Summary of "The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State"

Summary of

The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State

by Richard A. Wilson

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Richard A. Wilson. The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Wilson provides a fascinating account of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). While in part justified as a component of the state-building [nationbuilding] process, he examines how this goal contradicted the aim of promoting a culture of human rights. The growth of human rights discourse has made it unacceptable to build a nation based on race, ethnicity, language or religion. Rather, it must be based on a community of equal, rights-bearing individuals. In short, something had to give. As Wilson argues, "constitutionalism, state-building and the creation of what is a (sic) termed a 'culture of human rights' cannot be separated so easily from classic, communitarian forms of nation-building. Instead, human rights were subjected to the imperatives of nation-building and state formation in the 'New South Africa'." (3)

"The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1995-2001) was the archetypal transitional statutory body created to promote a 'culture of human rights' in South Africa. It was a key mechanism to promote the new constitutionalist political order and the reformulation of justice in human rights talk as restorative justice." (13) The TRC was about building a new collective memory where "[b]eing authentically South African comes to mean sharing the traumas of apartheid and uniting in the subsequent process of 'healing the nation'." (14) The nation is analogized to the human body thereby bringing individuals into the collective cleansing. He argues that because the truth commission substituted for prosecution, by granting amnesty, the resulting impunity actually leads to the subversion of the rule of law.

The book spends considerable time analyzing the day-to-day operations of the TRC. Limitations came from both external and internal sources. Its mandate, and the interpretation of it, resulted in what some considered a less than comprehensive overview of crimes of the past. Internally, Wilson discusses how there was much debate amongst Commissioners about what their purposes was, legal or moral-cathartic, and consequently what the 'truth' was they were trying to construct. He goes on to chronicle how this shifting notion of the truth being sought resulted in changing practice throughout the TRC's operation. What is more, he argues, 'Infocomm', the commission's database, came to direct the truth produced by shaping the questions asked and how narrative responses were recorded.

The needs of the nation-building process led to the substitution of a morality tale for a more rigorous analysis of the past. Keeping the nation unified required concluding that crimes committed as part of government repression and violent resistance were morally equivalent. Wilson analyzes this tension with specific focus on how the TRC dealt with accusations that the government sponsored violence during the transition period of 1990-4. While providing strong evidence that such a "Third Force," a government-sponsored paramility group existed, the TRC stopped short of concluding so in the Report. Wilson asserts that the commission failed to pursue leads that might have more definitively answered whether a Third Force existed. The TRC, he reasons, rejected concluding the Third Force existed because they sought a sharp break between human rights abuses in 1980s and 1990s, which did not exist. In the interest of nation-building, "[i]f the violence of the past could be ascribed to wrong beliefs, not individuals or organizations, then anyone could change their beliefs, reinvent themselves as 'politically tolerant' and become part of the new South Africa." (74)

The commission also took an odd position in determining amnesty. In its mandate, the TRC was granted the authority to grant amnesty for 'full' confessions for political crimes. However, because the nature of racism was contrary to human rights rhetoric yet an important historical political factor, the TRC ended up taking an inconsistent approach to race crimes. The TRC came to use membership in political organization to determine political motivation. Yet, this led it to conclude that if the party/organization denied being racist, racism could not be a political motivation in an individual's behavior. In general, "if amnesty applications appealed to the ideals of nation-building and national reconciliation, they stood a much better chance of success than those that failed to articulate the new language of human rights." (92)

Compared to past truth commissions, South Africa took the reconciliation rhetoric to a whole new level. Yet, Wilson asserts, "[r]econciliation was the Trojan horse used to" foregoe retributive justice in the interest of nation-building (97). In fact, reconciliation talk created "a moral imperative which portrays retributive justice as blood-lust and 'wild justice' and as an affront to democratization and the new consittutional order." (97) Wilson sees reconciliation as an individual level process. Therefore, because any dispute resolution function of the TRC had at best secondary status, it could not achieve reconciliation. Part of what made the commission ascue its reconciliation function is that the diverse political traditions represented in the TRC made it difficult to agree to a common definition of reconciliation. Considerable attention is spent dissecting the various reconciliation narratives present throughout the life of the TRC. The religious-redemptive narrative often proved dominant and it resulted in such illiberal practices as putting persistent pressure on victims to forgive perpetrators.

The book spends considerable time examining how this religious-redemptive model was received in the townships, around Johannesburg in particular where Wilson conducted fieldwork in Sharpeville and Boipathong. The often overtly religious tone of the TRC had implications for how individuals responded to it. But, people often had more practical reasons for coming forward, whether for the prospects of reparations or frequently to fill the "need of victims to clear their name, [as some had been accused of collaboration with the apartheid government] and to use a public forum to do so, rather than from a deep commitment to reconciliation and nation-building." (142) The 'Reconciliation through Truth' rarely prompted victims and perpetrators to actually come together. Rather, it seems likely the "message was never likely to achieve more than the restoration of social relationships between victims, where suspicion and stigma had been wrongfully attached to one person or family." (153)

In his fieldwork, Wilson finds the strong desire for revenge persists in South Africa despite the efforts of the TRC. "[T]he TRC's version of human rights as reconciliation did little to challenge the prevalence of revenge in the townships because it could not meaningfully engage with a punitive view of justice." (161) He examines the divergent paths of retributive justice in the neighboring townships of Sharpeville and Boipathong. Despite the rhetoric from political leaders and the press that widely condemns retribution, he finds this inconsistent with feelings amongst much of the public especially as crime continues to be a highly salient issue. "This institution [the TRC] is widely praside abroad and in international conferences on post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation around the globe, while being largely peripheral to the lives of those living in townships wracked by revenge killings." (187) Wilson provides background on the history of local judicial systems and their relative capacity to deal with disputes. These local justice institutions often ended up carrying out many objectives of the TRC by providing conflict resolution.

A number of broader lessons emerge from the analysis. Wilson is pessimistic of efforts to make truth commissions more like legal institutions - this should be left to courts. It is damaging for truth commissions to equate human rights with reconciliation and amnesty for this equation delegitimates popular understandings of justice. This frequently reinforces the impression that human rights talk is more about compromise than justice. There needs to be more realistic expectations of what truth commissions can be expected to achieve. The TRC was asked to do too much too quickly with too little resources. In the end, "[t]he TRC was not particularly effective in creating a new culture of human rights or greater respect for the rule of law." (227) It should not, however, be blamed for something it lacked the capacity to do. "What they [truth commissions] can achieve well, if carefully designed, is a sophisticated historical account of a violent past which integrates a structural analysis with the consciousness of those who lived through it. The rest should either be left to justice institutions, or to non-governmental organizations of civil society with expertise in mediation." (228)