Truth and Reconciliation: The Confessional Mode in South African Literature

By Verdoolaege, Annelies | African Studies Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Truth and Reconciliation: The Confessional Mode in South African Literature


Verdoolaege, Annelies, African Studies Review


Susan Van Zanten Gallagher. Truth and Reconciliation: The Confessional Mode in South African Literature. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2002. 212 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $64.95. Cloth.

The author of this book starts from the premise that confessing is a typical aspect of Western postmodern society, then illustrates the premise by taking South Africa as a case study. More specifically, her aim is to demonstrate that the confessional mode has always been and is still dominant in South African literature. The idea of paying attention to confessional discourse in South Africa was clearly inspired by the current interest in the South African truth and reconciliation process, since Gallagher considers the language used at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings as a prototypical form of the confessional mode.

The book is subdivided into three parts, the first dealing with confession in general, the second with apartheid, and the last with the postapartheid era.

In the opening chapter the author offers a genealogy of confession. She discusses the history of confessing and the distinction between religious and judicial confession. She also gives a broad definition of the confessional mode, in which testifying about certain events, the construction of the self, and the link with the community are central features. The second chapter is a rather theoretical discussion of the thoughts of Foucault and Bakhtin, both of whom were interested in confession, either in relation to truth and power, or in relation to the community.

Part 2 examines the confessional mode under apartheid in three chapters. Gallagher argues that the most prominent form of confessional discourse in this period was coerced judicial confession. She also discusses the antiapartheid confessional discourses of the church and in literature. The second and the third chapters of this part deal with the confessional literature of exiles and prisoners, providing specific examples. It was crucial for both groups to write confessional autobiographies in order to construct a self and explore their own identity.

In the third part of the book we turn to the postapartheid era. Central questions now revolve around the establishment of a new South African identity and the achievement of reconciliation. …

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