Confronting Truths in Digital Archives: Truth Commission Special Report and Forgotten Voices of the Present

The 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Commission was designed to achieve what Nobel laureate and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu called “restorative justice”. Tutu summarized the concept in an episode of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Special Report aired by the South African Broadcast Corporation on April 21st 1996. The episode covered the TRC’s hearings on the death squads that assassinated members of the opposition movement in South Africa and abroad. It opens with footage a hearing in which Archbishop Tutu grimly stated that the country had seen “a lot of evil” that that evil was “being exorcised” through the TRC. (1:00-1:10)

All of the TRC special reports produced and presented by columnist Max du Preez are available on the SABC’s Truth Commission Special Report site. The reports all follow the same format. They all open and close with comments by du Preez. They also feature  footage of witness testimonies and put the hearings into context through the kind of rigorous hard-nose journalism that no longer exists on television. Through cooperation with the South African Historic Archive SABC has built a remarkable repository of digital information about the TRC around its special reports.

As a digital gateway the SABC site Reports is exceptional. The episodes are conveniently arranged by broadcast date and easy to browse. The episodes can be broken down and viewed in sections with a quick click. In addition to videos the site includes transcripts of episodes, transcripts of hearings, and the TRC’s final report. The site’s search function locates keywords within all of this content and presents the results in tabulated compartments. The site has a useful glossary. The terms in the glossary can also be used as references to locate related material whether it is video or textual. From a technical stand point the SABC’s TRC site is a masterfully done, beautifully organized and easily navigable.

As a digital archive the SABC site should be considered as product of the TRC. The documents and videos were all generated by the commission and are in a way reflections of the TRC’s efforts to “exorcise” the evils of Apartheid. In many ways the TRC succeeded in this endeavor. Many of the evils, like assassinations and other forms of state sanctioned violence, were brought to light. Victims, widows and families were able to tell their stories and confront perpetrators. Likewise, perpetrators were able to tell their stories and request amnesty. The process of bringing out the truth in a very public fashion might facilitate some healing, but it is unclear to what degree the victims who stood up and offered testimony were satisfied with the non-punitive nature of the TRC’s hearings.  At a round table at Michigan State University in 2006, archivist Verne Harris suggested that account of the victims’ impressions of the restorative justice of the TRC remains unclear.

There is another fundamental weakness with the TRC, and subsequently the archival content it produced: While specific kinds of political violence conducted by mid to low level functionaries has been thoroughly explored by, the structural violence of the Apartheid system orchestrated by the highest levels of government was not. Harris’ paper , “They Should have Destroyed More’: The Destruction of Public Records by the South African State in the Final Years of Apartheid, 1990-1994,” details the systematic state sanctioned sanitization of records that has prevented a complete understanding of the governments culpability in violence against the opposition movement. Additionally, the stories of ‘everyday’ oppression, experienced by the multitude of people doomed to experience a lifetime of poverty for being classified as ‘black’ and ‘coloured’, was left largely unexplored by the TRC, and one might argue (with good reason) unhealed. The TRC was not designed to tackle these particular issues. More tangible offenses committed by more readily identifiable perpetrators took priority. The SABC’s site, despite being a flawlessly executed digital repository, naturally reflects those priorities.

There are websites that offer insight into lingering Apartheid era inequalities that continue to haunt South Africa. The African Oral Narratives digital library hosts one of these sites. The site Forgotten Voices of the Present is a self described “attempt to contribute an ‘alternative history’ of South African transition by capturing ‘histories from below’…in South Africa’s post 1994 political, social, and economic history as lived and experienced by the oppressed and the marginalized majority.” Interviewees for the most part express dissatisfaction with the democratic government, which on whole has failed to meet expectations by improving economic and social conditions. Emmanuel Makgoga a community activist who has led a five year strike against mining interests argues that in many ways little changed after the 1994 elections.  Emanuel claims that people are still not free in rural areas like his home Maandagshoek, because, “people are still tortured, people are still getting arrested unnecessarily, and people still don’t have jobs.”(03:00-05:00)

One of this sites strengths is that it offers very raw audio of complete oral interviews and includes translations. Its weakness, perhaps, is that these audio files are a bit difficult to navigate. The audio files can be played or paused only. These long rich interviews, particularly those conducted through translators, might require more advanced audio controls like looping and rate adjustment. Despite this, interviews like Emmanuel’s reflect the, “rich, complex, imperfect, and sensuous collectivity,” Ashwin Desai has written about in We Are The Poors, a popular history of urban community struggles in Post Apartheid South Africa.

Each of these sites is a product of different objectives and priorities. However, they both deal with the “evils” of Apartheid rule expose truths and create narratives. Public confrontations with these truths of Apartheid violence are readily available on the SABC site. The TRC process remains an important part of South Africa’s liberation narrative, however, it dealt with exorcising specific kinds of evils to achieve a restorative justice. The archive it created (which the SABC presents in a superior fashion) suggests a process that is completed. Contrarily, Forgotten Voices of the Present brings out the popular narratives  that describe what remains of the Apartheid governments structural violence. While black and colored South Africans have achieved equality de jure, many still feel that structural constraints are in place.

Verne Harris claims that “the tools of forgetfulness, of state imposed amnesia were crucial to the exercise of power in apartheid South Africa.” (Harris, 1) Subsequently, fractured truths are contained within the memories of South Africa’s population. The SABC Truth Commission Special Report site and Forgotten Voices of the Present demonstrate how digitization brings increased access to important established narratives as well as popular narratives that would receive little attention otherwise.

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3 thoughts on “Confronting Truths in Digital Archives: Truth Commission Special Report and Forgotten Voices of the Present

  1. Nice post, I like that you’re reviewing the collections while also trying to make a larger point. The TRC stuff is really quite fabulous, I think. Especially in light of the fact that so many of the government documents that might record the details of some of these actions were destroyed, it is incredible to have such detailed testimony about crimes and atrocities that would otherwise almost certainly remain unanswered for. Whether or not the TRC was effective in the “R” part of its mission is another question.

    I also like your point about the collection of interviews with poor and working class South Africans creating a record of on-the-ground perception of the post-apartheid period. This is vitally important for us to understand. We can talk all day long about democracy and racial equality, but if we are interested in what the transition meant for millions of poor South Africans it’s important to hear it in their own voices.

    I’m not sure I’m with you on the rich, sensuous, collective, caramel-filled, etc. nature of the interviews though. What stood out about them as especially complex or sensuous or collective? I think Desai is romanticizing poor folks just a little bit, don’t you? Is the spot out under Abram’s Bridge sensuous and complex and collective? I dunno, I mean I like the main thrust of his argument based on what I read but let’s not get carried away.

  2. The caution from Andrew about avoiding romanticization is certainly a good one to keep in mind, but I didn’t particularly notice Desai romanticizing this community. It’s interesting to me that we seem to have opposite triggers when reading about disadvantaged communities. While I am aware of a missing narrative of poverty when I am reading a romanticized vision of poor communities, it does not bother me as much as when poverty is the only narrative heard. My reaction to writing that highlights disadvantage too much (don’t ask me to define “too much”) is likely based on my frustration with Western representations of Africa as a place of unremitting violence and deprivation. Desai’s writing struck me as a needed counter-narrative to the story of poor communities in Africa being agency-less and without the ability of self-reflection and self-definition. However, the most important thing is to avoid the single story. Both the “these communities are disadvantaged by the economic structures at play and the neoliberal economic choices of those with power” and the “these communities are culturally rich, complex, collectives” stories are important to tell, but neither are complete on their own (or even together as there are surely more stories and points of view to explore or else we historians are out of a job).

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