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reponse to schaffer Arrow schaffer report vol 5.3 Arrow vol 6 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 1, 2007


Reflecting on Achievements, Celebrating Failures: A Response to Kay Schaffer

The Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness Conference reflecting on ten years
of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Jaco Barnard

University of Cape Town



1. The purpose of this response is not to provide another (an other) (objective) account of the events of 23 to 27 November 2006 in certain of the lecture theatres of the Kramer Building at the University of Cape Town. With/without the benefit of distance, I see this response primarily intended as a supplementation of the account of the conference given by Professor Schaffer in her conference report.[1] I hope that my disagreement (dis-agreement) with Schaffer on the way in which she presents the conference in her report will be taken in the spirit of what is at stake: reconciliation, truth, transition, South Africa. Allow me to emphasise that I do not wish in any way to deny the importance of this conference. The very fact that it has generated a flurry of dialogue and debate on an international scale testifies to its importance as a singular and irreplaceable event. My own contribution to this debate should also indicate that I consider the conference in this light. This being said, my attention will be directed at Schaffer's text about this event which will inevitably require me to refer to my own experience of the events of the conference.

2. Schaffer commences her report with a description of the two 'engines' that propelled the Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness conference: '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'. This opening phrase appears to have been constructed from the cover page of the conference program on which the organisers indicated the title and formulated the general themes of the conference. The original read as follows: 'Reflecting on Ten Years of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A conference that brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars from across the globe to reflect on the work of the TRC in South Africa and its continuing impact worldwide. Celebrating Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Life of Peaceful Justice'. Schaffer's (re)construction of the motivating forces of the conference occurs with two modifications of the original text from which it is constructed. First, she translates the original phrase 'to reflect on the work' into the phrase 'to reflect upon the achievements'. Second, she leaves the word 'celebrating' out of her description and chooses instead to 'centralise' the role of the Archbishop 'as an exemplar, mentor and guide' in what she conceives of (rightly or wrongly) as the psychotherapeutic, complementary 'engine' of the conference.

3. I find a critical slippage in these movements of the text of Schaffer's conference report which I believe moulds the remainder of her report in an extraordinary fashion. By replacing the word 'work' (which denotes merely 'something which is or was done' or 'moral actions considered in relation to justifications') with the word 'achievements' her text opens itself for a reading that there is here an inculcated conviction that the TRC 'passed' its 'test' provided a 'successful performance,' 'a victory'.[2] And this replacement indicates an a priori elevation of the TRC. The point of departure becomes the TRC's achievements (as given) which covers over - intentionally or otherwise - the more critical question whether the TRC's work [3] actually achieved what it set out to do along with the equally critical question whether that question could be raised in the conference.[4] As already pointed out, this slippage occurs simultaneously with the omission of the word 'celebrating' from the description of the role of the Archbishop in the conference. Instead of representing the conference's secondary purpose as a celebration of the Archbishop's extraordinary life, Schaffer constructs one of the motivating engines of the conference around her beliefs of him (and what he stands for). Nowhere in the official conference correspondence is there a stated aim to recommit the nation to a psychotherapeutic process of reconciliation with the Archbishop elevated to a central figure/figuration; 'exemplar, mentor, guide'.

4. And these movements in Schaffer's conference report are ultimately what cause her, on my reading, to portray the few critical/dissonant moments of the conference as either politically sterile, tame, domesticated and dull or invalid, negative and inappropriate. In my opinion, Schaffer's text entirely downplays the extraordinary political resistance portrayed by the two mothers from Mamelodi (Maria Ntuli and Lizzie Sefolo) who participated in a public 'conversation' with the Archbishop and Dr Mamphele Ramphele on 23 November 2006. The event was facilitated by Prof. Teri Murphy from the Arizona State University and head of the organising committee Prof. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Despite repeated attempts by facilitator Teri Murphy to elicit a response from the mothers on the meaning of forgiveness,[5] these mothers resisted those attempts (consciously or otherwise) through talking about how difficult it still is to move on, about the fact that they still do not know where their children's remains are, about the inability to perform the burial rites required by their culture and about how that made them feel. Schaffer's depiction also underemphasises the real, unpredictable, political action (as Arendt would say)[6] that occurred when Lizzie Sefolo implored the Archbishop to reopen the TRC. Schaffer refers to this event as the 'first ripple of discontent ... during what was for many in the audience an uncomfortably voyeuristic plenary session'. Apart from the fact that this public conversation was hardly the first 'ripple of discontent' in the conference, her text here shifts the focus (the ethical concern) from the storyteller to the audience. It becomes about how uncomfortable the plenary session was for the audience, how the testimonies 'pricked the conscience of the conference '.[7] And directing the attention of the reader in this way significantly minimizes how difficult it must have been for those mothers to once again tell their stories to an audience that, albeit unintentionally, reduces their lives and lived experiences to analysable processes to be 'studied'; to an audience that can never truly respond (responsibly).

5. Schaffer's focus on the two black mothers and on how uncomfortable they made the audience feel also causes her to ignore the significant political presence of two white women (Anne-Marie McGregor and Pauline Nossel) who shared the stage. This in itself cuts across stereotypical perceptions of 'victim' and 'perpetrator'.[8] Nothing is said about Pauline Nossel's brave account of her and her disabled husband's recent hijacking (a reality with which the majority of 'post-Apartheid' South Africans live on a daily basis). No reference is made to the tears of Anne-Marie McGregor who also lost a child, albeit on the other side of the political divide. Instead, the emphasis is immediately placed and attention directed to the 'presence' of the greats: Tutu and Ramphele - Tutu, on the one hand, portrayed as the eternal ethical warrior of peace and forgiveness (as he clearly is), Ramphele, on the other, as the more politically conscious appraiser of the unfinished business of the TRC.[9]

6. But I have said that the plenary to which Schaffer refers was hardly the first ripple of discontent at the conference. Schaffer mentions nothing of the events on the opening night. After the screening of Mark Kaplan's documentary Between Joyce and Rememberance ,[10] organiser and chair Gobodo-Madikizela invited questions from the audience. One of the conference participants, Rebecca Saunders, introduced her question with reference to Arendt's description of Eichmann as the inhuman, the embodiment of the banality of evil and ultimately unforgivable for the reason that he had abandoned the plurality that is both the condition sine qua non and the condition per quam of the political (Arendt (1963, 1994)). The question, tentatively suggested, was whether it is at all necessary or worthwhile (as part of a transitional 'narrative') to insist on the forgiveness of perpetrators who exemplify the banality of evil. (The refusal to forgive does not, of course, necessarily imply that the perpetrators should be condemned to 'physical' death and, to emphasise, the insistence on forgiveness is absolutely different from the insistence on reconciliation.) In a conference with 'forgiveness' in its title one might consider this an appropriate question - but perhaps only if the series '[m]emory, narrative and forgiveness' is not read as a natural progression. Be that as it may, Kaplan answered Saunders's question in an oblique way, saying that, in many respects, the TRC was about legitimating the new order. At this point, Gobodo-Madikizela intervened and proceeded to provide an account of her impressions that the TRC was not about legitimation but about 'real' reconciliation, a forum for people to tell their stories, a space for healing and forgiveness.[11] In their different replies, Kaplan and Gobodo-Madikizela were clearly touching on two different tranches of discontent about the function of the TRC.

7. When the uninvited Adriaan Vlok appeared on Saturday morning, his public appearance was tolerated because his rhetoric matched the conference's lexicon of forgiveness, atonement and contrition. This was confirmed in a public interview conducted by the German media in which he was flanked by Prof Gobodo-Madikizela and the chair of the panel he attended, Bridgid Hess. When enraged onlookers (some of whom also attended the said panel) halted the interview while cameras rolled, Prof. Gobodo-Madikizela did what is perhaps expected of a former truth commissioner. Gobodo-Madikizela took charge of this liminal space and on her initiative an impromptu reconciliatory session was convened.

8. In her account of these events, Schaffer again downplays (and negativises) their significant political meaning, describing them as indicative of a 'disruptive current of political turmoil' that was 'threatening' the waters of psycho-dynamic healing. Instead of affirming that these events were as valid, legitimate and necessary as the national psychotherapy, she reduces them to nothing more than the inappropriate theatrics of a few people desperately in need of some therapy. Schaffer opines that South African academic and social activist, Heidi Grunebaum (who publicly confronted Vlok in front of the cameras during the interview with the German media), 'struggled' with Prof Gobodo-Madikizela's request in the impromptu session to introduce herself and to explain her feelings. As Schaffer herself indicates, Grunebaum had already told Gobodo-Madikizela earlier that 'it is not personal, but political'. And it is precisely for this reason that Grunebaum did not, as I read the events, struggle (in the sense that Schaffer uses the word) but deliberately handed over to second generation township youths to explain how they felt - indicating in an overtly political way that Truth and Reconciliation in Post-Apartheid South Africa (the new 'struggle') was more about giving them voice, and less about the person Heidi Grunebaum. Schaffer tells us that these 'township youths' spoke, but that their speeches sometimes followed wrong turns, detours and launched misfires. She describes these speech acts by focusing exclusively on their emotive dimensions: 'angry' and 'tense', seeking 'not reconciliation but justice' (without explaining what the perceived differences are between the two latter terms). That Schaffer regards these acts as inappropriate and misplaced considering the propelling engines of the conference, is ultimately revealed when she states that Vlok agreed to meet with these concerned speakers 'at a later date, in a more appropriate venue'. Clearly, the time (the 'now' of the conference) was not (at least entirely) the 'right' time. Instead of problematising Vlok's deflections, Schaffer again turns the direction away from the other towards the self and the same: 'The "unfinished business" of the TRC became painfully apparent to those of us privileged to witness the extraordinary session ' (my emphasis). Schaffer is, however, ultimately forced to admit that, given her conception of its propelling engines, the khora of the conference did not (would not) allow for the dissonance that this session generated. And again, the negative stereotype persists: this unofficial session allowed, she says, a glimpse of 'an otherwise hidden recess within the dark heart of the matter'.

9. Schaffer devotes the seventh paragraph of her report to the other dissenting voices of the conference, but not before adding that 'none, however, could equal the heat or turmoil generated by Vlok's unexpected appearance'. Given this a priori judgment, it is not surprising that she proceeds to provide a wholly descriptive account of some of these voices before moving on to a discussion of the session with Antjie Krog - '[f]or me, one of the most valued sessions of the conference ... '. Schaffer values this session for providing 'tangible witness to poststructuralist concepts like hospitality, reciprocity, incommensurability' and for modelling an ethic of care. (I leave unaddressed the question whether reciprocity, as opposed to the question of an asymmetrical response, could be described as a postructuralist concept.)

10. On my reading of her text, Schaffer gets very close to opposing the dynamics of the Krog session to the disruptive dynamics of the sessions she refers to in the paragraph preceding this. Clearly, Schaffer favours this session because it fuels the engine of psychotherapeutic reconciliation: the panellists followed 'an ethic of care that accounted for the wrongs of the past with a rare sensitivity to cultural difference ...extending alternative avenues for redress within the complex, demanding, compromised work of reconciliation'.

11. The session Schaffer refers to, dealt with the re-translation of Ms Konile's ridiculed testimony before the TRC. Because the testimony was given within the institutionalised protocols and formulae of the TRC, it failed to register the testimony's culturally-embedded meanings and roots in Ms Konile's rural Xhosa community. The three panellists retranscribed the testimony and, following a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary interpretation, came up with a translation that made more 'sense'. Apart from what could be said about the ethical implications of a translation of the language of the other into the language of the self and the same, this session was, ironically, founded on a failure of the TRC to translate Ms Konile's testimony in a comprehensible (Western) way. In many ways, this session was celebrating a failure of the TRC - its inability to generate meaning for everyone all the time. And though this was not so clearly stated, the session had, paradoxically, much in common with the dissenting voices to which Schaffer opposes it.

12. At the end of the conference, I also reflected on the 'emotional, political, practical and theoretical challenges' that this conference presented. I too was reminded that 'reconciliation is a fractured process and that this is how it must continue to be addressed'. I was, however, concerned about which memory, which narratives and whose ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation fitted the conference. I was concerned about how forgiveness so often becomes a synonym for reconciliation, asking myself whether those of us concerned with South Africa, truth and reconciliation do not sometimes avoid foundational questions. Are we adequately attentive to the appropriations, instrumentalisations and objectifications we perpetrate as we write the next paper on transitional justice, attend another conference that showcases tales of unimaginable suffering? Finally, and most significantly, I was reminded again and again, of the irreconcilable truth in the following words: 'One could never, in the ordinary sense of the words, found a politics or law on forgiveness. In all the geopolitical scenes we have been talking about, the word most often abused is "forgive"' (Derrida (2001) 39). This remains for me the most enduring and critical lesson from the Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness Conference.


Jaco Barnard is junior fellow and senior lecturer in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. His research is primarily directed at the intervention of critical theory and post-structural ethics into liberal legal and philosophical discourse. From this angle, he has published on contract law, the TRC and big business and on the recently introduced civil union legislation in South Africa.


[1] K. Schaffer 'Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Reflecting on Ten Years of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission', University of Cape Town, 23- 27 November 2006' Borderlands, 2006 5(3). All references, unless otherwise indicated, are to this report.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary (Online version), definitions of 'work' and 'achievement'.

[3] I am guided in my conceptual understanding of 'work' by the Derridean insistence that 'the work of mourning is not one kind of work among others. It is work itself, work in general, the trait by means of which one ought perhaps to reconsider the very concept of production' (Derrida (1994) 97).

[4] In this regard, see Gibson (2004) who suggests that South Africa is not as reconciled as we would like to believe.

5] Murphy's political concern with forgiveness is not surprising given her religious involvements. See As Schaffer indicates, the rhetoric of forgiveness took another direction when Lizzie Sefolo was asked whether she could forgive the perpetrators responsible for her son's death and replied: 'Forgiveness is a difficult word'.

[6] In Arendt's terms, action (as part of the vita activa) is characterized by initiative, uniqueness and unpredictability. In addition, people are free only so long as they act and the pre-condition of action is a political community characterised by plurality (Arendt, Canovan (1998) 7).

[7] In contrast, the conference press release predicted an ethical injunction on the audience calling it to 'bear witness to four South African mothers' stories that tell of trauma followed by engagement and forgiveness'. (My emphasis.) See

[8] Unathi Kondile (granddaughter of Mrs Charity Kondile, whose son, Gcinisizwe (Sizwe) Chonyane Kondile, was brutally murdered by the apartheid security police under the command of Captain Dirk Coetzee) describes an ethical and political catharsis upon hearing the testimony of Anne-Marie McGregor: 'It's never crossed my mind, but when I saw Anne-Marie McGregor sitting at the front I realised, for the first or second time, that some white people had tasted the venom of our past in its full bitterness. At first I couldn't allow myself to hear her story, but as she spoke of her pain and raised a picture of her fallen son, I suddenly empathized and realised her story was legitimate'. See

[9] Nothing in this statement is aimed at taking anything away from the extraordinary contributions of Tutu and Ramphele to the emergence of the new South Africa. I only wish to point out (and thereby emphasise) the ethical difficulty that inheres when one is, forced by the limits of writing, to categories of the 'included' and the 'excluded'. It is this difficulty that, in my opinion, commands supplementation.

[10] This film accounts the disingenuous and utterly unsuccessful attempts on the part of apartheid commander Gideon Nieuwoudt to negotiate reconciliation after the TRC with the family of one of his victims, Siphiwo Mtimkulu. The meeting with the family has unexpectedly violent outcomes. See

[11] As regards the problematic conflation of reconciliation and forgiveness see generally Derrida (2001).


Arendt, Hannah & Canovan Margaret (eds.) (1998). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah (1963, 1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. England: Penguin.

Derrida, Jacques (1994). Spectres of Marx. New York: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques (2001). On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. New York: Routledge.

Gibson, James L (2004). Overcoming Apartheid. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

Schaffer, Kay (2006). 'Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Reflecting on Ten Years of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission' Borderlands 5(3) available at

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