Chronology. Glossary. Acronyms. Bibliography. Index. $49.95. Cloth. $19.95. Paper.

Since coming into existence in 1995, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has given rise to a large number of publications. Consequently, it has become more and more difficult to say anything new about it. Understandably, then, these two publications do not really provide much new information. In any case, Commissioning the Past is based on papers given at a 1999 conference aimed at evaluating the TRC; the ideas expressed at this conference might have been innovative at that time, but they are not anymore. Nevertheless, although occasionally repetitive, the essays in this collection do offer a fresh approach to the TRC, first because the authors look at the commission from the point of view of individuals, and second because they clearly emphasize the personal aspects of the process as well.

The book consists of eleven chapters by a variety of authors. After a critical introduction about the "truth" aspect of the commission, part 1 contains three essays that give insider accounts of the TRC. All three are fairly negative about the problems encountered in its daily activities. There was a conflict between the "historical analysis" approach of the TRC Research Department and the positivist approach of the lawyers; the time pressure for the researchers was too tight and the TRC report failed to cover the atrocities committed outside South Africa or in the rural areas; the decisions made by the Amnesty Committee were often inconsistent and contradictory and even the in-depth investigations of the Investigation Unit did not dig deep enough; the stories of the victims were standardized and reframed in too positivist a way; and there was not enough cooperation between the different committees. The authors of these pieces are very harsh in their criticism, but they agree that, in spite of everything, the TRC was a great achievement with many positive features.

The second part of the book is devoted to the stories of three victims. The authors of these chapters quote at length from the victims' testimonies and discuss the expectations and perceptions of the victims about the TRC process. The victims in question are rather disappointed about the TRC because it brought neither the truth nor the justice they had desired. In part 3 of the collection, four outsider assessments are presented. The first three are rather negative, claiming that the TRC did not really explain apartheid, that it did not pay attention to the social aspects of the past conflict, and that it was not effective on a personal and local level. The book ends, however, with a positive contribution about the TRC process. Emphasizing the advantages of restorative justice, the author argues that a truth commission is a good way of dealing with the past in a period of transition.

All of the chapters in this book are individual reflections on the TRC process, mostly by people who were directly involved. Thus, although the collection does not offer a lot of new insights into the TRC, the concrete case studies and testimonies from TRC participants do reframe existing knowledge in a more personal and less theoretical way. If most of the articles are critical, the reader nonetheless comes to the end of the book admiring the TRC process, even while acknowledging its shortcomings.

Lyn Graybill does not give us substantial new information about the TRC either. Instead, she provides a comprehensive overview of the available knowledge about the commission.

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