Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The truth commission lost in translation

The South African theatre production, Truth in Translation, was the hit of the Belfast Festival this year. The play, for those of you who have not seen it, focuses on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Instead of relying on the testimonies of victims, perpetrators, commissioners or the commission audience, Truth in Translation centres on the interpreters who worked for the commission. The production tells the story of a group of translators who have to contend with 11 official languages. At the same time, there is an expectation that they remain uninvolved while recounting atrocity after atrocity. However, by the nature of translating in the first person, they get absorbed into the process, becoming vehicles for the truth and the lies they themselves have to utter. Narrating other people’s stories also results in each interpreter grappling with his or her own past.

In Northern Ireland, the production added to the debate about dealing with the past in a society where active political conflict has just drawn to an end. Watching the play in Belfast, as a South African living there, reminded me of the distance that South Africa has travelled compared with Northern Ireland, where the debate about examining the past is in its early stages.

However, at the same time, I was left wondering if the play was currently creating more debate abroad than in the country.

To some degree, the South African commission was a victim of its own success. The more public it became and the more high-profile stories it told, the more people felt that, when it was over, the past had indeed been dealt with. However, most of the commissioners would probably concede that the TRC uncovered new truths in at best 10% of the 22 000 cases brought before it. No systematic process of implementing the commission’s recommendations was ever set up.

Further, investigations and prosecutions of those who failed to take the opportunity of the generous amnesty offered to them through the TRC is an unpopular issue. South Africans still fear that further investigations might destabilise the political process or be used for political purposes. However, although the commission was powerful in enabl-ing stories to be told, as Truth in Translation reinforces, did it uncover the whole truth or build lasting reconciliation? The TRC made a good start but I doubt that most victims would answer this in the affirmative.

The needs of victims do not disappear with the passage of time. This is difficult because victims have multiple needs and it would be naive to think that any process can meet all needs. Nevertheless, expecting victims to forget the past when their lives have been profoundly altered by violence is not an option.

That said, dealing with the past is also wider than meeting the needs of victims alone. Of course, taking the political stability of the country into account is important and wallowing in the past at a social level can be counterproductive. But, equally, if we are going to tout South Africa as a model for dealing with the past, we should not avoid hard quest- ions.

Have we really addressed the needs of apartheid victims? Are some of the factors that contributed to the conflict, such as poverty and racism, still stimulating new types of violence? Or what about ongoing human rights violations like torture of criminal suspects which allegedly continues in some South African jails.

So where does this leave South Africa? There are many lessons South Africa can teach others. I am delighted to see a South African production helping to stimulate debate elsewhere. Fittingly, however, Truth in Translation does not have a neat ending or a simple answer. All the characters continue to struggle with their history when the curtain goes down. Dealing with the past is a process and not an event. Have we, South Africans, forgotten this?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 7 November 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.