From the side it just looks like a heap of metal bars, but when viewed from the front Nelson Mandela’s face appears. The monument stands at the site where the leader of the anti-apartheid movement was arrested in 1962. His name is above all associated with South Africa’s effort to come to terms with its past. Although Mandela’s policy of reconciliation was admired worldwide, critical views are growing within the scholarly community.
Credit: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash
Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop of Cape Town, looks contentedly into the audience at a hearing of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was appointed chairman of the commission by Nelson Mandela. Its work sparked strong interest, and not just in South Africa. Outside the country, many experts examined this attempt at engaging victims and perpetrators in a dialogue as a way to heal past wounds.
The first academic thesis on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Germany was written just as it was beginning its work. As early as October 1996, ten months after it was established, Gunnar Jeremias Theißen submitted a study to the Department of Political Science at the Free University of Berlin on the initial reactions in South Africa. Since then, scholars from all over the world have explored the use of reconciliation instead of punishment after years of bloody fighting.
Opinions on whether the South African approach was successful differ widely. In his Master’s thesis in 2007, the German social scientist Andreas Audretsch came to the conclusion that the Truth Commission’s concept was the “best possible strategy” to counter apartheid. The theologian Ralf K. Wüstenberg, however, was much more skeptical. In a comparative study from 2008, he warned against a “misguided romanticization of reconciliation efforts” in South Africa. His assessment: “Criminal prosecution was prevented, an amnesty was implemented, reparations were limited to morality and disqualifications in the civil service were prevented.”
In her thesis in 2008, the Austrian historian Beatrix Aigner also wrote that disillusionment set in soon after the public hearings ended. In the end, the perpetrators who had refused to cooperate and those whose amnesty application was rejected went unpunished anyway. She notes that the living conditions of most South Africans have not changed since the transition to democracy. She even accuses Tutu, the chairman of the commission, of pressuring victims into forgiving the perpetrators.
Judgments also differ in the English-speaking world. In an essay in 1999, Paul van Zyl, the former executive secretary of the commission, stressed the many advantages and positive results of the South African model. He writes that truth commissions allow for a broader examination of guilt beyond narrow and often legalistic definitions. “Far from handing down clear-cut judgments about guilt or innocence regarding complex conflicts, commissions force people to think critically about the past, and in so doing, make it impossible for them to glibly dismiss the suffering of victims.”
Hugo van der Merwe, research director at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Cape Town, presents a less euphoric assessment. The short mandate and limited staff of the commission made impossible to conduct an objective investigation of the approximately 20,000 reported cases. The commission also failed to gain access to the military archives because it was reluctant to use its power to engage in searches. Of the victims who did come forward, only about ten percent was heard publicly. Most importantly, the commission’s recommendations on compensation were not implemented. In 2003 victims only received a one-time payment of 30,000 rupees – a quarter of the proposed amount.
Jasmina Brankovic, who works at the same center as van der Merwe, makes a similar argument. She writes in her essay that comparatively few perpetrators, especially from the state apparatus, would have been willing to expose themselves in a public shaming process. “Its implicit aims of eliciting perpetrator apologies were not met to a significant degree.” But the majority of victims, Brankovic said, were also disappointed with the commission because in most cases there was no dialogue with the perpetrators. By participating, however, they had to give up their claim to seeing many perpetrators prosecuted or to receiving reparations from them. Not only did the state provide them inadequate compensation. It also refused to pay reparations to other victims.
Website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Website of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
Study by Hugo van der Merwe and Guy Lamb on Transitional Justice in South Africa
After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems – An International Comparison
A project at the Department of Modern History at the University of Würzburg
Instagram: After the dictatorship
With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
The corrugated iron shacks on the outskirts of Johannesburg stretch on endlessly. They formed a separate city under the name Soweto until 2002. It is less well known that in the early 1990s, the townships around Johannesburg were the site of bitter battles between Blacks. Stephanie Schell-Faucon studied a project that tried to use a form of ecotherapy to reconcile the leaders of opposing groups.
Katorus is a township agglomeration located 50 kilometers south of Johannesburg. In 1993 and 1994, bloody fighting broke out here and elsewhere between supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the African National Congress (ANC). The “black-on-black violence” caused more deaths than 50 years of apartheid. It involved mostly male youths who were often severely traumatized by it. In the second half of the 1990s, two psychologists tried to bring the hostile youths together through a therapeutic expedition to the high mountains.
In her doctoral thesis published in 2004, the educationalist Stephanie Schell-Faucon describes a detailed account of the Wilderness Trail and Therapy Project (WTTP) organized by a peace foundation in South Africa. Although the author did not participate in the hikes herself, she uses interviews to analyze how they were conducted and what impact they had.
According to the author, many young people grew accustomed to the daily shootings during the period of violent conflict in the townships. After a while, even the practice of using a car tire doused with petrol to burn people publicly (“necklacing”) was nothing unusual to them. Some interview partners expressed feeling curiosity, excitement, joy or fun when they watched the violence.
In the beginning, the youths fought with petrol bombs, pangas and knives, but later they were equipped with firearms. With the support of their communities, they were able to form real paramilitary units. Drugs and alcohol made the young men feel strong and powerful.
The first excursion took place in mid-1996 with only one former leader. Following long negotiations, the commanders finally agreed to send a few of their former fighters into the mountains with the “enemy.” Many commanders did not actually take part in a trail personally until 1998. By 2000, more than thirty mountain climbs had taken place, with an average of twelve young people on each one. More than 300 fighters from opposing groups ultimately took part.
The author describes the “Wilderness Therapy” in detail: the first moment the participants meet, the tense atmosphere during the bus ride to the Drakensberg Mountains, the physical challenges of climbing the 3,482-meter-high mountain. Prayers, rituals and traditional metaphoric explanations were employed to encourage the young people to face their own “inner beast.” New group experiences were created as they roped down and crossed through water gorges and tunnels. The main goal was to instill in the participants a sense of personal strength and trust in their companions.
The author draws a positive conclusion: With their newly acquired self-esteem, the young people were able to change their family and neighborhood relationships. This kind of change would have been difficult to achieve without the supportive group atmosphere on the excursion and the opportunity it provided for them to get closer to each other in an intimate setting far away from everyday life in the township, The intensive community experience also created a bond between the participants that continued to exist afterwards – at least for a while.
Click here for the author’s study (german, pp. 125-246).