Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links


Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind

Site Web


Trading Truth for Justice?

Reflections on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Susie Linfield

"Let us dream with alert reason." --Christa Wolf (five days before the fall of the Berlin Wall)

"Justice has been the preoccupation of revolutionaries. It is also the dilemma of revolutionaries." --Mahmood Mamdani, Reconciliation Without Justice

"The [families of the] victims ask the hardest of ... questions: How is it possible that the person I loved so much lit no spark of humanity in you?" --Antjie Krog,Country of My Skull


"Did it work?". This is the question many people asked when they heard I was writing about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The question--and the inchoate suppositions behind and beneath it--began to be of interest on its own. What does it mean for a truth commission--or, for that matter, the truth--to "work"? How do we know when it has worked? Whose work is it meant to do? When, if ever, is that work completed? In short, what is the usefulness (if any) of memory, of history, of truth itself? And if the truth fails, what is the alternative to it?

The TRC was certainly not the first such body; it had been preceded, most notably, by truth commissions in Chile, El Salvador, Argentina, Uganda. But "none have had the impact of the South African one--not for better, not for worse," as lawyer Albie Sachs, a longtime anti-apartheid activist and now a judge on South Africa’s highest court, has noted.1 Established in December 1995 after combative debates, the TRC--with its seventeen commissioners appointed by a recently-elected Nelson Mandela--swept the country for 244 days and, much to its own surprise, received over 21,000 victim statements and more than 7,000 applications for amnesty.2 Since then, a vast and contentious literature--which lauds and lambastes the commission from legal, historical, anthropological, psychoanalytic, philosophical, and political viewpoints--has grown within and outside South Africa.

The TRC has captured international attention for a number of reasons. These include the decades-long, multinational campaign against apartheid; the so-called "miracle" of the South African transition to democracy that transfixed a weary, disillusioned, but not entirely hopeless world in the last decade of the twentieth century; and the commission’s own far-reaching ambitions. South Africa’s was the only such commission that explicitly connected truth with the reconciliation of lifelong enemies. Perhaps more important, and certainly more troubling, it was the only commission that linked truth and exoneration so intimately: the TRC promised amnesty to any individual guilty of "gross violations of human rights" who offered full and truthful disclosure of his acts, and whose offenses were deemed politically motivated. This linkage immediately, inevitably, and indeed furiously raised the immensely thorny question of the relationship between--or, alternately, the severing of--truth and justice.

The TRC’s own report--a five-volume, 3,500-page document released in late 1998--explicitly invites dialogue and criticism. (The commission’s Amnesty Committee continues to hold hearings; many decisions are pending, and it has not yet published its conclusions.) If the widely trumpeted but still fledgling "culture of human rights" does in fact exist, the TRC report surely epitomizes some of its essential features. Unlike most government documents, it is clear about its methods, its political convictions, its conclusions; it combines analysis, reportage, and stark emotion; and it expressly refuses to anoint itself the arbiter of official, definitive, final truth, arguing instead that it is incumbent upon others to search "for the clues that lead, endlessly, to a truth that will, in the very nature of things, never be fully revealed." The report is available, free, to the whole world on the Internet (see With an almost startling modesty, it apologizes to readers for any potential misspellings of proper names (South Africa has eleven official languages, and hearings were conducted in, or translated into, all of them). Whatever misgivings one may have about the TRC, its report is a model of humility, transparency, and respect. It analyzes the barbarities of the past for the very purpose of intervening in the future. It is the praxis of human rights.


Apartheid was a complex, indeed byzantine system. But it rested ultimately on a very simple premise--that white people are inherently superior to blacks--which is to say that it rested on a very simple lie. Though the "post-totalitarian" society Vaclav Havel has described differed in some important ways from apartheid, his analysis of the power of the lie is apt: "Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future…. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing."

When a society is founded on a lie, the truth assumes particular importance. (It is thus not surprising that truth, or its absence, was an obsession of anti-apartheid writers for decades. Nadine Gordimer’s first novel was called, surely not by chance, The Lying Days;its epigraph by Yeats captures the ways in which lying can be a privilege, indeed a joy, and the truth a bitter discipline.3) And when such a political system crumbles, the establishment of a truth commission immediately attains a certain significance; its very existence signals, if not quite the dawning of an entirely new day, certainly a repudiation of the old.

The particularly public style of the TRC--whose hearings were broadcast daily on television and radio, reported on the front page of every newspaper, debated in a variety of public forums and, presumably, in a number of private ones too--has been criticized, indeed mocked (some in the Afrikaner press dubbed the TRC the "Crying and Lying Commission"). And it may be that black suffering became a form of spectacle. But it is also true that the TRC was probing crimes--especially torture--that are particularly private in the most nefarious sense of the word. As Elaine Scarry, Lawrence Weschler, and others have noted, the essence of torture is the reduction of a person--often, even usually, a person whose life is intimately tied to a wider community and to capacious ideals of justice--to a body in pain. Torture is an obscene paring-down, a grotesque diminution, a radical way of isolating its victim--from herself, from her beliefs, from the moral world that gives her sustenance.4"[H]ere lies the dilemma: for those who live for others and for social ideas, the body defeats them with its pain," Kate Millett wrote. "The lesson of torture is … silence." The staunchly public nature of the South African truth commission, which some have found so disturbingly exhibitionistic, may be among its most salient features: a way of restoring--or, more precisely, beginning to restore--the crushed body and damaged soul to the social realm, to the community, to the world of connected voices and shared ideals that the torturer smashed. Thus Mzukisi Mdidimba, who testified before the TRC about the severe beatings he received while held in solitary confinement at the age of fifteen, subsequently observed, "When I have told stories of my life before, afterward I am crying, crying, crying.… This time, … I know [that] what they’ve done to me will … be all over the country. I still have some sort of crying, but also joy inside."


The TRC report insists that the reality of apartheid was complex, multi-layered, and multi-dimensional. But if there is more than one form of truth, surely there are many modes of lying. Amnesia and denial are prime forms of mendacity, and of control. Legal scholar Martha Minow has argued that the effort to destroy memory--which is also, by extension, an attempt to eradicate identity--is the crucial link in the chain of our modern-day horrors, from the Armenian genocide and the Rape of Nanking to the Gulag and apartheid. Yet the battle between knowledge and amnesia is not necessarily new; long before the short, terrible twentieth-century, Goethe’s devil reveled in his power to assassinate memory. Mephisto proclaims:

"There it’s over!"--what does it tell us?
It’s as good as if it never happened . . .
Thus do I love the eternal emptiness.5

Truth commissions are a refusal of this emptiness. But truth and memory, like most things in this world, can be used in different ways, and for different purposes. Journalists who covered the Bosnian war have written of the drowning in mythologized memory that characterizes the Balkan antagonists--their vicious yet narcotized relationship to history, their failure to establish a sane dialogue with the past, their self-imposed imprisonment in unquenchable fantasies of revenge. Conversely, the historian Charles S. Maier has observed how the "memory industry" that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century, particularly in regard to the Holocaust, degenerated into a form of neurasthenia and narcissism. This use of memory is so intimately connected to a diminished belief in the possibility of transformative politics that it substitutes for ideals, for action, for the making of history. The South African experience is fundamentally different from that of Eastern and Western Europe, and it is unlikely that South Africa will self-destruct through either vengeance or impotence. On the contrary, it is more likely to suffer from the TRC’s mandating of an all-too-speedy reconciliation, and its privileging of forgiveness as the highest form of ethical behavior.

Betrayal, too, can be a form of forgetting. The critic Eve Bertelsen has observed that as the African National Congress (ANC) abandons--whether from necessity or choice--its decades-old commitment to socialism6, the language of political struggle has been seized by South African advertisers. A dairy company asks, "Why cry over spilt milk … The past is just that … past." A credit-card company helpfully suggests, "You’ve won your freedom. Now use it." Revlon promises that its products will deliver a "revolutionary" feeling; a competing hair-care company offers "freedom of choice," while a third urges, "Seize the day!" As the familiar words of collective struggle are increasingly linked to the privatized world of consumption, what Bertelsen calls a "selective amnesia" sets in. Lost memories of this kind, however, exist well beyond the reach of truth commissions.


Betrayal of a different sort is among the most difficult, and least discussed, problems that a South Africa struggling for reconciliation and renewal faces. Much of the most-publicized TRC testimony focused, quite rightly, on the criminal--indeed inconceivably sadistic--actions of the white security forces against black activists. But a closer reading of the testimony--and even the most cursory look at the Amnesty Committee hearings (posted and regularly updated on the TRC’s site)--reveals the ugly web of black-against-black violence and collaboration on which apartheid rested. (The large majority of amnesty applications have been filed by blacks who committed crimes against other blacks; most amnesty applicants are already imprisoned.) Two of the state’s major aims--and it had a wide variety of inducements at its disposal, from financial incentives to torture--were to absorb blacks into the security apparatus and to "turn" activists against each other; in both it was terribly successful.

Though apartheid was not genocide and South Africa was not a giant concentration camp, the "gray zone" of collaboration that Primo Levi identified as the greatest evil of the camps operated in South Africa too. Levi observed the terrible, indeed tragic, paradox at the heart of all repressive regimes: where oppression is harshest, collaboration is most widespread. Motivations, Levi noted, include everything from cowardice and servility to ideology and "lucid calculation"; thus are the victims "deprived of even the solace of innocence." Apartheid created its own, particular version of this phenomenon, with its askaris (turncoats), impimpis (spies), and the paranoia and fury (broadcast to the world as "necklacings") they inspired. In the latter years of the regime, the security forces--in a grotesque parody of multi-racialism--were at least partly integrated; as Michael Ignatieff reported, "Black hands were nearly always holding you when the police forced a wet towel over your nose and mouth until you choked and lost consciousness. Black hands were nearly always holding you when the police plunged your head into a bath until you choked and nearly drowned."

It is generally acknowledged that the ANC and other opposition groups were riddled with informers--or, more precisely, activist-informers--of all races. A scene in Country of My Skull, a 1998 account of the TRC written by Afrikaner poet and journalist Antjie Krog, captures the bewildered humiliation, the moral wreckage, of collaboration. Jeffrey Benzien was a police captain who became famous throughout the country for demonstrating to the TRC a particularly effective form of torture he had ingeniously perfected. (To the incredulous question posed at his hearing--"What kind of man are you?"--Benzien fails to offer an illuminating, or even adequate, reply, which is perhaps not surprising: self-awareness may not be his strong suit. Krog reports, though, that Benzien had a nervous breakdown in 1994--the year of Nelson Mandela’s election--and has been in psychological treatment since.) Krog recounts how, at the TRC, Benzien is confronted by--or confronts--several of his victims, including Tony Yengeni, an ANC member who had since been elected to Parliament. But the hearing almost immediately belongs to Benzien who--rather than show repentance--slyly, cruelly reminds his victims of how easily, under his guidance, they cracked. "Benzien is a connoisseur," Krog writes. "Within the first few minutes, he manages to manipulate most of his victims back into the roles of their previous relationship--where he has the power and they the fragility…. Behind Benzien sit the victims of his torture--in a row chained by friendship and betrayal. Yengeni betrayed Jonas; Jonas pointed out people in albums; Peter Jacobs betrayed Forbes; Forbes pointed out caches; Yassir Henry betrayed Anton Fransch. During the tea break, they stand together in the passages with their painful truths of triumph and shame."

To the extent that this story has an ending, it is not an uplifting one. Last year, Benzien received amnesty for his crimes--including the murder of ANC activist Ashley Kriel and the torture of Yengeni, Bongani Jonas, and Ashley Forbes--from the TRC. A leading Johannesburg newspaper reported that Benzien, whom the apartheid government had honored as "best interrogator" in the Western Cape, was currently a captain in the police air wing.


The TRC hearings flooded the country with information, some of which--such as the exact number of hours it takes to barbecue a human body--was perhaps unwanted. But many of the facts--who killed who, and how, and where and when--were desired. Mysteries remain; thousands of murders are unsolved. But corpses were literally (and figuratively) exhumed. Many organizations are forming in South Africa, but as a result of the TRC, an African version of the "mothers of the disappeared" will probably not be among them.

Yet the broad contours of horror that the TRC revealed--the bombings, the assassinations, the tortures, the kidnappings, the mutilations, the necklacings--were widely known by all South Africans (the shocked insistence on innocence by some whites can be met, at best, only with deep skepticism). The hearings did not inform an ignorant country but, rather, transferred awareness from the realm of repression and secrecy to that of expression and debate. Thus do truth commissions, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel has postulated, transform knowledge into acknowledgement.

Or do they?

Acknowledgement does not automatically occur once people reveal their experiences. Acknowledgement is a process--one that requires critical self-consciousness, openness, fluidity, and a capacity for surprise, remorse, guilt, awe, grief, and shame. This is the "working through" of the past that Theodor Adorno urged (so unsuccessfully) on his fellow Germans. It is a process that rejects both amnesia about the past and the grandiose, futile ambition to "master" it, and that requires the assumption not of collective guilt but, rather, of individual responsibility. Such acknowledgement--which clearly is no kin to the showmanship of self-flagellation--is nurtured simultaneously in political and psychic realms; it demands moral and systemic change; it can be accomplished only by individuals, yet only within a collective. "Essentially," Adorno argued, "it is a matter of the way in which the past is called up and made present: whether one stops at sheer reproach, or whether one endures the horror through a certain strength that comprehends even the incomprehensible." Because this process is political, it requires the establishment of an open, truthful public space--of which the TRC is surely an example. Because it is existential, it demands a rigorous self-scrutiny of the soul.

Yet the TRC hearings were almost entirely boycotted by whites, and there is scant evidence that the fortresses of denial were shaken on any widespread basis. Many of the torturers applying for amnesty exhibited not just an absence of remorse, but actual pride in their accomplishments. (Amnesty-seeker Jacques Hechter, a police captain whom journalist David Goodman has described as "a particularly prolific assassin," was not unusual in his boast: "I did a good job…. And I’d do it again…. I’m not really fuckin’ sorry for what I did.") Perhaps most important, by focusing on human-rights violations, which were by their very nature extreme (and, even in South Africa, illegal), the TRC neglected the more banal evils that sustained apartheid--the myriad ways in which everyday life itself was an insult to, indeed a negation of, human rights and human dignity. The hearings may, paradoxically, have thus enabled a majority of whites--who, after all, were not criminals or sadists themselves, merely beneficiaries of a criminal, sadistic system--to wall themselves off from responsibility.

And just as knowledge, even public knowledge, is not necessarily transformed into acknowledgement, so the mere voicing of experience does not, in itself, either enlighten perpetrators or heal their victims. "Witnessing … must be preceded and followed by listening," the anthropologist John Borneman, who has studied societies recovering from systemic violence (especially ethnic cleansing), observes. "To listen … differs from hearing for it always involves listening for…. [T]o listen for truth entails a complex … process that goes beyond documenting experience per se. Listening as a practice, an art, is … not passive but interactive, involving soliciting and questioning, weighing competing accounts, as well as hearing." While such listening is a precondition for fundamental change, it must be purposefully and consciously connected to accountability and justice if a sturdy democracy is to emerge.

If listening is an art, confronting the past is a discipline, one that Jürgen Habermas argues "is as essential and desired as it is wearisome and difficult." Jane Kramer, writing of post-1989 Germany (which is, of course, also post-1945 and post-1933 Germany), went further, calling the process "excruciating" in that it required East and West Germans to connect "the kind of people they thought they were to the people they had been and the people they wanted to be." Antjie Krog states bluntly: "[I]t is almost impossible to acknowledge that the central truth around which your life has been built is a lie." Who among us can confront the brutal fact that the moral narrative of our lives--not just what we do, but who we are--is a fraud, that our goodness was simply obedience, that our normality was perverse, that our respectability was purchased with cowardice? And who among us can confront the fact that this fraudulence, which is closer to a moral fracture than to a moral lapse, has caused unimaginable suffering to others?

And yet perhaps, just perhaps, this undertaking--which in any event cannot really be evaded--is not only a burden but an opportunity too, albeit a terrifying one. The Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach, who spent seven years in prison for anti-apartheid activities, has insisted that South Africa’s liberation movement was always a quest not just for political power, but also for a kind of existential breakthrough. "For me," Breytenbach said recently, "all those years of struggle and exile and activism were part of the process of transformation, of metamorphosis: of creating, or imagining, or constructing a South African identity … of imagining oneself different, of bonding, of going beyond, of transgression, of transcendence."


Yet the question emerges: Did the TRC foster or hinder that transcendence? For the transformative moment on which the TRC was premised--which in its pop-psyche incarnation takes the form of catharsis, and whose religious mode is sin, confession, repentance, and absolution--is essentially false, and mitigates against a profound, relentless working through of the past. The transformative moment--precisely because it is a moment, albeit sometimes a drawn-out one--mistakes a one-time event for a process. It evades the hard work of constructing meaning out of horror; it seeks a short cut to deep and lasting change; it suggests that truth is a thing one tells rather than a way one lives. The TRC’s motto, proclaimed in large banners, was "Revealing is Healing." But as any historian can attest--or indeed, as most of us know from our daily lives--this is usually not so.

The very drama, the extraordinary nature, of the TRC hearings allowed its truths to be compartmentalized and contained, and suggested that apartheid was a "chapter of the past" that could be closed with a satisfying thump. And yet the harder questions--wearisome and difficult indeed!--remain: What comes after the moments of revelation? How does one transform information into knowledge, emotion into insight, events into experience, experience into meaning? How is the truth not merely recognized, but integrated into a new sense of self, into new social relationships, into new political structures, into the building of a future that is fundamentally different from (rather than an erasure of) the past? For while societies can, and sometimes must, rupture with the past--the new South African constitution, for instance, explicitly rejects apartheid--people cannot do so. When it comes to individuals, the language of the "new man," of "year zero," of the "fresh start," is always the language of denial.

So, too, is the incessantly optimistic notion of "closure." Apartheid was not the equivalent of an unhappy childhood or a painful divorce. To speak of closure in the context of systemic terror and degradation verges on obscenity. It isnot clear, for instance, how NasonNdwandwe, who learned through the TRC hearings how his daughter Phila died--alone, naked, tortured, holding a plastic bag around her genitals--will "get over" her death. It is doubtful that Charity Kondile, whose son Sizwe’s body was barbecued ("we frequently had to turn the buttocks and thighs," one of his executioners helpfully told the commission), will "move on." It would be hard to say what kind of restitution should be offered to Nomatise Evelyn Tsobileyo; in 1985, a white policeman shot bullets into her vagina, which were still lodged in her body at the time of her hearing. Or of what healing would mean for Zahrah Narkedien, who testified about her solitary confinement: "I will never recover … [T]he more I struggled to be normal, the more disturbed I became. I had to accept that I was damaged. A part of my soul was eaten away as if by maggots, … and I will never get it back again."

Souls can sometimes be reconstituted--though not easily, not in isolation, and with no guarantees.7 But this process has no connection to that of "getting over"; it demands, on the contrary, the recognition that what is gone can not be retrieved, that what is done can not be undone, that there are losses in this world that can never be redeemed. To know this is to enter into tragedy.

While the tragic realm is one of inconsolability, it need not be a void. The fight against apartheid, though riddled with ambiguities and compromises, has a clear moral thread running through it; one cannot say, as Eva Hoffman recently wrote of the Holocaust, that it lacked a "satisfactory ethical struggle" by depriving victims not just of their lives, but of the "chance to die for a cause." But while meaning can illuminate tragic losses, it does not ever erase them.


The TRC itself admits that its amnesty provisions--commonly known as "trading truth for justice"--presented South Africans with agonizing moral choices and agonizing moral compromises. The amnesty provision has been defended on a variety of grounds, from a theological belief in forgiveness to the practical need to prevent a bloody white backlash. (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC’s chair, has used both lines of argument.) Even a cursory look through South Africa’s lively press, black and white, radical and conservative, will reveal that the amnesty guidelines (and specific amnesty decisions, some of which shocked and outraged large sectors of the country) were the TRC’s most hotly contested aspect.

The political situation in South Africa in the early-1990s may have been miraculous8, but it was also perversely difficult. On the one hand, revolutionary changes--the dismantling of the apartheid apparatus--had been set in motion with the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the opposition parties in February 1990. Yet there had been no revolution: the ANC had not exactly won and the pro-apartheid National Party had not exactly lost. Instead, there was a negotiated settlement, which demanded, oddly, revolutionary change within a framework of compromise. The new South African constitution, for instance, is not an ANC document, but was co-written by the ANC and the Nationalists (imagine Tom Paine sitting down with King George to hash things out). The Nationalists--who still controlled the army and the police--made it clear that Nuremberg-type trials were out of the question. Lustration, too, was rejected, which meant that apartheid-era civil servants, prosecutors, judges, policemen and soldiers would retain their jobs.9

And though the Armageddon that many had predicted for so long was avoided, to speak of a peaceful transition is grossly misleading. It ignores the thousands who had died fighting apartheid; equally important, it neglects the phenomenal increase in political violence after Mandela’s release from prison. In the years 1984-94, there were an estimated 20,500 political deaths; fully 72 percent of those occurred between February 1990 and the first democratic elections of April 1994.10

In this context, there were many fears, all realistic: of a Nationalist refusal to relinquish the reins; of a far-right white coup; of a civil war. And it was in this context that the TRC--with its forsaking of trials and its offer of individual amnesties--was born. This does not, indeed cannot, lessen the extraordinary spiritual achievement of those who, like Mandela and Tutu, put their bodies on the line for peaceful reconciliation, and who have courageously tried to chart a new path--the "third way" between amnesia and vengeance--for their broken society, and for the world.11Who can remain unmoved by the stark contrast between the multi-racial elections in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda--events that occurred simultaneously?

Yet while South Africa may have avoided the Pyrrhic victory of "justice with ashes" through the forswearing of trials, it relinquished something valuable too. "Amnesty," Archbishop Tutu has pithily observed, "is not meant for nice people." But a democracy that cannot hold its un-nice people--its murderers and torturers--accountable is fearful, wobbly, dangerously frail. In a democratic society, the law is a crucial arena in which we define ourselves, our collective values, our shared moral precepts. Trials restore a sense of ethical order; though they cannot undo damage, they enable a wronged collectivity to right itself. Trials affirm and condemn, and thereby negate impunity; to sidestep this process fosters unease, imbalance, even fury.12 Paradoxically, the absence of trials may therefore make reconciliation more difficult.

Justice, then, is not the alternative to truth commissions, but rather their necessary corollary. Truth commissions are wonderful because they are victim-centered. Justice is not victim-centered, and therein lies its power. We do not prosecute X for the murder of Y because Y suffered, or because Y was a good man, or because Y’s family is grieving and cannot forgive X. (And this holds true--indeed more true--for crimes against humanity than for common crimes.) We prosecute X because murder tears into our moral fabric, negates our values, creates a world in which we do not want and cannot afford to live. We prosecute X because an injury to one really is an injury to all; because in killing Y, X harmed us too. And in prosecuting X, we recognize his humanity, for only human beings are endowed with conscience and capable of choice, and can therefore be accountable for their actions.

Justice, however, neither heals nor deters. To demand that it do so is to fall prey to a dangerous illusion--and to a subsequent, inevitable cynicism. While justice may be a form of faith, it is not a form of magic; it can no more transform the past than it can reliably safeguard the future. Justice affirms both the collective’s standards and each individual’s worth, but it can never be measured by any directly utilitarian--and certainly not by any short-term--effect. Justice must be sought and honored for its own sake; and if it is not, there is no way, and perhaps no reason, to seek or honor it at all. Paradoxically, justice is its own end, albeit one upon which civilization depends. Thus, to that oft-voiced question of 1961--"What good will trying Eichmann do?"--Hannah Arendt answered simply: "[T]here is but one possible answer: It will do justice."


Yet just as truth must be understood as an ongoing process rather than a recitation of bare facts, so justice cannot be confined to the courtroom. Justice is not simply a matter of punishing crimes, or even of achieving reconciliation; it is not just a reckoning with the ugliness of the past, but must also be judged by the kind of future that is or is not built.

Apartheid South Africa was the richest country on its continent, and one of the most unequal societies on earth. Under apartheid, mass removals of millions of blacks made room for white cities, white suburbs, white farms. (Property was literally, and even unabashedly, theft.) Under apartheid, the average black rural woman had to walk eight miles each day for water and firewood. In the building of modern South Africa, black labor was utterly indispensable and black lives utterly expendable: 69,000 workers were killed, and over a million injured, in South African mines from 1900-1994. Though the TRC hearings did not focus on economic exploitation, details of the crushing destitution created by apartheid could not help but emerge: Alwinus Mhlatsi’s testimony incidentally revealed that his wife, who worked for a white farmer in the late 1960s, earned a monthly salary of four rand--the equivalent of 65 cents. The relationship between political repression and relentless poverty is perhaps best illustrated by a detail--small, unimportant--that came to light during the 1994 elections, when voters were fingerprinted for identification purposes. It turned out that some first-time voters--some black women--had no fingerprints at all; theirs had been worn to a terrible smoothness through long years of manual labor.

In this context, justice must surely require a radical redistribution of resources--of land, housing, electricity, water, education, jobs. This is the crucible of reconciliation. "[W]hat is the political basis of reconciliation in contemporary South Africa, and what is needed to build on it, and make it durable?" the Ugandan political theorist Mahmood Mamdani asks. "Reconciliation may be a moral imperative, but it will not happen unless it is also nurtured as a political possibility. This is why if truth is to be the basis of reconciliation, it will have to sum up not only the evil that was apartheid but the promise that was the resistance to it." Some have assumed that reconciliation will lead to justice, but the process is more likely to be reversed. Charity Kondile, mother of the murdered Sizwe, explained after testifying to the TRC: "It is easy for Mandela and Tutu to forgive…. [T]hey lead vindicated lives.In my life, nothing, not a single thing, has changed since my son was burnt by barbarians…. Therefore I cannot forgive."

Unfortunately, Charity Kondile’s life must be vindicated in a South Africa--and a world--dominated by Maastricht targets, International Monetary Fund dictates and World Bank redevelopment programs. At the same time, South Africa must restructure itself internally, converting its domestic economy, in the words of Allister Sparks, from one that was "shaped to provide a First World lifestyle for five million whites to one supplying 40 million South Africans with the basic necessities of life." To call this task daunting is a vast understatement.

I know of no country that has successfully worked through its past while reinventing its economy and political life; it is not clear that South Africa can do so. On the other hand, I know of no sane person who wants the new century to be a repeat of the last one, or who refuses to consider that new possibilities and new solutions--ones we could not previously imagine--are presenting themselves. Surely there are some times when hope and history rhyme, when the bottomless bleakness of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is not the only rational stance.13

Post-apartheid South Africa--with its infinite sorrow, its cruelties, its sturdy resistance, its fragile democracy, its wealth for a chosen few and its poverty for so many--threatens to break our hearts, and its own. But failure is not a foregone conclusion. And if the experiment does fail, it will do no good to run back to the lying days, complaining that the truth betrayed us yet again.

Truth does not liberate people. Only people liberate people--and only when such people are engaged in an arduous, dynamic dialogue with the truth. Alternately, truth does not betray us. It is we who sometimes--often--betray the truths we have learned, or should have.

Susie Linfield teaches in the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and is a book critic for the Los Angeles Times.

1 Sachs’s elevation to the Constitutional Court has not dimmed the sense of understated irony in the face of disaster that permeated his 1966 memoir The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs. Of the apartheid government’s almost-successful attempt to kill him (Sachs lost his right arm and was blinded in one eye by a car-bomb, planted by government agents, in 1988), he has said, "Every intellectual dreams of being taken seriously by someone, but not that seriously. "

2 With a population of over 43 million, South Africa is an extraordinarily diverse country--racially, ethnically, linguistically and politically--and it would be impossible to summarize the extremely wide range of opinions that the TRC evoked. The right-wing, Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party, for instance, virtually boycotted the TRC, but it was the families of murdered anti-apartheid activists Steve Biko and Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge who challenged the TRC in court (and lost). The relationship of the African National Congress (ANC) to the TRC is tangled. On the one hand the ANC, angered by the TRC’s criticisms of ANC human-rights abuses committed in the course of its long guerrilla war, tried to prevent the release of the commission’s report. On the other, in what must surely be an act of singular humility by a ruling party, prominent members of the ANC (including now-President Thabo Mbeki) sought amnesty, as a group, from the TRC for those very abuses. And in a courageous show of independence, the TRC--a quasi-governmental body--eventually denied many of the ANC applications (including Mbeki’s), for the commission is predicated on the idea that neither collective guilt nor collective innocence exists.

3 Yeats wrote:

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.

4 The most notable exception to this reduction through torture is Jesus, who was spiritually enlarged through his agony on the cross.

5 Thanks to Michael Manske for this translation.

6 The ANC government’s economic policies must be among the most closely scrutinized and fiercely criticized in the world. Not atypical is the Johannesburg-based journalist R. W. Johnson who, writing in the London Review of Books in 1996, charged, "[T]he ANC, many of whose members thought they were coming to power to bring about the socialist revolution, is now being used to carry through a capitalist counter-revolution." Controversy over the government’s direction shows no sign of abating, and may well heat up; in May, the Congress of South African Trade Unions--which, along with the South African Communist Party, constitutes the ANC’s main ally--staged a massive general strike, involving an estimated four million workers, to protest the government’s economic plans.

7 An astonishing account of this astonishing process is Lawrence Weschler’s A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (Pantheon, 1990), which focuses on Brazil and Uruguay.

8 Albie Sachs recently wrote, "It wasn’t a miracle.... Our transition had been the most willed, thought-about, planned-for event of the late twentieth century.... That was the irony--the relationship between history and miracle had been reversed; for the total doubters, it had been a miracle, while for those of intense belief, it had been entirely rational."

9 Of course, even "real" revolutions are not always revolutionary. Of the 1959 Hutu Revolution in Rwanda, Mahmood Mamdani aptly observes, "[The] revolutionaries turned the world they knew upside down, but they failed to change it."

10 These figures come from Anthea Jeffery’s book The Truth About the Truth Commission (1999), published by the South African Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg. Though Jeffery’s political analysis has fomented much controversy, her figures, so far as I know, have not.

11 Michael Ignatieff has speculated that, had Croatian president Franjo Tudjman publicly repented for the crimes of the fascist Ustashe, he might have prevented the 1991 war.

12 There are many explanations for South Africa’s horrendous post-apartheid crime wave, including poverty; crime can also be seen as the blowback from the ANC’s call of the 1980s to "make the townships ungovernable," which they apparently are. But perhaps, too, the cult of impunity fostered by the TRC’s amnesty process is indirectly linked to the rise of street crime.

13 Coetzee’s novel, which paints an unrelievedly dismal portrait of post-apartheid South Africa, is obviously a fine literary achievement. But the peculiar source of the adulation it has received in the West--especially the United States and Britain, where it won the Booker Prize--is striking, if not suspect: many reviewers laud its despair with an enthusiasm bordering on gusto. To refuse Coetzee’s unmitigated harshness--which is closer to nihilism than realism--is to be guilty of naivete, lack of irony or, worst of all, utopianism.

Originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |