The Archive Machine: The Truth Commission and the Archaeology of Apartheid

Monday, 28 March, 2022 - 16:00

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It has been 24 years since South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) delivered its final report to then-President Nelson Mandela, and 19 since the TRC’s Amnesty Committee presented its findings to Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki. There has developed during that time a range of views about the commission, most of them critical. According to Vusi Pikoli, a former anti-apartheid insurgent: “The TRC only did half the job. It gave us half-truths and half- reconciliation, quarter-reparations but full amnesty.” Joan Scott claims that the TRC functioned like a court of law but could offer nothing more than moral counsel because it lacked the capacity to punish. Mahmood Mamdani asserts that the commission indemnified white South Africans against black demands for economic redress, thereby setting back the cause of political reconciliation in South Africa. For Ronald Suresh Roberts, the TRC was the victim of a “broad-daylight abduction” by white South African liberals (led by the TRC’s deputy chairman Alex Boraine) intent on subverting the commission’s potential to effect radical change in South Africa. Robert Meister argues that the TRC advanced a reconciliation model that was essentially a “compromise with injustice” and white privilege, but that it must still be considered a success because it allowed blacks to claim at least a moral victory over apartheid. 8 “Nonwhites in South Africa were thus allowed their moral victory over apartheid only after whites had ‘won’ the cold war” against communism, Meister maintains.9 Richard Wilson declares that the TRC, celebrated often for giving thousands of individuals a voice, restricted in fact what those individuals could say and how they could say it by legally colonizing the realms of personal experience. Adam Sitze summarizes critiques of the TRC thus: that they cast the commission as an impossible machine—unworkable in its bureaucratic operation and hopeless in its aspiration to make miracles happens. While sympathetic to some, if not all, of the criticism to which the TRC has been subjected, I think it is important to point out that, with the notable exception of Joan Scott, none of the TRC’s critics is a historian. While some of these critics might have read the TRC’s seven-volume report and even attended some of the commission’s public hearings between 1996 and 1998, very few of them have worked with the TRC archive—the reams of material that TRC commissioners, officials, investigators and researchers accumulated during the two years of the commission’s existence. In what follows, I aim to present the TRC as an archive machine, a device that sought (and succeeded more than its critics are prepared to acknowledge) to make possible new lines of historical inquiry, to set the conditions for the posing of new questions about the past, and to help many gain a better understanding of apartheid while imagining new futures.

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