Ritual and transition: The Truth Commission in Alexandra Township, South Africa 1996

Bozzoli, Belinda
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The South African Truth Commission has three Committees — one on Human Rights Violations, one on Amnesty and one on Reparation and Rehabilitation. Together they are, in the words of the Commission itself, designed to 'reveal the truth about the political conflicts of the past.1 Their ultimate aim is to develop a 'culture of human rights in our country, so that the suffering and injustices of the past never occur again.'. This paper examines the operation of one of these committees, that on Human Rights Violations in Alexandra township. Alex was the home of many of South Africa's political leaders during the struggle against apartheid. It was a place where intense political and social conflicts occurred throughout the period covered by the Commission (1960 - 1993), peaking in a strikingly focused period of rebellion in the mid 1980s. The Truth Commission has taken thousands of statements from victims of apartheid, hundreds of them residents in the townships of Johannesburg. People were asked to come forward if they or their kin had been killed, abducted, tortured or severely ill treated for political reasons. The commission defined such experiences as gross human rights violations. It undertook to investigate them through its Investigative Unit. It aimed to find out who was responsible for these, how and why they happened; and to hold public hearings. The Committee on Reparation and Rehabilitation would receive the information thus derived, consult with 'communities' and make policy recommendations to the President for appropriate reparation to victims. This paper is concerned with only one of these activities, the holding of hearings throughout the country, at which victims could speak out and be heard and seen by the public of their own communities. Many hearings were recorded for television, but usually only brief extracts were shown. The paper explores one of these hearings in more detail. Of the many who had been victims of apartheid in the township of Alexandra, 22 were invited to present their testimonies concerning resistance in the township between the 1960s and late 1980s. I attended two of the three days during which the commission sat in Alexandra and heard these 22 testimonies. Listening to the testimonies presented, many of them by people not well known outside Alexandra itself — the classic subjects of oral histories- led me to realise that the public hearings were unique. They involved entirely different processes from the taking of oral histories of the period and they were quite unlike court cases as well. The commission has chosen to use the method of ritual rather than that of law to carry out its purpose. This paper explores this procedure, using the case of one relatively small but extremely significant part of the country as its lens.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 11 May, 1998
Truth commissions. South Africa , South Africa. Truth and Reconciliation Commission , Civil rights. South Africa , Crimes against humanity. South Africa , Political crimes and offenses. South Africa , Amnesty. South Africa , Legislative hearings. South Africa. Gauteng , Governmental investigations. South Africa , Alexandra (South Africa). History , Reconciliation. Political aspects. South Africa