Summary of "Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa"

Summary of

Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa

By Charles Villa-Vicencio and Wilhelm Verwoerd, eds.

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Villa-Vicencio, Charles, and Wilhelm Verwoerd, eds. 2000. Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. London: Zed Books.

The chapters in this collection provide a wide-ranging debate of reactions to South Africa's truth and reconciliation process. One will find little agreement here on an assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) nor the best way forward for South Africa. The range of viewpoints thus provides a good overview of transitional justice issues and can serve as an effective teaching tool. Participants come from inside South Africa and the international community, participants and observers of the TRC, perpetrators and victims.

The first section of the book provides historical background on the conflict and the origins of the TRC. Dumisa Ntsebeza puts the TRC in the context of the global struggle for human rights since World War II. Johnny de Lange puts the TRC in the context of the end of the Cold War and South African history more particularly. He describes the political, legal, and philosophical environment in which the TRC was born. Although seeking the truth has been important, he argues that economic justice also needs to be addressed. Priscilla Hayner cautions against foreigners' relatively uncritical embrace of the TRC model. She argues that it is necessary to reflect more carefully on what aspects of the TRC might be suitable for other contexts. Paul van Zyl warns against too much of a focus on prosecution, which many see international law as increasingly specifying. There may, in fact, be important reasons to pursue alternative means of combating impunity. In his mind, prosecution should be foregone if it would put the transition at risk or if it is impractical to pursue more than a small minority of the perpetrators.

The book's second part explores the moral and philosophical justification for the TRC. Rajeev Bhargava provides a three-point moral justification for truth commissions. Truth commissions can help restore a minimally decent society in conditions of symmetric barbarism. While they cannot produce reconciliation on their own, Bhargava argues that truth commissions can help produce the conditions for this by facilitating collective responsibility. Given that rates of recidivism suggest that prosecution is not an effective deterrent, Charles Villa-Vicencio focuses on restoring relationships as a means of preventing a recurrence of human rights abuses. He stakes out a theory of restorative justice that entails acknowledgment, reparation, and reconciliation. Mary Burton describes the constraints of the TRC's mandate in achieving moral ends. She pays particular attention to the amnesty provision including defining 'gross violations of human rights' and 'just means'. Asmal, Asmal, and Roberts criticize the TRC for taking a rather narrow view of its mandate and not being more forceful in its condemnation of apartheid. The most important cause of this shortcoming is the TRC treatment of the acts of the apartheid government and the resistance as being equivalent. Hugh Corder sees the court challenges against the TRC as a positive in the sense that it demonstrates a commitment to conform to the rule of law. Colleen Scott emphasizes the TRC's role in challenging myths about the past and constructing a shared reality. Ebrahim Moosa compares the TRC hearings to the Eucharist. Piet Meiring takes up the controversial issue of the overtly religious nature of the TRC, something that Meiring argues fits the very religious nature of South African society and helped the TRC achieve desirable goals.

The third section explores what the TRC sought to accomplish. Janet Cherry points to a very basic goal, namely to clarify history. The TRC was meant in part to uncover the details of past crimes and more directly to discern the whereabouts of victims. She cautions, however, that the goal of producing an all-encompassing truth will obscure the complexities and nuances of truth. Willie Esterhuyse argues that the truth is not enough to produce a transformation unless concrete measures are taken to attempt to rectify the harm done. Wilhelm Verwoerd contends that much of the criticism leveled against the TRC wa, as much as anything, a reflection of the fact that there is little agreement as to what such an institution can be expected to achieve. Yazir Henry and Ginn Fourie reflect on personal experience with the TRC. While a start, reconciliation, Henry suggests, requires individual introspection. Charles Villa-Vicencio takes up this point of the TRC as foundational and outlines further steps needed to realize national reconciliation. In particular, socioeconomic inequality remains an obstacle, a sentiment echoed by Mxolisi Mgxashe. Ronald Slye contemplates the degree to which amnesty contradicted or supported justice. He concludes that while the South African amnesty process improved on past examples, the narrow focus on politicall-motivated acts as eligible for amnesty weakened the moral and legal legitimacy of the process. Richard Lyster addresses the critics who argue that the amnesty eliminated the possibility of victims realizing justice. However, this outcome is as much as anything a result of government inaction on reparations and talk of a blanket amnesty. Wendy Orr discusses the government's slow, minimal response in terms of reparations as being an obstacle to healing. She examines the challenges of operationalizing a reparations project, such as determining eligibility. Nkosinathi Biko summarizes the arguments of the families who challenged the amnesty provision in the South African courts. Don Foster contemplates the definition of perpetrator taken up by the TRC and discusses the consequences of these distinctions for the truth produced. Nomfundo Walaza, too, emphasizes that the TRC represents a start to the healing process, but getting survivors involved in the reparations process is an important need.

In concluding reflections on South Africa's future, obstacles to realizing the 'Rainbow Nation' take center stage. Njongonkulu Ndungane points again to the problem of poverty and inequality in South African society. Sampie Terreblanche discusses the benefits apartheid brought to business, which has yet to truly own up to being a beneficiary of the prior system. Ending on a hopeful note, while not denying the challenges others have outlined, Jakes Gerwel points to the remarkable progress made in South Africa. There is a sense of coexistence that has developed and a significant consensus on the most important ends for society, if not the means to achieve them.