To Exchange Justice for Truth Is to Embrace Evil: A View on Human Rights through the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Antjie Krog spoke on South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Antjie Krog spoke on South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
From Australian Human Rights Centre


The question that I would like us to address is as follows: If we want a common understanding and respect of human rights across the world, what are, or should be, some of the considerations to be taken into account?

I will start by presenting two examples of strong and devastating criticism directed against the basic principles of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In exploring a different kind of interpretation, we could perhaps re-visit what is understood at grassroots level under the phrase "innate human rights".

Criticism of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was only a few months into its two-year period when one of the strongest, most enduring, and most oft-cited criticisms was leveled against it. Prominent scholar Mahmood Mamdani, of Columbia University (New York) and Makerere University (Kampala, Uganda), but at that time based at the University of Cape Town, criticized the fact that the TRC had decided to limit its focus to the physical and repressive dimensions of apartheid rule, such as severe ill-treatment, abduction, torture, and killing instead of addressing the structural violence of apartheid. This, Mamdani suggested, obscured the codependency of racialized power and racialized privilege. He was particularly vocal about the forced removal of three and a half million people to create racially segregated residential areas which he called "South Africa's gulag." Some 25,000 people died between 1960 and 1994 due to political, racially motivated violence, and millions more were condemned to live in anguish and poverty. With the narrow focus of the TRC, their dignity could never be restored while thousands of apartheid functionaries and millions of white beneficiaries were left unscathed and with all their spoils intact.

In an interview with me, Mamdani sharply criticized the way in which the Commission was settling for truth instead of trying to do justice to the impoverished. "If truth has replaced justice in South Africa—has reconciliation then turned into an embrace of evil?" he asked.

The second criticism is more recent. In an article for Focus, a journal published by the Helen Suzman Foundation, Claudia Braude writes that having avoided a Nuremberg route in dealing with the crimes of the past, South Africa has entrenched a pervasive culture of impunity that uses the "template of forgiveness", which allows many South African criminals to claim the right to be forgiven. "Since amnesty cannot be granted for crimes against humanity, descriptions of apartheid mutated from being an internationally-recognized crime against humanity into a 'gross human rights violation'" (Braude, 2009: 36).

She agrees with several scholars who accuse Archbishop Desmond Tutu of cloaking the commission in a language of forgiveness, which allowed a political compromise—also called a pact between elites—to suddenly acquire a moral overlay. No wonder, the article continues, that the democratically elected leaders of the new South Africa, who in recent years were embroiled in corruption, openly demand amnesty for it.

 The article gives examples of how Truth Commission vocabulary is being used by politicians who advocate for amnesty for tax evasion, illegal possession of guns, and driving unlicensed taxis. A political commentator blatantly says: Just as South Africa had bargained with the devil during the TRC, we can now bargain with those who committed serious political crimes during the corrupt arms deal. (Braude, 2009: 43).

What these two criticisms by Mamdani and Braude are saying is that those who benefited from a crime against humanity have walked off scot-free, and that those who killed, maimed, and tortured were given amnesty. Since the structural injustice which black people suffered has not been properly tackled by the TRC, the rights and freedoms of equality in the constitution remain a chimera. The entire South African population has thus been given the license to be as corrupt and criminal as they want to be in taking what they have been denied or in protecting what others want to take away from them.

You will agree, this is devastating.

But let us look at the same issues from the perspective of regarding oneself as part of an interconnected community.

Personhood and Interconnectedness

In one of their seminal works on personhood, John and Jean Comaroff, ask: Is the concept of an 'autonomous person' a European invention? They suggest that from an anthropological disciplinary perspective, "theautonomous person," also described as that familiar trope of European bourgeois modernity, is a Eurocentric idea.

At the same time they say that nowhere in Europe, nor in any place else to which it has been exported, does it exist as an unmediated sociological reality (1991:60f). They warn however that African notions of personhood are also infinitely more complicated and suggest that it is not moving, in a fixed evolutionary orbit, toward Euro‑modernity. This autonomous 'person' is not for Africans the end point in a world-historical telos, to which non-occidentals are inexorably drawn as they cast off their primordial differences.  No, the Comaroffs say they want to build "a strong counter-teleological case the other way round:  the radically revisionist thesis that, in some critical respects, the notion of a person in Europe is evolving toward Africa.

So what is personhood in an African perspective?

The poet Ifeanyi Menkiti, maintains that the community defines the individual. In other words, personhood is not bestowed on somebody simply through birth, but is something to be acquired and at which an individual could fail (Gyekye, 1997: 37). Personhood is not bestowed simply through birth, it is a state of becoming. You have to 'build' yourself into a person.

The Comaroffs describes the process they observed among the Batswana as follows:

"nobody existed or could be known except in relation and with reference to, even as part of, a wide array of significant others; and, second, the identity of each and every one was forged, cumulatively, by an infinite, ongoing series of practical activities […] the onus was on citizens … to 'build themselves up,'" (Ibid.: 268, 270).

According to 20th century missionary Tom Brown, who also lived among the Batswana for over forty years, the moment a person starts to live in disregard of the community according to the each-man-for-himself principle,

"the light of the mind is darkened and (his) character deteriorates, so that it may be said that the real personhood is dead, though the body still lives; when they realize that to all intents and purposes the human being is alienated from fellowship"

Leopold Senghor emphasized the Latin meaning of 'conspiring'—'breathing together.' Our deepest moral obligation is to become fully human, and that we can only do by entering more and more deeply into community with others. The goal of morality is the fullness of humanity.

African philosopher Kwame Gyekye does not distance himself from the notion that human dignity is inviolable andinnate, but suggeststhat the basis of a just society should be "caring or compassion or generosity" rather than justice (Gyekye, 1997: 70).

Let us return to the TRC.

Thousands and thousands of revenge killings were perpetrated in Europe after the Second World War. Not a single direct revenge killing of victims took place during the TRC period—there were many murders, of course, but these were generally linked to criminal activities. Why did South Africans refrain from seeking revenge? Why did victims and perpetrators sit together in the same room to talk about their experiences?

I want to suggest that it was due to this sense of being part of, and dependent on, one another in order to build a personhood within a new democracy. How powerful this kind of interconnectedness is was impressively formulated by a mother whose son was killed by an apartheid  death squad. Asked what she thought about reconciliation she answered:

"This thing called reconciliation […] if I am understanding it correctly […] if it means this perpetrator, this man who has killed Christopher Piet, if it means he becomes human again, this man, so that I, so that all of us get our humanity back […] then I agree, then I support it all" (Krog, 1998: 109).

In simple words she spelled out the full complex implications of being interconnected-towards-wholeness and the role of reconciliation in it.

Her words mean that she understood that the killer of her child could, and did, kill because he had lost his humanity, because he was no longer human. She also understood that to forgive him would open up the possibility for him to regain his humanity, to change profoundly. And she understood that the loss of her son affected her own humanity, that she herself had now an affected humanity. Most importantly, however, she understood that if indeed the perpetrator felt himself driven by her forgiveness to regain his humanity, then it would open up for her the possibility to become fully human again.

This view had profound implications for the workings of the TRC. After eighteen such commissions around the world the South African TRC was hailed and credited for being the first to:

  • Hold victim hearings in public,
  • Individualize amnesty, and
  • Allow victims who fought on both sides of the conflict to testify at the same forum.

While most scholars attribute this strategy to motivated and innovative thinking, all three aspects can be traced back directly to a strong awareness of building personhood within an interconnectedness:

  • Since people share each other's pain, the audience has as much of a right to be present during a testimony as the testifier—all of it is part of our story and may therefore be public;
  • People who are prepared to apply for amnesty are admitting wrong-doing, so they could begin to change in order to be eventually readmitted to society;
  • Mothers who lost their loved ones, suffer the same pain and can only try to heal when connected to one another, irrespective of whether their loved ones fought for the 'right' side or the 'wrong' side.

What are the implications of interconnected personhood in terms of TRC criticism? Let us take the first. Exchanging truth for justice or "embracing the evil one" could be the beginning of a process of humanization in which compassion and change bring the ultimate form of justice: a restored and caring society.

In fact, it is important to know that, according to African philosophers, the notion of evil is different. Something is considered to be evil not because of its intrinsic nature, but by virtue of who does what to whom. According to Professor Setiloane, evil can be described as living in disregard of the community. It is when you begin to deny your interconnectedness, step out of the corporate in which you should be 'building' yourself that you are committing evil. So it is exactly by refusing to forgive and embrace that is regarded as evil; one begins to deny interconnectedness and is therefore busy with evil.

With regard to not addressing the structural devastation of apartheid: within a communitarian world view one can assume that forgiving and embracing the perpetrator will demand of him to change into a fellow citizen that will begin to 'build his personhood' by sharing with and assisting his community. With regard to apartheid's beneficiaries, interconnectedness assumes that whites will feel themselves linked to the few identified perpetrators and that that will propel them into processes of change, restoration, and reparation.

When I speak of whiteness, and affirm myself as white, this is a social construction, an acknowledgement that my identity has been racialised in South Africa due to our peculiar colonial and apartheid history. Melissa Steyn (2001:xxvi) refers to the consensus that "Whiteness Studies" produced about the "normative invisibility" of whiteness in Western scholarship:

As the privileged group, whites have tended to take their identity as the standard by which everyone else is measured. This makes white identity invisible, 'even to the extent that many whites do not consciously think about the profound effect being white has on their everyday lives'

The dominant (and therefore usually unnoticed) sense of whiteness into which most white South Africans were socialized accepts the master narrative with all its assumptions of the superiority, special entitlement, and the unique destiny of European peoples" (Steyn 2001:xxvii). That no sharing or change have happened is therefore more an indication of a dominating non-interconnecting culture clashing with an indigenous interconnecting one, than a TRC template that encourages people to be comfortable with 'evil.'

Not bearing interconnectedness in mind often leads to confusion. In his essay on forgiveness Jacques Derrida describes Tutu as "confused" and oscillating "between a non-penal and non-reparative logic of 'forgiveness' (he calls it 'restorative') and a judicial logic of amnesty" (Derrida 2001: 32). Through the interconnectedness-prism, however, Tutu is not simply linking human rights and amnesty to religion, but is using the foundation of interconnectedness to allow people back into humanity through processes such as forgiveness and amnesty. In other words, concepts such as amnesty and judicial logic are not added on or simply linked to forgiveness, but are interpreted through interconnectedness which profoundly changes the way in which these two terms are used by people like Archbishop Tutu.

Richard Wilson suggests that the Commission had a "dual consciousness" with practical justice and forgiveness and a confused understanding of human rights (Wilson, 2001: 153). Again, interconnectedness does not simply mean extracting privileges and benefits from one group to give to the other. Interconnectedness depends on everybody's moral awareness of a deep and potentially fatal connectedness which puts an imperative on beneficiaries to share and build in order for them to regain their humanity. Interconnectedness lit up concepts like justice into restorative justice, amnesty into admitting wrongdoing, forgiveness into re-admittance into the community of humanity, and human rights into responsibilities towards a more humane society. 

With regard to the inability to see interconnectedness as the basis, Gyekye notes that "the neglect of, or inadequate attention to, the status of responsibilities and obligations on the one hand, and the obsessional emphasis on, and privileging of, rights on the other hand, could lead to the fragmentation of social values and, consequently, of social relationships and integrity of society itself. Responsibilities, like rights, must therefore be taken seriously" (Gyekye, 1987: 67).

Is the "template of forgiveness" providing impunity for the corrupt? Yes, if amnesty is regarded in a strictly individual sense. But if amnesty is regarded in an interconnected way, that it is an admittance of wrongdoing and stating of willingness to 'make up for' it in order to become part of the community again, then amnesty is NOT impunity, but profound change. It is therefore too simplistic a reading to regard all amnesty-asking as a desire for impunity. I am suggesting that much of the "support" for criminals in South Africa is embedded NOT in a desire for wrongs to go unpunished, but to be allowed, through negotiated widergutmachen back into the community of respectable citizens.

At the same time, the fact that many current political leaders regard amnesty indeed as the same impunity granted to the beneficiaries of apartheid, is a sign of how Western notions of individual rights are dominating, overriding, and corroding the indigenous notion of personhood and interconnectedness.


Contrary to what many scholars have argued, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not leave the notion of justice out of the equation. I believe justice was interpreted from the perspective of interconnectedness which focuses on pursuing a fuller humanity. In fact, justice entered the equation and became rejuvenated through a radical rethinking of the grammar of justice itself and through the process of human compassion and restoration that is understood to be as important as, and should become part of, the rule of law. This rethinking should be used not only during times of difficult transition, but in privileged countries which are desperately trying to protect themselves from those whose interconnectedness has been destroyed through colonialism, wars, collateral damage etc, and are flocking to the shores of privileged countries to share in the takings.

To return to the initial question: If we want a common understanding and respect of human rights across the world, what are, or should be, some of the considerations to be taken into account? I think it is important to realize that for the less fortunate of the world, human rights are often like a tin can of nutritious food - only the privileged have can openers. If people try to hack the tins open, they are violators of human rights. Things like a bill of rights, human rights watch, advocates for human rights, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, etc are often regarded with suspicion as can be seen in the recent journal: New African. It protects and often generates inordinate incomes to its protagonists, who continue to put African leaders on trial while those who invaded other countries, exploited resources, corrupted political leaders, are untouchable. 

The debate around human rights should move toward the concept of interconnectedness and how the privileged as well as countries should develop personhoods through building liberated zones of true humaneness in the world.


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Award-winning writer, poet, and academic, Antjie Krog, delivered a seminar on "Exchanging Justice for Truth as an Embrace of Evil: a View on Human Rights through the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission" on Tuesday, July 24th to AHRCentre guests. She invited to the 25 Medellin International Poetry Festival: 2nd World Poetry Summit for Peace and Reconciliation.

Published at Febraury 8th de 2015

Última actualización: 28/06/2018