Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Reconciling South Africa or South Africans? Cautionary Notes from the TRC

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Reconciling South Africa or South Africans? Cautionary Notes from the TRC

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article argues that the question "Are South Africans reconciled?" is meaningless unless the sense in which the questioner is using the word reconciliation is made clear. Such questions do not get us far in understanding the truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) as one's interpretation of the term "reconciliation" will necessarily influence one's evaluation of the TRC's work. It argues that the linking of success with reconciliation, in any case, is problematic for two reasons: first, many people tend to confuse "aspiration with empiricism," and, second, the conflation of truth with reconciliation obscures the many contributions, besides reconciliation, that truth commissions make to society. Finally, it explicates the multiple meanings of the concept of reconciliation, and offers two models of reconciliation in South Africa, Individual Reconciliation (IR), and National Unity and Reconciliation (NUR). It then assesses how these models were manifested in the TRC, especially through its final report. It concludes with examining the implications and consequences of the fact that there are multiple meanings of the word for how the TRC has been, and should be, evaluated.

INTRODUCTION

"How successful was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?" Antjie Krog, a journalist, claims in her memoir Country of My Skull, that this is the question she is most often asked. More specifically, she notes, "the biggest question is whether or not the TRC process achieved reconciliation." (1) Indeed, the question of whether truth seeking in South Africa resulted in reconciliation is one of the most poignant questions that has emerged from the seven years of work of the world's most prominent truth-telling mechanism: the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (hereafter called the TRC). (2) Even before its work concluded, South Africans, journalists from around the world, architects of potentially similar truth-telling mechanisms in other countries, and scholars of transitional justice began asking variations of the assessment question: Was the TRC a success? What did it achieve? And, most frequently: Are South Africans reconciled? While these questions are natural and to be expected, and indeed extremely important, they are rather easy to ask but somewhat more difficult to answer.

This article addresses two aspects of the linkage of the TRC's success with the concept of "reconciliation." While evaluation of the contributions of truth commissions in general, including the South African commission, is clearly necessary, the (over)emphasis of doing so by linking success with reconciliation is problematic. First, the article highlights some pitfalls of this linkage. Second, it explicates the multiple meanings of the concept of reconciliation, and assesses how these meanings were manifested in the TRC, especially through its final report, followed by an evaluation of the implications and consequences of the fact that there are multiple meanings of the word that is widely seen as the basis on which the TRC has been and will be evaluated. This article outlines an analytical framework which, hopefully, provides a degree of conceptual clarification which will allow scholars and others to move away from making large, overarching claims that the TRC was (or was not) successful because people in South Africa are (or are not) reconciled. The underlying assumption in this article is that it is not particularly helpful to begin the process of evaluation by asking whether the TRC effected reconciliation because the answers are more complicated than the simplicity of the question suggests, and because such questions do not get us far in understanding the TRC as one's interpretation of the term "reconciliation" will necessarily influence one's evaluation of the TRC's work.

PROBLEMS WITH THE ASSESSMENT QUESTION

Figuring out how to ask and answer assessment questions in a meaningful and productive way is arguably one of the most important tasks that practitioners and scholars of transitional justice can take on. …

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