The Archive, Public History and the Essential Truth: The TRC Reading the Past

  • Brent Harris


At a lecture presented in London on 5 June 1994, Jacques Derrida discussed the complexities of the meaning of the archive. He described the duality in meaning of the word ‘archive’, in terms of temporality and spatiality as a place of ‘commencement’, and as the place ‘where men and gods command’ or the ‘place from which order is given’.1


Public Sphere Public Hearing Truth Commission Public History Reconciliation Commission 
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  1. 2.
    Derrida, Archive Fever, p. 1. Emphasis in original.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    The term ‘traces’ is taken from Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History (New York: Routledge, 1991) and is preferred to terms such as ‘information’,’ sources’ or ‘evidence’ as these are embedded in positivist and objectivist claims that deny the subjective construction of ‘information’ and ‘evidence’. My usage of the term ‘evidence’ elsewhere in this essay should be read as a miming of positivist and objectivist claims that this essay criticises.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See, for example, Hayden White’s ‘The burden of history’ in White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 27–50. Also see Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History; Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Checking the evidence: the judge and the historian’ in James Chandler, Arnold I. Davidson and Harry Harootunian, eds., Questions of Evidence: Proofs, Practices and Persuasion across the Disciplines (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 291–303; and Joan Scott, ‘The evidence o1 experience’ in Chandler et al., eds., Questions of Evidence, pp. 363–387.Google Scholar
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    Final Clause of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act, No. 200 of 1993 quoted by Dullah Omar in ‘Justice in transition’, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Cape Town: Justice in Transition, ca 1996), p. 2; and Desmond Tutu quoted in Weekend Argus, ‘Commission “must heal nation”: true reconciliation main aim, says Tutu in first address’, Sunday, 16/17 December 1995. Emphasis added. These undoubtedly referred to the Past.Google Scholar
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    Derrida, Archive Fever, p. 2. Emphasis in original.Google Scholar
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    Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995, 3(1)(a); hereafter abbreviated ‘Ponura’.Google Scholar
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    In his analysis of South African commissions of inquiry into ‘the native question’, Adam Ashforth arrived at the conclusion those commissions were ‘not just modes of scientific investigation’ but were simultaneously ‘performances which served to authorise a form of social discourse’. See Adam Ashforth, The Politics of Official Discourse in Twentieth Century South Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). Emphasis added. Also see George E. Marcus, ‘The official story: response to Julie Taylor’, in Michael Ryan and Avery Gordon, eds., Body Politics: Disease, Desire and the Family (Boulder, San Francisco and Oxford: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 207–208.Google Scholar
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    The TRC did, however, attempt to incorporate some of these processes into its field of investigation by holding workshops, notably at Oudtshoorn, in which some of the psychological aspects of apartheid oppression were addressed, and by holding’ sector’ hearings to investigate the activities of the media, the business sector and religious bodies, among others, during apartheid. However, these sector hearings presented the media and the business sector with a subject position from which to speak and from which to represent its version of, and its position in, the past. See, for example, ‘Ill-prepared TRC fails to press business for atonement’, Cape Times, Monday, 17 November 1997; The truth: business’s moral omissions’, City Press, Sunday, 16 November 1997; ‘Now even acceptability is a commodity’, Weekend Argus, Sunday, 15/16 November 1997. Also see Sam Shilowa, HRVC Hearing, Johannesburg, Thursday, 13 November 1997 and Jay Naidoo, HRVC Hearing, Johannesburg, Thursday, 13 November 1997.Google Scholar
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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2002

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  • Brent Harris

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