The state of truth: evidence and authority in the work of the TRC
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If only discovering and setting down the truth were like the finding by an archeologist of the bones of some long gone ancestor of the human race. The bones are fragile and bleached, but put together, the pieces of the skeleton can offer up a semblance of scientific truth. Unfortunately, the uncovering of the truth of human acts is more complex than the uncovering of bones. From 1996 to 1998, when I was privileged to work as a full-time member of the research department of the SA TRC, this was the challenge that faced us.
As Auden writes, the violations of human rights that occurred in the past, in our collective history, do not disappear or disintegrate: they lie for decades, for centuries even, until acknowledged by society. This was the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: to uncover and acknowledge that truth, so that our society could at last be free and move forward. As put in the TRC act, the first listed objective of the Commission is to establish, as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of the gross violations of human rights which were committed during the period from 1 March 1960 to the cut-off date, including the antecedents, circumstances, factors and context of such violations, as well as the perspectives of the victims and the motives and perspectives of the persons responsible for the commission of the violations, ( Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, 1995, p 6). The third objective is to establish and make known the fate or whereabouts of victims. In some respects, and at the most obvious level, these objectives were achieved: The "exhumation unit" of the TRC, for example, dug up the skeletons of those who had been secretly assassinated, and restored the grisly remains to their families for proper burial. Together with the burial went a more-or-less accurate version of what happened to them, and the public acknowledgement of how they died and who killed them. Along with the pain came "closure" of a kind.
But the process of finding out "the truth" in other respects was much more complicated, difficult and often simply messy. And the uncomfortable relationship of the Commission to the government raised many interesting questions relating to science, truth and authority.