The South African Truth Commission
by Kenneth Christie
Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Christie, Kenneth. The South African Truth Commission. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
In this book, Christie uses primarily interviews with political leaders, observers, and those that came before the commission to explore the (re)construction of memory as manifested in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He does so by examining the negotiations that led to the Government of National Unity and produced a poor foundation for a transitional society that intended to address its past. Given the competing views of the past and the future amongst groups in South Africa, it is remarkable how successful the transition has been. It is truly a remarkable experiment in the sense that Christie describes it as an attempt to create social fabric where it had never existed prior. He concludes that two things the TRC has done really well are to have brought the details of the past to light making denial difficult and to provide some relief for victims.
South Africa's transition took place in an international context of growing isolation. The United Nations had been condemning apartheid for decades and the fall of the Berlin Wall made the regime seem even more of an anachronism. The TRC represented a compromise between conducting Nuremberg-type trials and doing nothing about past human rights abuses. At the time of the transition, many feared a civil war so it seemed a prudent option. After Mandela's release, events led quickly to negotiations between different parties on South Africa's future that were conducted with an explosion of political violence as a backdrop. Christie focuses particular attention on discussions of what sort of amnesty should be established for crimes of the past. Debates were waged as to whether ANC members should need to apply given they were fighting against an unjust system, whether the amnesty produced more information than would otherwise have been uncovered, and whether it was necessary for a peaceful transition. What emerged was a unique compromise in which the granting of amnesty was put in the hands of the TRC and was offered on an individual basis to who provided a full confession and could demonstrate a political intent in their actions. There is little consensus amongst those interviewed, however, as to its consequences. On the question of producing new information at least, Christie concludes the amnesty process has been beneficial.
Christie then turns to consider whether the TRC process has facilitated reconciliation. He first explores the different understandings of what reconciliation and what it entails within South African society. There is little agreement as to whether reconciliation requires forgiveness or sacrificing justice. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Freedom Front, a right wing Afrikaaner group, see reconciliation talk as a cover for the ANC version of history becoming entrenched. He also points out the challenges of reparations and contemporary economic inequality to achieving reconciliation. Particularly with respect to the former, Christie discusses the varied proposals and the potential trade-off of dealing with contemporary issues. The delicate issue of whether an apology is necessary along with issues of the degree to which it is forced is also explored. One of the most difficult obstacles is the attitudes of whites. Most deny knowledge of what the apartheid government did in their name. Also challenging for the New South Africa is reconciliation between ANC and the IFP in Kwa-Zulu Natal where violence between supporters of the two groups has a long history.