South Africa: does a truth commission promote social reconciliation?

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.315.7120.1393 (Published 29 November 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1393

Some pointers but no real evidence

  1. Derek Summerfield, Psychiatrista
  1. a Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, London NW5 3EJ

    In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is winding to a close next year after a marathon of testimony taking from victims and perpetrators. It has pushed rather harder than similarly named commissions in El Salvador or Argentina, where the political and military order implicated in the events under investigation was still essentially in power. Its purpose has been to facilitate society's recognition of the extent of state violence during apartheid by recording the accounts of ordinary victims and thus promote reconciliation.

    What can we reliably say about the role of public apology, acknowledgment, and forgiveness in the aftermath of war or political violence? Does truth purify? In optimal circumstances do victims forgive and forget, or do they die off and a new generation grows up for whom what happened is more remote and eventually mere history? How are we to measure the social impact of a truth commission in comparison with, say, economic factors (which isthe first thing cited by people in Cambodia, for example, where there is little appetite for such a commission)? What happens when a sizeable section of the public is instinctively against such trawling of the past, as in East Germany, where an astonishing number of ordinary citizens were drawn into the security service's informer networks at some point during the communist era? What emerges in these circumstances might be inflammatory and divisive rather than reconciling—and anyway assumes that “truth” can be unearthed in pristine condition, uninfluenced by subsequent events.

    Lastly, does the immunity from prosecution granted perpetrators if they testify ignore the way that social cohesion depends on shared ideas about justice. The widow of Steve Biko, the black leader murdered in prison in 1977, challenged the right of the South African government to “forgive” his killers, and not just because they are still manifestly unapologetic.

    A comparison between the postwar stances of Germany and Japan—and people's responses to them—offer a 50 year natural experiment on some aspects of this debate. After initial diffidence Germany apologised to its victims (and continued to do so) and made financial restitution. Japan has largely failed to do either, or even to give an open account in its history books. Japanese feel that it would be sinful to apologise for the second world war because they would be blaming their parents and also Emperor Hirohito, who was considered a deity. Thus allied survivors of death camps and thousands of South East Asian women forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese army are still agitating about unfinished business. One expression of this was their refusal to countenance the presence of Japanese officials at ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.

    There are pointers here to the role that official acknowledgment, apology, and reparation may play in hastening a sense of closure after horrific events. It is still unclear, however, what this may mean overall for society's health, and whether for individual victims it offers an effective remedy for what in Korea is called “anger illness.”

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