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South African archivist notes limits of transitional justicePage from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, vol. 5 (1998). (Photo: ©2010 Wyoming_Jackrabbit.) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

South African archivist notes limits of transitional justice

Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory points out the limits of transitional justice and offers human rights archivists new lines of inquiry for the future.

By Peggy McInerny
Director of Communications

The imperative of gathering evidence to prosecute criminal human rights violations and the imperative of documenting the voices of perpetrators creates a conundrum.

UCLA International Institute, October 25, 2013 — Processes of transitional justice, particularly those overseen by the well-known Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, have significantly shaped the career of Verne Harris. Yet Harris says, “Transitional justice has become increasingly problematic [for me], closing down my thinking rather than opening it.”

Director of Research and Archive at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Harris delivered the keynote speech at the UCLA conference “The Antonym of Forgetting: Global Perspectives on Human Rights Archives” on October 18, 2013. The two-day symposium brought together archivists working on human rights issues around the world to explore the complex issues involved in the creation, preservation and use of records documenting human rights crises.

Acknowledging an intellectual debt to both the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida and German-born dialogue facilitator Undine Whande (senior specialist at the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa ), Harris claimed the calling of human rights archivists was to fight for justice. Several times, he returned to a citation from Derrida on this theme:

We, the living, are called by the ghosts of those not yet born and those already dead. They call us to take responsibility before them — in front of them, seeing them, respecting them. They call us to take responsibility for making a just society.

Moving beyond the mythology of truth and reconciliation

Frustrated by the limitations of transitional justice in South Africa, Harris said he felt “stuck” as a memory worker in the post-apartheid era.

He pointed out that 20 years of memory work in the country had yielded less than five convictions, the archive of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had been locked up by gatekeepers and that a draconian secrecy act might soon be adopted by the government. Perhaps most important, he asserted that the levels of rage and inequality in South Africa were greater today than they had been in 1994.

The speaker offered attendees several new lines of inquiry as a possible way forward, wholeheartedly expecting them to disagree with him. First, citing the work of Michelle Caswell (UCLA, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies), he argued that grassroots communities need to be empowered to engage and own archival work, thus encouraging the interweaving of stories from below.

“Where are the projects initiated by communities for communities?” he asked. “How is it possible that the thousands of stories that were gathered by the TRC have been, by and large, left unwoven?  . . . I don’t know of a single project in South Africa where those stories have been gathered together [and] used as a generator of new stories.”


Verne Harris addresses the symposium via Skype. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Second, Verne cited the work of Adam Sisser (“The Impossible Machine,” University of Michigan Press 2013), which examines 25 truth commissions around the world — 21 of which took place in former European colonies. Specifically, he urged archivists to take up Sisser’s invitation to make a connection between contemporary transitional justice processes and the European colonial instruments of grievance, adjustment and indemnity (of colonial functionaries).

“Sisser reminds us,” said the speaker, “that we need to look back at the TRC amnesty process and ask ourselves the question: How special was that intervention, given that we have only had a handful of prosecutions since the TRC finished its work? . . [E]ffectively, we have given blanket amnesty to the perpetrators of human rights violations.”

“Now it’s very hard for me, as someone who worked with and in the structures of the TRC, to ask these types of questions,” remarked Harris, “but I think they are liberating questions for us.”

Third, the speaker urged archivists to rethink the assumption that remembering brings healing, claiming it may very well reopen old wounds. Here he sounded a theme to which he returned again and again — there is no blueprint for healing, no blueprint for how to achieve justice and recover from the damage inflicted by human rights abuses.

Yet there is an absolute need, he insisted, to include the voices of all parties in memory work — victims as well as oppressors and collaborators. He conceded, however, that this process must be done with special respect — recording the stories of the latter must not reopen the wounds of the former.

Citing the work of Ann Cvetkovich (“An Archive of Feelings,” Duke, 2003; “Political Emotions,” Routledge, 2010), Harris offered a slightly different take on the need for community ownership of memory work. “[Cvetkovich] explicitly looks for specific ways of thinking about trauma and damage that do not pathologize them, that shift control away from experts, whether they be experts of medicine, of therapy, of faith or restorative justice,” observed Harris.

Cvetkovich’s work with performance in public spaces and insistence on multiple tents that offer hospitality to the continued retelling of stories, said Harris, finally leads to active engagement in the politics of the present. “In other words,” he explained, “working with trauma should not be about dealing with the past, but about making the future.”

Fourth, Harris cited the work of Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman (particularly his film “Nostalgia for the Light,” 2010) as a model for enabling the heaviness of one past — an individual’s past — to find lightness by being constellated with other individual’s pasts. “[Guzman] creates a space of healing,” said the speaker, “a space hospitable to people repairing their own damage without prescription, without proscription.”

Fifth, Harris drew on Undine Whande’s notion that a cyclical notion of multiple generations should inform the discourse on transitional justice, not a linear sense of time. “Whande also,” he continued, “questions the more or less neat assignations of role and identity in transitional justice discourse: victim, oppressed, oppressor, perpetrator, beneficiary, and so on.”

Noting that Whande identifies herself a Nazi granddaughter, Harris claimed he could be identified as both a beneficiary and victim of the apartheid system. Memory work is complex, he argued, urging archivists to “unsettle” the dominant discourse of human rights memory work to include the voices of the living and dead who are disavowed and rendered spectral due to their past actions.

Healing and justice: Timing matters

Harris intimated that the timing of different components of memory work was critical. “In terms of the South African experience,” he said, “I’m beginning to think personally — and I hear other people beginning to express this — that perhaps we rushed our truth and reconciliation process. . . . The TRC was precisely for me an instrument for getting it over and done with as quickly as possible and then getting on with life.”

Moreover, the imperative of gathering evidence to prosecute criminal human rights violations and the imperative of documenting the voices of perpetrators creates a conundrum, he conceded. Societies may need to wait to record the voices of people who participated in abuses until those people no longer fear the consequences of their testimony.

“However obscene these stories might be, however hurtful they might be, we have to find a way of engaging them,” he insisted. In the case of South Africa, he explained, the remains of people who disappeared may never be recovered without talking to the perpetrators.

In his conclusion, Harris returned to idea of creating a just society, one in which the future is perceived as liberating for all of its members. “[W]hen the future feels like a liberating space to individuals, they will work it out — over and beyond formal instruments and institutional projects,” he said.

“I think that ultimately, that’s where we are getting in terribly wrong [in South Africa]: We’re not showing people that the transition from apartheid to a democratic order creates more opportunity, creates more equality, creates more jobs, brings more basic services, etc. That, ultimately, has to be the focus of our work.”

Verne Harris is a world-renowned archivist and successful novelist. Since 2004, he has served as Mandela’s personal archivist. He headed the editorial team that produced the book, “Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010).

“The Antonym of Forgetting: Global Perspectives on Human Rights Archives” symposium was cosponsored by the University of California Pacific Rim Research Program and the following divisions of UCLA: Center for Information as Evidence, Indonesian Studies Program of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Charles E. Young Research Library, African Studies Center, Mellon Postdoctoral Program in the Humanities “Cultures in Transnational Perspective,” and UCLA Library Special Collections.

For symposium abstracts and other related information, click here

UCLA International Institute