The Truth and Reconciliation Hearings – an Exerpt from Reading a Different Story

The following is an excerpt from Reading a Different Story, by Susan VanZanten.

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Cover ArtMy research about and experiences in South Africa revealed how interconnected the different types of confessional modes had become in the 1990s. The life-affirming aspects of religious confession were incorporated into the judicial process through the Truth and Reconciliation process, which, in turn, became a major topic of South African memoirs, poems, and novels.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had been established in 1995 to facilitate national reconciliation by creating a public record of human rights violations under apartheid. Victims testified about their experiences; perpetrators confessed their actions. In essence, a new national narrative was written through these testimonies and admissions.

From February 1996 through 1997, victims recounted their stories at hearings held in crowded courtrooms, city halls, and community centers. Beginning in the fall of 1996, the TRC’s Amnesty Committee heard amnesty applications. Faced with the compromises necessary to a negotiated settlement, South Africa decided to establish the TRC process rather than pursue legal prosecutions of those who had committed abuses.

This was a conscious choice of truth rather than justice, with the goal of reconciliation, as the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act states: “There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization.” While some observers criticized the abandonment of justice, others argued for the greater value of the truth that would be spoken as a way of healing and forming a new South African community.

The Christian roots of the TRC process were unmistakable, beginning with the appointment of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as TRC chair. At the first meeting of the TRC on December 16, 1995, Tutu established the narrative framework of the commission’s work in Christian terms: “We will be engaging in what should be a corporate nationwide process of healing through contrition, confession and forgiveness.”

©2013 by Susan VanZanten. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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