Truth Telling and Violence Prevention
In May 2008, townships around South Africa exploded in what has been called xenophobic violence. Barbaric images of foreigners being burned alive and assaulted by xenophobic mobs were splashed across most international newspapers and TV. Scores of people were killed and thousands displaced as internal refugees. It was sobering, leaving me feeling powerless, distraught and deeply ashamed. I imagine most South Africans felt the same way. Xenophobic violence in South Africa is a stark reminder of how easily violence can still erupt despite all the efforts that have been put into building a new human rights culture in the country. Issues raised by the xenophobic violence seen in South Africa in 2008 lie at the heart of this chapter.
Specifically, this chapter considers whether the TRC changed or contributed to changing the moral fibre of South African society. This chapter, which is an expansion of earlier work (Hamber, 2006), posits two reasons that why the impact of truth-telling exercises on the prevention of future violence has been limited. First, truth commissions reinforce ‘artificial breaks’ in history and time rather than looking for the overlaps and continuities within an ever-changing context. Truth-telling processes seldom take account of the changing nature of violence. If we consider violence as having the ability to move across time periods and mutate into different forms, as will be discussed later in the chapter, we have to ask pressing questions about whether truth commissions can prevent future violence, and, if they can, how we can enhance their violence-prevention abilities. Second, there is a lack of understanding among policymakers and the architects of truth commissions about the impact of massive trauma. Truth commissions have been more preoccupied with description, discussing the direct impact of violence on victims and looking for causal understandings about past violence, than with the meaning and context of what they uncover in the present. This, as will be discussed, has specific implications for how truth commissions make recommendations.