Historians, history and the South African TRC

While the TRC is not the final word on the past, it has provided historians with a quarry of information to sift through.

It is now over six years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) began its work, and we have yet to come to the end of the TRC process. The final two volumes of the commission's report, delayed by a court case brought by the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), are still months away from publication. Beyond that, there are the still unresolved issues of reparations and the prosecution of individuals who either were not granted amnesty or who did not apply for amnesty.

Yet while the process has continued, the TRC has spawned a vast literature, which has examined its work from many different angles and from the perspectives of a range of disciplines. Most of the ever-increasing entries on the TRC in the University of Cape Town library catalogue, now approaching two hundred in number, are by political scientists, psychologists, and religious and literary specialists. A group of people who have had relatively little to say about the TRC is one that might have been expected to have been very involved, given that the TRC's work related directly to our recent past: professional historians.

In a paper delivered to a conference of history teachers late last year, Andre du Toit of the University of Stellenbosch, suggested that historians had distanced themselves from the TRC because from the start they had been critical of the process and the likely outcome. While that may be true of some historians, others were willing to get engaged, but were not presented with an opportunity to do so.

Only one - Russell Ally, an economic historian who had taught at the University of the Witwatersrand - played a leading role. Some junior historians were employed in the TRC's research department. But the lead in compiling the five-volume report presented to president Mandela in October 1998 was taken by non-historians. Given the TRC's impossible mandate, it was probably inevitable that historians would be critical of aspects of the report. That few historians have come forward to articulate such criticisms in the more than four years since it was completed is, in part, merely a reflection of the fact that so few are undertaking active research on our recent political past.

Those who are now beginning to voice criticisms are not necessarily critical of the work of the TRC as a whole. They can be critical of the report while accepting that the TRC was an essential part of the transition to a new order and respect what the TRC achieved in its short life.

Those who were responsible for writing the report accept many of the points of criticism now being made. Charles Villa-Vicencio, who headed the TRC's research department, points out that the report, compiled in great haste, was not meant to be an academic history. He sees it as a kind of 'road map' into some aspects of our recent past. From his perspective, the TRC wanted to open a debate, not present an official version of the past that should not be challenged.

It is the task of historians not only to write the history of the TRC itself, its origins in the negotiated settlement and the way it went about its work. They must also criticise its 'road map', pointing out its inadequacies and errors. A key task for historians is to assess much the TRC has added to our knowledge of our recent past.

A valuable aid to answering that question is the recently published collection of essays Commissioning the Past, Understanding South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CTP), edited by Debra Posel and Graeme Simpson. Of the many books on the TRC, whether by scholars or those involved with the commission, it is one of the most helpful in presenting a balanced, scholarly perspective on the TRC's work as a whole. (Another collection, After the TRC, edited by Wilmot James and Linda van de Vijwer (Cape Town, 2000), is particularly noteworthy for Colin Bundy's essay on The Beast of the Past. Bundy drew heavily on the proceedings of a conference on the TRC held at Wits University in June 1999. It was that conference that has now led to the publication of Commissioning the Past, though the volume contains only a small selection of the papers given at the Wits conference, and includes some not presented there.)

On the one hand, historians agree that the TRC uncovered much new information about many cases of human rights violations, information about who the perpetrators were and how the victims were dealt with. Through the TRC process, for example, details emerged of where many victims were buried, and one man's amnesty application blew open the hitherto secret chemical and biological weapons' programme and led to the trial of Wouter Basson. (The fullest account of that is contained in Secrets and Lies by Marlene Burger and Chandre Gould (Cape Town, 2002).) But while the TRC report usefully synthesises and details human rights violations throughout the country and committed by South Africans abroad, of the little it says about the context in which these violations took place, much is not new to historians of the period.

Like analysts from different disciplines, historians can point to the many inadequacies of the report, some of them acknowledged in the report itself. Coverage of what happened outside South Africa in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s is particularly sketchy. The report fails, say, to deal with the vast array of human rights violations committed by South Africans in its de facto colony, Namibia. It does not tackle many violations linked to the IFP, or consider the range of the consequences of apartheid, such as the forced removal of millions of people in the 1960s and 1970s, let alone of earlier forms of racial segregation.

The TRC was given the task of 'establishing as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of the gross violations of human rights [from 1960 to 1994] including the antecedents, circumstances, factors and context of such violations, as well as the perspectives of the victims and the motives and perspectives of the persons responsible for the commission of the violations'. But the sections of the report dealing with the context in which those violations occurred are very thin. Given the limited time available, it was probably inevitable that the commission should focus its work mainly on high profile cases of gross human rights violations.

The second major criticism of the report concerns causation. A number of contributors to Commissioning the Past suggest that the report does not ask the right questions, that it is too concerned with describing what happened, not concerned enough with why things happened.

For Posel, it does not 'grapple with the complexities of social causation' (CTP, p. 166). By describing high profile cases without sufficient context, the report does not show how things changed over time. Historical process, so fundamental to the work of historians, is lost. Posel argues further that the report fails to analyse the structures of apartheid and their evolution, and so gives a misleading picture of the nature of the main cause of the gross violations of human rights the TRC is concerned with. She notes that the report does not engage with the relevant historiography (CTP, pp. 165-166).

In a detailed criticism of the TRC report's coverage of the violence in Kathorus on the East Rand in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien argue that the report fails to grapple with the relevant socio-economic context, and does not explain what caused the violence. They write of the report's 'explanatory vacuity' (CTP, p.198), and charge that the TRC did not even try to establish the multiple causes, let alone weigh up their relative significance.

Historians continually re-interpret the past. In doing so, they must use any relevant source available. The five-volume TRC report, along with the other evidence produced by the TRC - in particular, the amnesty hearings available on the TRC web site (now to be found at the Department of Justice web site: http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/index.html) - constitutes a valuable source for scholars.

In time historians hope to gain access to the great archive collected by the commission, now housed in the National Archives in Pretoria, along with other material to which the TRC gained exclusive access. Because access to such material is not yet possible, it is too early now to make a full assessment of the contribution of the TRC to an understanding of our recent past, just as it is too early to assess fully its contribution to reconciliation.

For all its many limitations, there can be no doubt that historians of the future will agree that the TRC was a very important exercise. Its work will long repay detailed critical study. We must hope that more historians follow the lead now taken by those who have written about it in Commissioning the Past.