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A humanist defence and critique of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

June 20, 2011

The political elites were invested in a presentation of the TRC as a model of restorative justice (largely conceived as a convenient “forgive and forget” affair which would essentially ensure perpetrators’ impunity) but only applied it to the case of the final conflict over apartheid, thus revealing that the project—at least as it was initially conceived by the elites—was a hypocritical manifestation of political expediency and shallow political instrumentalism. Furthermore, by restricting amnesty (or any other “restorative” approaches) only to cases of full disclosure and to narrowly-defined “political” crimes, the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (which brought about the TRC) confirmed the narrowly political, inconsistent nature of the elite’s support for “restorative” approaches. 

In fact, a restorative justice approach would especially make moral sense in contemporary South Africa, in the context of escalating levels of violence and the ongoing criminalization of black township youth (under conditions of disenfranchisement, poverty and oppression), its perpetuation mainly along racial and economic lines. 

The somewhat sycophantic approach to the TRC’s supposed “democratism” also needs to be challenged. Although its form was discussed through prolonged public debate and was subsequently established by the national parliament, as opposed to prior truth commissions in other countries, which were formed by executive decrees, the TRC was essentially the product of an agreement between political elites, rather than a genuine result of participatory democratic public deliberation. However, it is unfortunately very unlikely that a grassroots-driven process would have entailed much interest in a nonviolent approach to dealing with past violence.

The TRC process suffered from some other limitations also common to traditional trials—particularly the confines of positivist law, a legalistic paradigm/straitjacket which obstructs other avenues for conflict transformation and resolution, and which individualizes guilt and individualizes victims (despite the political responsibility of all those who didn’t resist apartheid, and the victimization of entire communities). In the process, the TRC individualized both the guilt and the victims of apartheid, failing to highlight and address the structural nature of apartheid, and the structural nature of the required solutions. The TRC, therefore, clearly failed to fully underline the systematic multiplicity of oppression under apartheid, or to underline the understanding of apartheid as a racist, oligarchic and plutocratic system based on broad political, economic and social support for exploitative and racist policies and social structures. 

Read the whole article.


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