Summary of "Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation?"

Summary of

Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation?

By James L. Gibson

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: James L. Gibson. Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation? New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004.

Overcoming Apartheid is an important book for anyone interested in South Africa's emerging democracy and transitional societies in general. It presents the results of the largest representative survey of individuals in South Africa, or any country that has sought to examine a legacy of human rights abuses, up to the present. Skeptics of public opinion will likely raise questions of the validity of the conclusions, but this represents a significant body of evidence for a transitional justice literature that often has gone little beyond the anecdotal. Gibson clearly wants to address this as, early on, he asserts that "truth and reconciliation are concepts that can be and should be measured and assessed using rigorous and systematic social science methods." (3) At the same time, as Gibson rightly points out, his micro-level analysis is insufficient on its own, but needs to be complemented by macro-level work.

Gibson's analysis finds that the truth and reconciliation process has had mixed results thus far. He identifies a number of indicators to gauge how South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has influenced the South African public. On balance, he concludes that the truth and reconciliation process has significantly aided the process of reconciliation and democratization in South Africa. Gibson concludes by contemplating the lessons South Africa's experience provides for other countries contemplating formally examining a legacy of human rights abuses.

Ultimately, his interest is to contribute to ideas surrounding the process of democratization. He outlines the relationship as Amnesty Truth and Reconciliation Democratization and in this work examines the middle relationship. He argues that although often treated as an attribute of collectives, reconciliation is, at its root, an individual attribute. He separates four (non-exhaustive) dimensions of reconciliation: interracial reconciliation, tolerance, support for human rights, and legitimacy of political institutions.

Most South Africans feel ambivalent about the TRC. Sixty percent of Blacks and 75% of other races believe examining the past will reopen old wounds and all groups are evenly divided on whether their children should learn about past atrocities. At the same time, nearly half of Blacks rate "finding the truth about the past" to be very important, but only 11% Whites, 33% Coloured, and 37% Indian agree. [1]

The book considers whether citizens have accepted the collective history produced by the TRC and whether the history produced has contributed to a common understanding about the past. He finds little substantive difference among races in their acceptance of the truth (except for apartheid as a crime against humanity). At the same time, 66% of Blacks have confidence in the TRC, but only 20% Whites and 33% Indians and Coloureds did. These findings suggest that for all races but Blacks, the TRC did contribute to greater acceptance of the truth, but Blacks appear to have perhaps misunderstood the TRC's lessons. Gibson concludes that the TRC does appear to have moderated Black and White views on apartheid bringing them closer together, which is important for reconciliation.

From there, the book examines whether interracial reconciliation has taken place, focusing on the contact hypothesis. Gibson finds that a majority of South Africans of every race lack inter-racial understanding. Interracial trust is also not very high. On balance, only Blacks hold negative views toward the opposite racial groups, although there are important language and ethnicity differences within each racial group. He suggests that, given the nature of the past, the main way in which the TRC could change attitudes is through creating cognitive dissonance by raising questions about the goodness and morality of their own cause.

His next step is to determine whether the TRC has helped to construct a human rights culture. As a proxy, the survey explores the degree of support for the rule of law. He finds it not very widespread amongst South Africans. At the same time, there are significant racial differences in commitment to human rights. It is troubling that there appears to be little change in support for the rule of law between 1996, when a prior survey was conducted, and 2001.

He argues that the growth of tolerance is another important sign of reconciliation. He finds that racial polarization and out-group antipathy exists. Different races have very different feelings about Afrikaners, the ANC (African National Congress), and the Democratic Party, for example. The IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) and PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) are disliked regardless of race. Compared to the 1996 survey, there has generally been a shift in animosity from major groups to more marginal ones that are not viewed as threatening. Political antipathy is even more racially polarized than five years earlier. Political tolerance is rare in South Africa, as most would favor placing political restrictions on groups they dislike. He uses the data to examine social identity theory, which he finds is not entirely supported. He finds firm group and national identities are not antithetical. Also, identity in and of itself does not produce antipathy toward other groups.

Next, Gibson examines South Africans' reaction to amnesty. He finds that other aspects of the amnesty process made up for the injustice of it being granted. Distributive justice followed by procedural justice receives the greatest support. South Africans generally are not opposed to amnesty, but this does not mean it is seen as fair.

Finally, he examines whether truth-seeking has helped in building legitimacy for the political institutions of the New South Africa, namely Parliament and the Constitutional Court. He finds neither to have widespread or cross-racial legitimacy.

Overall, the lesson he concludes for the world is that significant progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go. "It is the moderating truth of the truth and reconciliation process that I believe has contributed to reconciliation...." (330) It is clearly not inevitable that truth lead to reconciliation. Truth must be constructed in particular ways. "Other truth processes have most likely foundered on their inability to generate compensatory forms of justice capable of mollifying citizens and getting them to accept the injustices forced on them by the transitional process." (337)

[1] Racial labels have a long, complicated history in the South African context. Whites are those of European descent, although within this group it is significant to distinguish between descendents of British settlers from those of the earlier Dutch colonizers, the Afrikaners. The term Coloured refers to various people of mixed Bantu, Khoisan, and European descent (with some Malay or Indian ancestry, especially in the Western Cape) together with some racially 'pure' Khoisans. Indians are descendents of laborers brought from the Indian sub-continent in the British colonial period. Finally, Blacks, sometimes also refered to here as Africans, are those of African descent. In the apartheid era, four main racial groups; Blacks, Whites, Coloureds, and Indians; were identified in law.