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truth & reconciliation Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 3, 2006



Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Reflecting on Ten Years of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, University of Cape Town, 23-27 November 2006.

Kay Schaffer

University of Adelaide


1. Two motivating engines propelled the Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness conference in Cape Town: one aimed to assemble an interdisciplinary group of scholars from over 40 countries to reflect upon the achievements of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (henceforth TRC); the other attempted to recommit the nation to a psychotherapeutic process of reconciliation, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as an exemplar, mentor, and guide. These concomitant motivations overrode but could not dispel dissonant voices within South Africa, those of political activists, critical theorists, and, in particular, disaffected township youth - second generation apartheid survivors who had no role in the TRC but now live with its unfulfilled legacies, whose everyday lives are marked by poverty, unemployment, drugs, violent crime, HIV-AIDs, and bleak futures. The conference inevitably exposed the underlying tensions between these diverse groups, which include those committed to psychodynamic healing processes, those taking up a renewed interest in political activism, and/or those pursuing reconciliation through cross-cultural negotiations across axes of difference within the heterogeneous nation.

2. The conference promoted a particular and globally dominant discourse on reconciliation, shaped by a psychologically-driven, faith-based approach to forgiveness. This approach had many advocates. It was promulgated in numerous platforms including the opening keynote address on "Trauma, Mourning, Memorials and Forgiveness" by Prof. Vamik Volkan, a Noble prize nominee and leading practitioner in the field of peace and psychology, and several plenary sessions, one of which staged a public conversation between Archbishop Tutu and four victims of violence, including two mothers of the Mamelodi 10 [1], three of which closed the conference with reference to post-Holocaust testimony and were addressed by Holocaust survivor Eva Moses Kor, several second generation Holocaust survivors, and Cape Town Holocaust Museum curator, Richard Freedman. These closing plenaries were intended to "carr[y] the torch of forgiveness and reconciliation forward" [program].   Throughout the five days, conferees reflected on the theory and practice of forgiveness in relation to documentary films, dramatic performances, public "reconciliation labyrinth" landscape installations, and conference presentations that detailed processes of peace and reconciliation not only in regard to South Africa but also in relation to post-Holocaust Germany, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, and other traumatized nations on the African continent, including Rwanda, Ghana, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. Convened by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, TRC facilitator, Harvard trained psychologist, and author of A Human Being Died that Night, the five-day event appeared to be weighted in favour of psychoanalytical frameworks and processes entailing interpersonal dialogue in pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

3. There were many present, however, who deferred from this agenda. Although the conference afforded relatively few opportunities to explore the unfinished business of the TRC and the limits of forgiveness, irruptions of dissonance, when they did occur, were dramatic and unsettling. The first ripple of discontent arose during what was for many in the audience an uncomfortably voyeuristic plenary session addressed by four victims of violence, including the two Mamelodi mothers. One mother, Maria Ntuli, courageously recounted the gruesome details of her son's death and related how the TRC helped her and other mothers to accept their loss and share their pain, but she lamented that the TRC did not keep its promises. It abandoned those who are still waiting to find the truth, or who did not attend/know about the hearings, or who are still waiting to get reparation. The other mother, Lizzie Sefolo, pricked the conscience of the conference when responding to the question could she forgive the perpetrator responsible for the death of her son. "Forgiveness is a difficult word", she replied. She implored the Archbishop, several times, in English and Xhosa, to reopen the TRC so that other mothers "can have peace in their hearts".  

4. Always the peacemaker, Tutu praised the mothers' "generosity of spirit" but deflected their pleas, blaming Parliamentary restraint for the limitations to the TRC process. It was left to Mamphela Ramphele, former Managing Director of the World Bank and previous Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, who shared the stage, to deliver the most blistering appraisal of the unfinished business of the TRC in a talk entitled "Reconciliation is not Enough". [2] In measured tones, Mamphele spoke about the failure of the TRC to address the socio-economic disadvantage of the majority of black people in South Africa, the insult of the ANC government in offering meager reparations to victims of apartheid,   the dishonesty of beneficiaries in not acknowledging the material rewards and opportunities accruing differentially to them, the leaching of economic resources to the private sector through black economic empowerment programs (BEE), the flaunting of wealth, and the widening chasm between rich and poor as some of the factors contributing to the disaffection of black youth and the rising levels of "anger, rage, brutality that is sweeping our streets". She urged her fellow South Africans to move out of denial, recognize mistakes made, and acknowledge the suffering of mothers like Maria Ntuli and Lizzie Sefolo with the same vigour with which they addressed political injustice.

5. The roiling undercurrents stirred up in Ramphele's speech surfaced dramatically the following day with the unscheduled appearance at one of the parallel panel sessions of Adriaan Vlok, former Minister for Law and Order and member of the State Security Council in PW Botha's government. The venue for the session was a small teaching classroom which filled to overflowing with conference participants, some mildly curious, others enraged, and all eager to witness Vlok's appearance in the presence of the two Mamelodi mothers. [3]   The tense session ended acrimoniously as Vlok's sincerity was pointedly challenged by several in attendance, including Yazir Henry, activist and Director of the Direct Action Centre for Peace and Memory, amongst others. At this point a disruptive current of political turmoil rose to the surface, threatening the calmer, though no less perilous, waters of psycho-dynamic healing. Vlok's presence stirred further controversy in a press conference, when he attempted to offer his message of contrition and atonement to a German media team, flanked by conference organizer Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and panel organizer Bridgid Hess. As cameras rolled, disgruntled onlookers halted the interview. Academic and political activist Heidi Grunebaum challenged the main players repeatedly: "I'm sorry, Mr. Vlok, interpersonal dialogue and the rhetoric of forgiveness is not enough", she told him. "I'm sorry, Pumla", she continued, "It's not personal, but political".

6. The confrontation segued into a crowded, impromptu session presided by a therapeutically-inclined Pumla, witnessed by a head-bowed, note-taking Vlok, in which Heidi was asked to begin by "introducing herself and explaining her feelings". Speaking as a second generation Holocuaust survivor who had grown up in South Africa with the privileges of a safe home and a good education afforded by people like Vlok to people like her, she struggled with Pumla's request before turning the stage over to others who did not share this heritage - second generation township youth. One after another, they gave halting and articulate statements. Sometimes following wrong turns and detours, alternatively launching misfires and direct attacks, the youth spoke. In tense and angry voices, they charged that the TRC was a commission of lies, not truth; that its champions, including Tutu, hid what they knew, manipulating the process; that lies were not addressed, bodies not accounted for, victims still wounded; that exiled leaders who came back to flash jobs had betrayed them; that Vlok had no right to expect forgiveness when he refused to tell the truth about what he knew of the killings, the torture, the poisonings, the death squads. This new generation of youth felt that they had been left out of the process, betrayed by their parents, abandoned by the government, and ignored in the nation-building process, only to face what they called "killing from within"- the crime, drugs, and violence in the crowded spaces they called home, affected by township poverty, rage, and disaffection, almost beyond reparation. They sought not reconciliation but justice. The unofficial session came to an unsatisfactory close when Vlok, naively protesting throughout that he was an old man, with no papers, and no influence in government, who had nothing to divulge, agreed to meet with the concerned speakers at a later date in a more appropriate venue. The "unfinished business" of the TRC became painfully apparent to those of us privileged to witness this extraordinary session, which allowed us to glimpse an otherwise hidden recess within the dark heart of the matter.

7. Although the healing-through-forgiveness model of reconciliation continued to dominate conference proceedings, a few papers interrupted the dominant discourse, voiced some methodological concerns, and offered alternative perspectives. None, however, could equal the heat or turmoil generated by Vlok's unexpected appearance. Yazir Henry, for example, called for a historicized, political critique of the transition. Calling the TRC a "conflict management tool" of limited purchase, he detailed the racial discrimination, economic disparity, and embodied pain experienced by survivors and warned of the challenges to the nation's stability when "blacks are tired of talking", "whites are tired of listening", and the ANC government is "complicit in taking and not giving back and saying it's OK". Heidi Grunebaum noted the increasing depoliticisation of memory work. Lamenting the commodification and mediation of TRC testimony through which stories played a central role in the management of social transition and became a part of the flow of transnational capital, she surmised that memory had become emptied of its potential energy for social change. Don Foster, who wrote up the amnesty commission report for the TRC and co-authored the challenging study The Theatre of Violence, cautioned that apology, although needed and necessary, can never be a sufficient ground for reconciliation. He reported on the appalling lack of sincerity amongst perpetrators who sought amnesty through the TRC, without much of a show of either full confession or sincere remorse. In relation to Adriaan Vlok's foot-washing gesture of contrition, he reminded the audience that Frank Chicane, while accepting it, also called for all perpetrators to come forward with a full disclosure and atone for their crimes through direct involvement in improving the new South Africa. Political theorist Ivok Chipkin considered the diminishing value of the compromised and conflicting rhetorics of the TRC. He lauded its considerable transition work in binding the nation together through the affective force of love, despite the lack of a shared history, language, geography, or values in South Africa, before proceeding to outline the formidable challenges ahead for a diverse and heterogeneous citizenry growing less enchanted by the TRC's "Rainbow Nation" promises.

8. For me, one of the most valued sessions of the conference was one co- presented by Antjie Krog, Kopano Ratele, and Nosisi Mpolweni-Zantsi on "Language and Culture in Testimony". Returning to the seemingly incoherent testimony of one of the mothers of the Guguletu 7 [4], the panel modeled an interpersonal, politicized approach to reconciliation as well as an ethic of care that accounted for the wrongs of the past with a rare sensitivity to cultural difference. It involved the testimony of Mrs. Konile, the last of three Guguletu 7 mothers to testify before the TRC, whose story did not conform to the protocols and formulae required by the commission and thus had been subjected to ridicule. Antjie Krog [5] , who had made a bad attempt at translation at the time, subsequently recovered the testimony and enlisted the help of Kopano Ratele and Nosisi Mpolweni-Zantsi, who are Xhosa speakers, translators, and colleagues. Together they re-transcribed and re-translated the ruptured, dreamlike, seemingly senseless testimony, allowing a new form of story to emerge, registering its culturally-embedded meanings, its poetic richness, its rootedness in the traditions of Mrs. Konile's remote and rural Xhosa community and her personal experience of grief and loss. The three academics also worked together in a cross-cultural fashion, registering their different approaches to the testimony, its rough birth, and their diverse investments in its recovery, as they re-coded both Mrs. Konile's testimony and their own responses against the master narratives. The content and process of the presentation involved multiple levels of understanding - allowing the audience access to three voices, three perspectives, and three sets of individual and inter-personal challenges. In testing the limits of meaning and cross-cultural interpretation, this remarkable presentation gave tangible witness to poststructuralist concepts like hospitality, reciprocity, incommensurability, and modeled an ethic of care. In addressing the heterologics of the nation, it challenged other, more monological, tendencies of the conference, extending alternative avenues for redress within the complex, demanding, compromised work of reconciliation.

9. At the end of the conference, as I read through my notes, reflected on its emotional, political, practical, and theoretical challenges, and attempted to account for the cross currents, convergences, and conflicts that assailed participants throughout the tense, productive, eventful five days, I recalled another of Mamphela Ramphele's remarks from her address at the crucial plenary session. "Reconciliation", she said, "is and remains a fractured process". That is how it is and how it must continue to be addressed. This, for me, was the enduring lesson derived from the Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness Conference which gave witness to those fractures in many unexpected, sobering, and yet productive and revitalizing ways.


Kay Schaffer is an Adjunct Professor in Gender, Work and Social Inquiry, School of Social Studies at the University of Adelaide. She works in the areas of gender studies, cultural studies, and literary studies. Her most recent work concerns the significance of personal testimony and storytelling in human rights campaigns and contexts, including narratives of recovery emanating from China, South Africa, and Australia. In 2004 she co-authored Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition with Sidonie Smith.


[1] The Mamelodi 10 were a group of township youth activists who were enticed by the Security Police into thinking that they were leaving the country to enlist in Umkhonto we Sizwe, and were then ambushed and killed by the police before they crossed the Botswana border. Their bodies were torched to prevent identification. Partial, recently recovered, remains still await DNA results for identification.

[2] For a fuller account of her remarks see Accessed 15 Jan., 2007.

[3] Adriaan Vlok received a pardon from the amnesty committee of the TRC for his role in bombing Khotso House, in the SA Council of Churches' headquarters, although it is widely believed that he failed to offer a full and complete disclosure of his role in and knowledge of the bombing or countless other atrocities enacted by the police. In August and September, 2006, Vlok successfully petitioned several apartheid victims, seeking forgiveness and requesting that he wash their feet in a Christian gesture of atonement. One was the Rev. Frank Chicane, presently the Director General in the Presidency (think Chief of Staff Leo McGarry in 'West Wing') who in 1989 had been secretary-general of the SA Council of Churches. Under apartheid, he had been accused of high treason, his clothes laced with poison. He has never established the truth behind the poisoning.   Others included the Mamelodi mothers Maria Ntuli and Lizzie Sofolo, neither of whom received the full truth of their sons' deaths or the whereabouts of their remains.

[4] The Guguletu 7 youth were armed, ambushed, and killed by the Security Police in March, 1986 as they attempted to surrender. When their bodies were found, they were planted with Russian hand grenades and guns, an event that encouraged popular, media-fed fears of Russian terrorism.

[5] Antjie Krog is a poet and journalist who reported on the TRC for the South African Broadcasting Company. She subsequently wrote Country of My Skull, a compelling and multi-award winning memoir of her experience.


Krog, Antjie (1998), Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness. New York, Three Rivers Press.

Foster, Don, Paul Haupt, and Marése De Beer (2005 ) , The Theatre of Violence: Narratives of Protagonists in the South African Conflict. Cape Town, HSRC Press.

Godobo-Madikizela, Pumla (2003), A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid. New York, Mariner Books.

© borderlands ejournal 2006



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