It’s 20 years since the submission of the report of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was a court-like restorative justice body that sought to reveal human rights abuses under apartheid. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the TRC process, handed over the report to then President Nelson Mandela in October 1998, he was handing over more than a physical archive of memory of the past.
Tutu aptly called the TRC “the third way”. It lifted the veil of lies perpetuated under apartheid, offering victims, perpetrators and “implicated others”. To borrow American academic Michael Rothberg’s term, it was a horizon moment pregnant with possibility that oriented the country toward a hopeful (if unpredictable) future.
Here was a chance for South Africans to begin anew. But, two decades later and after almost 25 years of post-apartheid democracy, the hope that was envisioned then – and the racial reconciliation these historical moments of 1994 and 1998 promised – are only barely visible.
What remains are the memories of the stories told at the TRC and their history-making impetus. All that remains, as Chief Justice Ismail Mohamed then said, “is the truth of wounded memories of loved ones”.
It’s a deep and traumatic memory that could be shared, but is impossible to translate, into objective and corroborative evidence which could survive the rigours of the law.
‘No one to blame’
Some of the cases that came before the TRC had already been tried and tested in a case of law and the courts had found “no one to blame”. It’s a refrain at the end of many inquests, which became the title of a book by George Bizos, the South African human rights lawyer who represented anti-apartheid activists, including Mandela and Walter Sisulu.
Bizos served as the lawyer at the TRC for the families of those who suffered gross human rights violations. Among them were the widows of the Cradock Four whose husbands were brutally killed by apartheid security forces. During her testimony one of the widows, Nomonde Calata, let out a scream that still haunts many of us who were present at that first TRC hearing in East London.
She was bearing witness to the shards of her brokenness after the murder of her husband, Fort Calata. She recalled the painful details of the day she received the news that his charred remains had been found with the burnt-out wreck of the car in which he was travelling with his comrades. At the time she was a 26-year-old mother of two, and expecting her third child.
Even the memory of this moment was too much to bear. Mrs Calata’s “iconic” scream didn’t just mark the opening of the TRC. Hers was the voice of a “second wounding”; an expression of anger and pain, screamed at a past that goes back several generations, calling up deeply buried emotions that reverberated over several generations.
There was a sense that Mrs Calata was at last reclaiming her agency, with the violent movement of her body thrown back as she let out her wailing cry. She was confronting this violent history told on the stage of the TRC, exposing those responsible for her irreparable loss.
American social activist bell hooks writes that black subjectivity is not a standpoint that exists only to oppose dehumanisation, “but as that movement which enables… self-actualisation”.
Objectified in so many ways as the racial and sexual “other” to legitimise the colonial and apartheid order, Calata’s TRC testimony shifted the gaze from the object of oppression to shine the light on the perpetrators’ depravity. This powerful stance unsettles the view of a world that associates goodness with all things white and savagery with black people.
The TRC laid bare the savagery of apartheid. No longer would it be possible to deny the barbarism of the apartheid state and the men and women who were its executioners.
A similar move is reflected in the exposure of white America’s vicious terrorism of the lynching of black people in the artist Ken Gonzales Day’s project “Erased Lynchings”.
In a series of photographs, Gonzales Day shows lynchings of black bodies with the images of the ropes and bodies removed from the scene of the crime, leaving the white spectators in the photographs. The series invites the viewer to cast the gaze not on the victims of the lynchings, but rather on the spectators to this crime, gleefully standing by to witness this atrocity to its conclusion.
This forces us to reflect on the extreme depravity of these spectators, and to ponder about the conditions of a society that perpetuates such acts of dehumanisation. Far from denial of history, inviting the imaginary at these sites of the crime presents the viewer with potent evidence of who the doer of the evil deed is.
Who are these people, and what stories did or do they tell their children about this shameful history? How are the memories of this shame passed down? Through its silencing and denial? Most importantly, how does it play out in societies where perpetrators and victims live in the same country in the aftermath of violent pasts?
These are some of the most urgent questions of our time. Few topics stake a more compelling claim on humanities research than the legacies of historical trauma. Apartheid, colonialism, slavery and other watershed moments of crimes against humanity in the 20th century are not events in “the past”. They are a history whose traumatic repercussions reverberates across multiple generations.
We should receive the cry of Nomonde Calata as a call to arms; to rethink our notions of “reconciliation”, “forgiveness” and other concepts that imply a goal, an accomplishment. Dealing with the past will always remain “unfinished business”, because I think that much of what happens in the afterlife of historical trauma is enigmatic, muddy, elusive, and unpredictable. The words “forgiveness” or “reconciliation” fall short of adequately capturing this complexity.