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The Era of Transitional Justice:
The Aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission in South Africa and Beyond
BY PAUL GREADY
London: Routledge, 2011.
vii + 270; ISBN 978-0-415-58116-5 cloth; 978-0-203-84103-8 e-book.
Performing South Africa's Truth Commission:
Stages of Transition
BY CATHERINE COLE
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010.
xxvii + 227; ISBN 978-0-253-22145-2 paper.
South African Literature after the Truth Commission:
BY SHANE GRAHAM
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
ix + 235; ISBN 0-230-61537-6 cloth.
Speaking at the Centre for Post-Conflict Justice at Trinity College, Dublin in 2010, Kader Asmal, formerly anti-apartheid activist, recently minister of education, and now professor of law in South Africa, asked the question: "Post-Conflict Justice: Industry or Necessity?" As a critic of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for allegedly sacrificing justice and the criminal prosecution of perpetrators to the ends of national reconciliation (see Asmal et al.), Asmal may have been a controversial choice to inaugurate a center whose website features Nelson Mandela framed by the new South African flag, and whose members honor the TRC as a key model for the resolution of conflict in Ireland. Nonetheless, the TRC has become, as Paul Gready suggests in The Era of Transitional Justice (hereafter Era), both an example for later commissions and the stimulus for commentary on an industrial scale. Gaining "unprecedented attention through the place of apartheid in the international political imagination," the TRC offered a workable if imperfect way to combine the investigation and documentation of systematic human rights abuses, the holding of perpetrators to account in public hearings if not in courts of law, and the creation of fora for survivors to contribute to a process of national resolution (6). At the same time, it has spawned close to a hundred volumes of analysis, or of instruction in the form of handbooks used more recently in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Gready notes that this proliferation of commentary and high expectations has led on the one hand to "overpromised" but "undelivered" benefits to victims (7) and on the other to the "fetishization of the human rights report" as an end in itself or a means, intentional or not, of legitimating the organizations, governmental or nongovernmental (NGO) that produced the document (34).
Gready's book and the others under review here, Catherine Cole's Performing South Africa's Truth Commission: Staging Transition and Shane Graham's South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss, all acknowledge the industrial scale of commentary on the TRC but each makes a case for the impact of its example less from the calculation of deliverable or undeliverable outcomes but than from the imagination and experience of the hearings and of responses to them in creative expression, mediated representation and public response to both.
KEYWORDS AND GENRES
Beginning with the acknowledgment that the South African government could not deliver reparations to victims and their families, let alone the national reconciliation that was the aspiration of the TRC, especially its chair, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Era of Transitional Justice argues that the TRC's success should not be measured by delivery alone. Rather, it should be commended as the "first truth commission to make a significant contribution to an understanding" of keywords, especially truth, justice, and reconciliation (Gready, Era 2), and thus to shape the conception and execution of its successors. The South African example has influenced successor commissions by testing a difficult combination of "process" (public participation, including the testimony of two thousand out of the twenty-one thousand survivors who requested an audience, the compelling if uneven debate between perpetrators and survivors at the hearings, as well as the development of local venues and forms of support) and "product" (not merely the official report but also the archives opened by universities and other independent bodies). As the report has faded from view, the influence of the TRC remains in national, regional, and local efforts at memorialization in institutions like schools and museums, as well as in cultural forms from song through theatre and fiction to film.
While not the first to treat "truth as genre" (20), Gready draws on his work on applied human rights and on literary and life writing (such as Writing as Resistance and "Novel Truths") to investigate the tricky relationship between instrumental and imaginative deployment of keywords and thus to bridge the gap between the focus on goals and outcomes in human rights discourse and the celebration of complexity and ambiguity by literary critics. As he notes, four genres of truth are outlined in the TRC Report: forensic truth corroborated by evidence; personal or narrative truth (experience based narrative whose retelling restores the dignity of the survivor); social or dialogic truth (consensus reached through inclusive participation); and restorative truth, the acknowledgment of shared history to enable healing (1: 110-14). Even before the publication of this volume in 1998, however, these provisional genres of truth generated more controversy than reconciliation. Poet-journalist Antjie Krog's memoir, Country of My Skull, provoked debate not only because of her selective citation of testimony but also her choice to attribute specific genres to witnesses, for example, by rendering the testimony of Lekotse as a "shepherd's tale" in blank verse (Country of My Skull 278). (1) Krog's book, which has sold 17,000 copies, against fewer than 4,000 copies of the TRC Report in print and CD-ROM (Gready Era 58-59), has become a touchstone for literary critics writing about the TRC, from Mark Sanders on the "ambiguities of witnessing" to Graham on truth and reconciliation as guiding themes in South African Literature after the TRC. Treated too broadly, however, these keywords lose analytic clarity; while truth and reconciliation certainly permeate the work of poets Krog and Ingrid de Kok, and the collectively devised theater pieces Ubu and the Truth Commission and He Left Quietly, these terms …