Reconciling South Africa or South Africans? Cautionary Notes from the TRC

by Tristan Anne Borer

Abstract

This article argues that the question “Are South Africans reconciled?” is meaningless unless the sense in which the questioner is using the word reconciliation is made clear. Such questions do not get us far in understanding the truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) as one’s interpretation of the term “reconciliation” will necessarily influence one’s evaluation of the TRC’s work. It argues that the linking of success with reconciliation, in any case, is problematic for two reasons: first, many people tend to confuse “aspiration with empiricism,” and, second, the conflation of truth with reconciliation obscures the many contributions, besides reconciliation, that truth commissions make to society. Finally, it explicates the multiple meanings of the concept of reconciliation, and offers two models of reconciliation in South Africa, Individual Reconciliation (IR), and National Unity and Reconciliation (NUR). It then assesses how these models were manifested in the TRC, especially through its final report. It concludes with examining the implications and consequences of the fact that there are multiple meanings of the word for how the TRC has been, and should be, evaluated.

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Tristan Anne Borer is an Associate Professor of Government at Connecticut College . She is the author of several articles on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including “A Taxonomy of Victims and Perpetrators: Human Rights and Reconciliation in South Africa .” Human Rights Quarterly 25, no. 4 (November 2003): 1088-1116. She is also the editor of the forthcoming book on the contributions of truth commissions in general, titled Telling the Truths: Truth Telling and Peacebuilding in Post-Conflict Societies.