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World: Analysis From Washington -- Truth And Reconciliation

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 19 November 1999 (RFL/RL) -- Many people in post-communist countries who are struggling to find some means of overcoming their pasts have considered South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a possible model.

But a new study suggests that the TRC established by former President Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress often has not served either truth or reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. Instead, the record of this quasi-judicial body in which so many had placed so much hope has had the effect of highlighting the enormous difficulties countries almost inevitably have in confronting and then overcoming the more problematic periods of their pasts.

In a work entitled "The Truth about the Truth Commission," historian Anthea Jeffrey commends the TRC for calling attention to the atrocities committed by the apartheid government and giving the victims of this system the chance to tell their stories.

But the distinguished South African historian is sharply critical of an institution that was supposed to bring that country together because of the way it conducted its work, the manner in which it redefined truth, and the limitations that larger political calculations appear to have imposed.

Jeffrey notes that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission received data from 21,300 victims, only 10 percent of whom testified under oath and none of whom were subject to cross examination. And she points out that its conclusions on some issues often pointedly ignored large parts of the historical record.

An even more serious shortcoming, according to Jeffrey, is that the TRC repeatedly tried to dismiss the findings of other courts, even when these appeared to have been based on a more careful reading of the evidence but whose conclusions were inconsistent with the views of the African National Congress majority on the TRC.

As a result, many of the TRC's conclusions are likely to be challenged successfully in court, a prospect that will limit not only its legal impact but its influence on all South Africans in the future.

Even worse, according to Jeffrey who made her reputation with a study of the conflict in South Africa's Natal province, the TRC played games with the facts. Not satisfied with what it called "factual and objective" truth, the TRC said that there were three other kinds of truth.

According to some of its more radical members, there is "social or dialogue truth," something to be established "through interaction, discussion, and debate." There is "narrative truth," which includes "perceptions, stories, and myths.

And finally, the TRC insisted, there is "healing truth," something "that places the facts and what they mean within the context of human relationships" and the kind of truth which the TRC said was "central" to its activities.

But because it has sought so many "truths," Jeffrey suggests, the TRC has not been able to establish truth at all -- at least for those who need it most, the people of South Africa.

And perhaps most disturbing of all, Jeffrey concludes, are the obvious if unacknowledged political deals that have led the TRC to focus on the minor characters in the apartheid drama rather than on the senior people who gave them their orders.

Such deals, as Jeffrey herself acknowledges, were almost certainly necessary for the peaceful transition of power from the white supremacist government to the ANC with its black majority.

After all, what white South African official would have been willing to yield power if he really believed that he would face trial, imprisonment or worse. But as a result, most South Africans today can have little confidence that the TRC has really dealt with the crimes of the past.

On the one hand, as citizens of post-communist countries know especially well, the TRC has done no worse than many of them in facing up to the crimes of the past. No country finds this easy, especially when the authors of those crimes are still very much on the scene and must be accommodated lest they cause further trouble.

On the other, and again as post-communist citizenries understand, failure to deal with the past honestly and openly may buy some temporary political accord and advantage. But as Jeffrey makes clear in the case of the TRC and South Africa, such benefits are likely to prove shortlived.

Indeed, her analysis suggests that even if the TRC is not a model for others, it and the backing it received from Mandela are a reminder of the need for all societies which have escaped from oppression to deal with their pasts quickly and openly lest their history continue to haunt them in the future.