HomeOpinion & AnalysisA Zim perspective on the TRC

A Zim perspective on the TRC

By Brian Raftopoulos


LISTENING to debates on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) at the tenth anniversary conference organised by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation last week, and reading various recent reflections on the event, I was struck both by t

he differences and similarities of the democratic transitions in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In both countries there was a clear similarity in the language of reconciliation and the political compromise it was meant to encapsulate.

The emphasis on forgiveness for past injustices as a basis for future nation-building was seen as a necessary compromise to “move forward” in the context of international pressures that favoured such a dispensation.

The structural and political legacies of different colonial pasts combined with contemporary pressures of global neo-liberalism provided strong pressures for such a compromise.

In the 1980s the Zimbabwean transition was often hailed as a model of reconciliation in post-settler societies and the changes in both Namibia and South Africa drew in some ways from the Zimbabwean example. In sum, the politics of reconciliation became a modality for the transfer of power for those societies moving out of white domination.

There is no doubt that the policy of reconciliation in these southern African countries had a good deal of merit in avoiding broader conflagrations and opening up democratic spaces for the consideration of new options in these societies.

However, the legacies of enormous inequality remained as potentially explosive questions waiting to be resolved, and therefore available for both progressive and dangerous forms of popular mobilisation.
Within this context, as many analysts have pointed out, the TRC was both a major achievement and a distinctive evasion.

In important ways it gathered vital information about the human rights abuses of the apartheid era and provided a forum for public testimony and, to a more limited extent, “confession”.

Its major limitation, as other scholars have pointed out, was its silences on the institutional effects of apartheid and the limited notion of victims. Notwithstanding such limitations, the TRC provided a valuable space for the discussion of accountability and questioning of impunity.

In Zimbabwe the policy of reconciliation had as its basis the occlusion of any body that would deal with questions of historical accountability, and overall immunity became part of the basis for consolidation of the new state.

While the new South African state embarked on its quest for selective truths in the early years of transformation, the first years of the new Zimbabwean state were marked by the Matabeleland massacres and the repression of alternative political voices.   

Public discussions about the past very quickly took the form of memorialisation of the particular history of the ruling party and the assumption that this rendition was coterminous with national history.

Through a tightly-controlled public media, a particularisation of liberation history took place combined with a narrow state construction of “the liberation hero” to evade more open national discussions on the past.

It took concerted pressure from civic bodies to pry open some discussion of state accountability for the Matabeleland debacle, and a crisis within the ruling party over the war veterans issue in the late 1990s to begin to glimpse the cracks in the ruling party’s one-dimensional image of itself.

The decisive moment in opening up discussions of both the past and contemporary issues in Zimbabwean politics was the emergence of a strong civic and political opposition in the late 1990s.

The state’s response has been to impose an authoritarian nationalist closure on Zimbabwean politics which continues to be a central feature of the crisis in the country.

An important point to be made about the emergence of this crisis is that the unfinished business of reconciliation politics provided the breeding ground for a repressive, highly racialised state nationalism that has for the moment foreclosed any further discussion of democratic alternatives.

What has struck me in recent debates on the TRC is the ways in which the unfinished business of the 1994 transition is calling out for redress.

I refer not only to the important questions of reparations for victims and further prosecutions of high-level perpetrators of apartheid crimes, but the urgent need to attend to the structural legacies of the past.

It has also been apparent the recent discussions continue to be characterised more by the moral/ethical tone that marked the TRC itself than by the hard political questions that need to be asked about the current nature of the South African state. For it is around such questions that the blockages around the recommendations and the broader implications of the TRC are likely to be located.

Notwithstanding this reservation, South Africans have every right to be proud of the TRC with all its limitations and ambiguities. It was a landmark event that also constituted a key ingredient in the difficult nation-making process in that country.

It provided an important arena for public discussions about the past and raised questions around accountability that continue to reverberate in this society. Zimbabweans continue to fight for such a space.

As the ANC faces the challenges of transformation in South Africa it will be important to track the changing political language of the state. An important determinant of these changes will be white responses to the challenges of reconciliation.

Seeing reconciliation as a means of legitimising privilege or constructing a relativist response to past historical injustices would be a serious political mistake, and under such circumstances the dangers of a more aggressive nationalist response should not be underestimated, especially when alternatives on the left remain weak.      

* Brian Raftopoulos is a Zimbawean scholar working for the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town.

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