Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Establishing the Truth about the Apartheid Past: Historians and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Establishing the Truth about the Apartheid Past: Historians and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Article excerpt

Abstract: The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was mandated to establish "the truth" about the causes, nature and extent of gross violations of human rights in the country between 1960 and 1994. This article assesses the significance of the TRC for historians and the writing of history in South Africa. There is no doubt that the TRC had shortcomings. Its coverage of human rights violations was uneven. Those who testified at public hearings did not constitute a representative sample of the South African population. The truthfulness of their subjective testimonies was not properly verified. A discursive framework, reinforcing the TRC discourse of reconciliation, was imposed on participants. Because the socio-economic context of human rights violations was neglected, analysis of causation was shallow. The way in which the outcomes of the TRC have been handled by the government seems to endorse Derrida's suggestion that it might become an exercise in forgetting. Despite these shortcomings, the significant contributions of the TRC towards producing a new archive of previously repressed histories, from which a fuller truth about the past could emerge, cannot be denied. Particularly important was the re-enactment of past events by victims and perpetrators of human rights violations at the much-publicised public hearings of the TRC, which helped to democratise memory and give history a public face. Interest in the value of history to address current problems was revived. It is the main objective of this article to reflect upon the tasks of historians after the TRC. Historians are committed to the never ending debate of history and not to the type of closure sought by priests and politicians. They have an important task to attend to the unfinished business of the TRC and to resist denial or erasure. Through the critical study, interpretation, and narration of the facts from the TRC archive, historians have to establish what really happened and why it happened, thus rendering a service to science and the nation.


History was at the core of the TRC process. A central task of the TRC was to uncover the truth about the apartheid past, although its final report states that its purpose was not to write the history of the country. Yet questions about history were raised as a result of the work of the TRC. Is history's function simply to reveal the facts and leave it for others to judge? Are the facts of a contested past intrinsically knowable, when they seem concealed forever behind a veil of language and discourse which proves impenetrable to simplistic notions of the truth? Is history, particularly when it relates to traumatic situations, primarily a form of moral rhetoric which can aid a society in dealing with guilt and blame? What is history's relationship in general with the phenomenon of public memory and the memorialization of the past? (1) In their grappling with the significance of the TRC, historians have been putting forward a variety of ideas about such questions. These ideas are analysed below in an attempt to identify the main tasks of historians in the TRC aftermath.


The South African democracy, born in 1994, succeeded nearly half a century of institutionalised racial discrimination and oppression under the apartheid system. How to deal with the past, and particularly the atrocities of the apartheid era, was one of the major issues that confronted the new government. (2) The negotiating parties, on the eve of the April 1994 election, opted for a truth commission to investigate human rights violations and make recommendations on how to deal with such violations. In 1995, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established.

One of the major tasks of the TRC in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (Act no. 34 of 1995) was "to establish the truth in relation to past events" and to provide as "complete a picture as possible" about these events. …

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