Magazine article Monthly Review

Between Nuremburg and Amnesia: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa

Magazine article Monthly Review

Between Nuremburg and Amnesia: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa

Article excerpt

The conscious crafting of an honest history by a state commission is a rare enough event to justify our calling your attention to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But this writing of history is incomplete, in the same degree as the process of change in South Africa. Certain brute facts are ignored and avoided, and this avoidance was the condition of the bargain accepted by the ANC. As per South Africa's Freedom Charter, now it can in some meaningful sense be said that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white." But what belongs to whom is the question left unaddressed as the very condition of the transition negotiations, transferring its tension into all aspects of that transition, not least any permitted debate over present remedies for a history of injustice.

The amnesty provisions of the Constitutional compromise are also the source of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As Beth Lyons asks, was amnesty too high a political price to pay to gain the possibility of a transition to majority rule while averting civil war? When considering this fascinating and hotly debated topic, do not forget the forbidden question that gives it force. Was placing the preexisting structure of ownership and economic control beyond the bounds of permitted question too high a price to pay? The displacement of the (prohibited) second question into the (permitted)first question is the secret of the process on which we focus. - The Editors

A neutral process and an unneutral past

It is clear that a new South Africa will have to deal with its history in the transition away from apartheid. But, how South Africa will undertake this challenge, whether it can transform it into an active, integral component of building a new society, is of paramount significance. In a uniquely transparent process, a quest for truth aimed at the goal of national unity and reconciliation, is being publicly conducted. Whether and how the truths of the past can be forged into a common history that can serve to reconcile a divided county and reconstruct a new society is an open question. The workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), charged with this task, are therefore of uncommon interest.

The TRC evolved out of the negotiated settlement. Official negotiations, in which the ANC and National Party were the dominant players, commenced in December 1991 with twenty-six partners. At the time of establishing the Transitional Executive Council in September 1993, seven months prior to the 1994 elections, nineteen remained. After the ANC's electoral victory in 1994, it was noted that the ANC "has taken formal control of the state, but the transition itself still remains hostage to the vicissitudes of the old order." The cohesion and strength of the right wing and state military and security forces was a major factor that informed choices at the negotiating table. A result of these deliberations was an Interim Constitution (1993) in which the Post-amble of National Unity and Reconciliation provides for the granting of amnesty to advance reconciliation and reconstruction, and for its legislative implementation.

The negotiated settlement has been an unsettled issue. Four years ago, at an early and important International Conference held in support of the ANC in Johannesburg, Jacob Zuma, then Deputy Secretary General, made the first presentation on the transition to democracy. He was sharply questioned by a critic in the audience of activists from international support movements: Didn't the ANC sell out in negotiations? He responded that the colonialists are "part of us and part of the solution ... Unlike [situations] where they 'pack their bags and go home' to the mother country, they live here ... South Africa is the mother country."

Zuma's response affixed the basic tenet of the Freedom Charter contained in its Preamble "... that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people . …

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