Truth and Reconciliation

On a visit to South Africa in 1998 Jacques Derrida, arguably the world’s most eminent living philosopher, offended many South Africans by suggesting that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) needed to be understood as an exercise in forgetting. Outrageous! Wasn’t the TRC precisely a mechanism for moving into the future through a thorough dealing with the past? Wasn’t it a process for remembering and memorialising, one moreover regarded internationally as exemplary – a global symbol of a noble refusal to simply forget and move on?

Derrida was not denying the dimensions of memory which informed the TRC’s work. Indeed, he had many positive things to say about the TRC’s determination in extremely difficult circumstances to unfold and archive Apartheid atrocities. And he acknowledged that the claims to exemplarity were not unjustified.

He was making a point at once very simple and deeply philosophical. Archiving, traditionally understood as an act of remembering, is at profound levels a simple act of forgetting. As he illustrated it at a seminar convened by the University of the Witwatersrand, when we write a note on a piece of paper and consign it to a pocket, we are archiving the information so that we can forget it now but retrieve it when we need it. Moreover, he was suggesting that remembering and forgetting are not binary opposites – light opposed to darkness. All remembering is informed by forgetting; all shedding of light involves the casting of shadow.

It is not my intention here to explore the philosophical spaces opened up by Derrida. I want to consider briefly the dimensions of forgetting (conventionally understood) associated with the TRC as process and as institution.

Scholars, journalists and commentators have covered extensively the processes of selection which characterised the TRC’s work. Its mandate restricted it to a narrow investigative focus, namely, gross human rights violations committed during part of the Apartheid era. Practical constraints forced it to focus even more narrowly – for instance, only about a tenth of the victims who came forward were given an opportunity to tell their stories in public. Numerous investigations were hampered by incompetence, internal wrangling, political pressure and various forms of obstruction. Some of its hearings were conducted in camera. All of these, I would argue, are dimensions of forgetting.

The New National Party was able to force the deletion of certain findings from the TRC’s report. In 1998 the ANC mounted an unsuccessful attempt to do the same thing. Now we have the IFP taking the TRC to court in order to challenge findings related to its alleged involvement in gross human rights violations (see Stan Winer’s ‘Truth Report Blocked’). Arguably these are expressions of an instinct to forgetfulness.

On a more positive note, a dimension of forgetting was embraced by the TRC’s commitment to public disclosure and storytelling. I am not implying simplistic notions of closure, or of forgiving and forgetting. Central to the TRC’s endeavour was resisting denial and erasure. But equally central was the bringing of healing – in other words, tell the story not in order to then forget what happened, but tell it so that the pain, guilt, anguish, hatred and so on – as lived experience – can be forgotten.

The loss of institutional memory resources is another dimension of forgetting. Here I refer specifically to the incomplete and scattered TRC archive. A thorough audit of TRC records and the surviving Apartheid era security establishment records identified by the TRC has not yet been done, so it is impossible to come to any firm conclusions. But consider the following. We know that the whereabouts of 34 boxes of so-called sensitive TRC records is either not known or is being concealed by the state. We know that a large part of the TRC’s electronic memory is in a tenuous condition and probably has significant gaps. We know that many TRC staffers removed organisational records when they departed. And we know that at least in the case of surviving Security Police files, there is already evidence of records seen by the TRC now being lost.

Needless to say, the impact of these realities on the public’s right of access to the TRC archive is significant. Moreover, securing access to the parts of the archive which are safely in the custody of the National Archives is not easy. Commitment to remembering, in my view, would make this the most public – the most open and accessible – of South African archives. It is not. Access can only be secured through the submission of requests under the Promotion of Access to Information Act. And, as many are discovering, due to a range of factors this is a complex, time-consuming and often frustrating business.

A final layer of forgetting is to be discerned in the state’s response to the numerous recommendations made by the TRC in its report. This aspect has been reasonably well covered by the media. Very little has been done to provide reparations to identified victims of gross human rights violations. There seems to be no will to pursue the prosecution of perpetrators who ignored the TRC’s amnesty process or who failed to secure amnesty. The recent Presidential pardoning of persons who were denied amnesty by the TRC constitutes, amongst other things, a grave forgetting of the amnesty process as a critical mechanism in South Africa’s transition to democracy. And, despite some brave attempts by the National Archives, the TRC’s wide-ranging recommendations on state recordkeeping have been by and large ignored.

When we add all this forgetting together, I would suggest, we cannot but come to the conclusion that Derrida’s typification of the TRC demands serious consideration. We might even be justified in going further, by coming to the conclusion that for the state the TRC is no more than a tool for providing a nod at remembering in the interests of a profounder forgetting. Those who have come to this conclusion – and there are a growing number – suggest that while the state says it is dealing with the past, in fact it is intent on getting back to business as usual as quickly as possible.

However, as Derrida would quickly point out, there is never forgetting without remembering. And there is never forgetting without the possibility of remembering. As he asserted in 1998: “what we think we have forgotten may come back through a number of ways, unpredictable ways.” Fortunately for South Africa, it has many individuals and organisations committed to troubling processes of erasure and to importuning justice to come. For them the unfinished business of the TRC will never be forgotten.

(The author is the director of South African History Archive, and a former member of the TRC’s investigation into the apartheid government’s destruction of official records)

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