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The following article appeared in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society.

For more articles from Missionalia, see the articles index.


The TRC process in theological perspective

by Tinyiko Sam Maluleke 1

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In an earlier article on the TRC, Maluleke (1997a) endeavoured to highlight some of the items that need to be on the agenda of theological reflection on the TRC process. In this article, he engages in a less guarded theological examination of the TRC process, from the point of view of the symbolic victims who are appearing before it. Furthermore, he calls for honest and vigorous exploration or analysis of the current ecclesiastical and theological silence over the TRC process. He points out that the TRC process is far too important to be left entirely and solely in the hands of a small, temporary and extremely limited commission. In conclusion, he warns that a real danger exists for the current TRC process to deal lightly with the deep and glaring wound of South African people especially blacks and women.


They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying 'peace, peace when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abominations? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord. Thus says the Lord: Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, 'we will not walk in it' (Jeremiah 6:14-15 Revised Standard Version).

There is no denying that the basic idea behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process is a noble one. After years of Apartheid and its dire consequences, South Africans do need national healing. This is especially true since black people have been dehumanised and oppressed for more than 300 years. South Africa is indeed a wounded nation. The wounds go beyond what can be seen with the naked eye and beyond what has been recorded or celebrated: Our nation needs healing. Victims and survivors who bore the brunt of the Apartheid system need healing. Perpetrators are, in their own way, victims of the Apartheid system and they, too, need healing (Tutu 1997b:8). Having made that acknowledgement, it remains necessary for us to debate whether the current TRC process, as it has been established and as it has been proceeding, will be a catalyst for such national healing to take place. It is necessary therefore to ask whether this process goes far and deep enough to probe the wound of our nation so as to expose it to thorough rather than light healing. Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm for national healing and in the wake of the now fully operational TRC industry, a climate for honest and intense debate on the TRC has not been fostered. Many have therefore learnt either to sing the TRCs praises or to hold their peace.

Let me hasten to add that nothing can be taken away from the TRC project as it has developed so far. Some of the revelations of amnesty applicants and of victims have shocked the nation. Many South Africans especially white South Africans have been shocked by what they have seen and heard. Some of the decisions of the Amnesty Committee for example the granting of amnesty to Dirk Coetzee have been equally controversial. So it would be dishonest to deny that the TRC's work has picked up momentum, beyond what many sceptics believed, especially during 1997. However, whether we have, as a result, more truth as a result of full disclosures before the TRC's Amnesty Committee remains a debatable matter. Nor can we measure how much healing the investigations, the hearings and the amnesty applications have effected. We can, however, comment on what we perceive, hear and see.


God has endowed our continent and its inhabitants with wonderful gifts. We must look to African solutions for African problems.... Nowhere else in the world have they got a Truth and Reconciliation Commission such as we have in Africa; in South Africa. The world marvels to behold the extraordinary magnanimity, the nobility of spirit that is ready to forgive the enemy. A Nelson Mandela is kept in the gaol for 27 years and comes out, not filled with bitterness or with a lust for revenge; instead he came out with (the) readiness to forgive those who wronged him so grievously. Such remarkable grace is found not only in South Africa.... We have a gift to share with the world; it is the virtue of Ubuntu, that essence of being human in which my humanity is caught up in your humanity, where a person is a person through other persons because we are made for family, for togetherness, for friendship, for harmony, for sharing, for generosity and hospitality (Tutu 1997).

For Tutu such magnanimity and nobility of spirit as shown in the TRC is a demonstration of, and a fitting tribute to, the African ethic of ubuntu.2 The TRC and the processes associated with it have been widely hailed as an exemplary, unprecedented (Mller-Fahrenholz 1996:21), contemporary miracle (Botman 1996:39) and an essential element in the politics of grace (Petersen 1996:63). Because of the TRC and its work, Botman (1996:39) further declares:

There is no place to hide anymore. Truth has captured the street, at the working place, in the local faith communities and the homes of many people.... And this time it is the stories of the victims that they hear. Every time they hear the stories, the contemporary miracle happens: the deaf begin to hear! And every time the mothers of the victims cry and Desmond Tutu wipes a tear, the contemporary miracle happens: the blind begin to see.

Similarly, Albie Sachs has praised the African comrade's power or prerogative to be the forgiving one (in Asmal et al. 1996:49). However, is the TRC only a demonstration of ubuntu magnanimity? Is it an essential element of the politics of grace? Or do we have reason to wonder whether, in fact this grace was taken too easily, whether it has become Bonhoeffer's cheap grace, demanding neither repentance nor conversion of attitude and life which it seeks (Petersen 1996:62). Is it not primarily a pragmatic and part of a less than satisfactory by-product of a political trade-off between political parties? Furthermore, is it being as successful as it is portrayed in the writings of its enthusiasts? Cognisance must never be lost of the fact that the TRC was born in the negotiation chambers between South African political parties mainly the white National Party and the African National Congress. In the rather simplistic words of Mller-Fahrenholz (1996:85):

The ANC wanted a Truth Commission, the National Party favoured a Reconciliation Commission. The former were concerned about the victims of Apartheid, the latter were looking for amnesty for the perpetrators. The result was the National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 26 July 1995, which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Indeed, the final clause of the interim constitution, which legislated the possibility of the TRC, almost subordinated reconciliation to the granting of amnesty. It was a clause mainly about amnesty and not reparations. Note the following paragraph from this clause:

In order to advance such reconciliation and reconstruction, amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions and offences associated with political objectives and committed in the course of conflicts of the past. To this end, parliament under this Constitution shall adopt a law determining a firm cut- off date ... and mechanisms, criteria and procedures, including tribunals, if any, through which such amnesty shall be dealt with at any time after the law has been passed (quoted by Omar 1996:25).

The struggle to control the aims of the TRC in party political terms did not cease with the promulgation of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act a struggle most pronounced between the ANC and the National Party. In their extremely partisan book, foreshadowing the TRC, Asmal et al. (1996) mount spirited arguments for the decriminalising of resistance against Apartheid as well as what they call the morality and humanity of (armed) resistance. However, a closer reading of the book reveals an uncanny reduction of South African history and diversity of resistance to that of the ANC. The entire book gives one the impression that South Africa consisted of two realities, Apartheid and the ANC's resistance to it. Other political and non-political resistances to Apartheid are marginalised: in the 216 pages of the book, the PAC is mentioned twice and both times in connection with the ANC; Inkatha is mentioned three times in connection with hit squads and collaboration; the Azanian People's Organisation (AZAPO) is not mentioned once, nor is the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA). I am afraid this may simply be part of the political rivalry between the ANC and the National Party in book form, so as to give the rivalry an intellectual veneer.

Two significant facts about the TRC need to be openly acknowledged: namely that it was part of the political settlement which catapulted the ANC into power without having been militarily victorious; and secondly that the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act No. 34 of 1995 defines and put significant limits to what the TRC can/should do and achieve. Without questioning the extent to which the negotiating political parties were desirous of national healing, it is true to say that at that stage it was political power and impunity rather than national healing that were at stake. As a result, the Act is formulated in such a way as to put the spotlight on the foot soldiers rather than the persons or institutions which planned and legitimised gross violations of human rights letting most politicians off the hook! Nor is the TRC process as successful as Botman suggests above. There is little evidence that the truth has captured the imagination of many South Africans. As the TRC proceeds with its work, Apartheid or Third-Force related violence continues in the KwaZulu-Natal province and the thousands of victims who appeared before the TRC still await relief. In contrast, the fate of amnesty applicants was finalised and enshrined in the law beforehand with the result that those who were granted amnesty did not have to wait, but received amnesty immediately.

The truth is that the danger exists for the TRC to fail in its tasks especially in the absence of vigorous and informed debates and inputs about its competencies and objectives. As part of a political settlement, could the TRC achieve much more than a political balance of blame (Natal Witness 1977) blame for the National Party, some for the ANC, a little blame for Inkatha, Pan Africanist Congress, etc.? For reconciliation would not be possible if one side emerged from the hearings looking impossibly bad, while the other side, the various liberation movements, including the ANC, were to continue to present themselves as saintly (Natal Witness 1997).

Understandably, therefore, we have seen various political parties jostling for control of the TRC often with much mud-slinging. On the church front, one notices little and hears even less. There is silence. One of the enduring deficits of the TRC process is the fact that there was little open and public debate prior to the formulation of TRC legislation. At that time, political parties appear to have had carte blanche rights and space to negotiate on behalf of the people appealing to people only as part of their power-plays e.g. threatening mass action or military violence, but not appealing to people in any consultative manner.

Deafening Theological Silence

Except for a few voices in the wilderness, it is true that there has been little systematic reflection on the theological, moral and religious questions that the TRC process raises for the churches (Botman & Petersen 1996:12). In contrast, the South African media is having a field day with TRC columns, articles, television talks and shows. There is a semi-permanent TRC slot on our national TV and radio news as well as a few TRC-centred programmes on both TV and Radio. If one were to read South African newspapers, listen to South African radio stations and watch South African TV for one week only, one would certainly get the impression that the TRC was a phenomenon of great national and historic significance. Or is it merely a newsworthy item with built-in sensational possibilities? The question I am posing is whether there is a relation between the media and government investment in the TRC on the one hand and the participation and lively interest of ordinary South African citizens in it. It appears as if there is a discrepancy between the TRC as media event, as a highly prized government project, and as a happening capable of engaging the entire nation.

International Interest

We must note that the South African TRC model is of immense global interest, especially for Europe and the USA, where there is a growing view that the human world of the twenty-first century is shaping up as a world in which peace among nations is a practical necessity, not merely an elusive, optional ideal (Shriver 1995:5). When the European Ecumenical Assembly had its second assembly in June 1997 in Graz, Austria, they chose the theme: Reconciliation God's gift and source of new life." The significance of the South African TRC model for European churches was underscored by the invitation of Brigalia Bam the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) to give a keynote speech on that occasion (Bam 1997). She spoke on the TRC process in South Africa. A European theologian has concluded that through the work of the TRC, it is clear that South Africa is engaged in an unprecedented exercise of deep remembering (Mller-Fahrenholz 1996:87). He goes on to say:

It is not only the peace of the New South Africa that is at stake here. The approach of the TRC is relevant all over the world. It is a challenge to the so-called realists who say that the only criterion for politics should be the interest of the nations.... the South African approach is an important experiment in relating ethics to politics (Mller-Fahrenholz 1996:99).

However, to return to my earlier line of questioning, is there more to the South African TRC process than media hype and immense international interest? Why do many South Africans especially Christians and theologians appear to be less intensely interested in the TRC process than the media and the international community? In any case, if there is popular indifference to the TRC in South Africa it is not because of lack of trying by the media nor is it because of lack of international interest.

Massive Scepticism, Disdainful Apathy and Denial

It appears that there is a massive undercurrent of scepticism about the TRC in the black community. While they are neither entirely accurate nor serious, the caricatures that black people make of the TRC as the Kleenex Commission or the Tears and Reconciliation Commission could point to a deeper level of discontent. Yet, it must be said that black people as a whole have been visible by their presence at TRC hearings and its ceremonies. However, black people are interested in much more than what happens within the four walls of TRC offices and hearings-halls. Indeed, it is possible that while the TRC events are viewed as providing a curious side-show, black people are more interested in the fulfilment of the promises made to them at election time as well as a material demonstration of remorse and restitution by all white people in the country. There is, therefore, a sense in which the success or failure of the TRC will be decided more by developments outside of the sombre halls of TRC hearings and amnesty applications. Here, the questions of land restitution and real economic power will loom large. Unless judicial reconciliation which is what the TRC hopes to establish as a basis for national reconciliation is accompanied by economic and other forms of reconciliation, we are unlikely to experience full and genuine reconciliation in South Africa.

Commenting on the white peoples apathy towards or even disdain for the TRC process, Mller-Fahrenholz (1996:89) says:

Cain, where are you? White brother, where are you? Don't you need to listen to Abel's story? Why do we not see you attending the hearings? Are you trying to pretend that you were not there when all this happened?

The TRC Chairperson bishop Tutu himself is reported to have said that while there was a real desire for reconciliation to happen, especially in the black community, ... there is not the same kind of enthusiasm in the white communities (in Friedman & Gool 1997). Sensing not only this lack of enthusiasm from whites, but a constant complaining and finger-pointing, Petersen (1996:62) notes:

In complaints about crime, about squatters, about the disruption of services through strike action, about corruption and fraud, there is very, very little self-reflection, let alone self- criticism, which sees in these horrendous social crises the legacy of white domination. Having so graciously been forgiven, having at tremendous political cost been offered a new place in the sun, it would often seem that this is interpreted as a carte blanche to criticise and condemn the new and fragile democracy. Instead of accepting the miracles of grace with humility, repentance, and a desire for conversion, too often this grace is treated as a right, as a national product of a democracy.

But a possible reason for white denial to face up to their complicity in Apartheid may be because they do indeed feel a deep sense of shame which causes them to avoid confrontation and to erect barricades of innocence and indifference .... We did not do it! We did not know it! At least we did not want it to be done this way! (Mller-Fahrenholz 1996:89). Alternatively, it could simply be a case of whites being victims of the overwhelming trauma of the truth (Krog 1997:10), for truth does not automatically liberate; it can also overwhelm and numb people. To face up to the truth of extreme guilt, human beings need to be held and comforted (Mller-Fahrenholz 1996:90). But how do masters even contemplate the possibility of being comforted by their maids, servants, girls and boys?


Exploring the silence and the absence

Although I have underscored the prevalence of silence in ecclesiastical and theological circles regarding the TRC process, it would not be entirely accurate to say that there is complete and utter silence. Even silence is a form of eloquence. It appears that the ability to explore, listen to, interpret and articulate silence is one of the theological skills needed in the New South Africa. As well as an erudite social analysis we need a silence analysis for we are going through a time of interesting, varied and pregnant silences. Mosala (1994:147) has said the following in relation to biblical hermeneutics, but it can be safely and usefully applied to the kind of social hermeneutics we need in order to understand the current South African situation:

It seems to me that in seeking to develop a hermeneutic of good news to the poor in the Third World, the question is no longer on which side God is. That was a good question for its time. Now however, the relevant question is how to interpret the eloquence with which the poor are silent and the absence through which they are present .... It is in struggling with these silences and absences that a new creative reappropriation of the liberation of the gospel takes place.

Our theological task, then, will include the exploration and articulation of the silences. However, without discarding the duty of unmasking the silence of the rich, the powerful, the white and the male, our special calling is one of interpreting and articulating the eloquence with which the increasingly poor and increasingly marginalised people of this country are silent: Today the marginal, popular peoples' church has lost its voice. It no longer speaks vibrantly and sharply. It has been muzzled (Pityana 1995:98). However, what appears like confused, stunned or frightened silence may in fact be a calculated and prudent silence. There are various orders of silence, closely connected to the social location and material conditions of the silent. The meaning of the silence of the rich is not likely to be the same as that of the poor. Indeed, the silence of Jesus before Pilate is qualitatively different from the silence and apathy of Herod in the passion narrative.

In the same way that their views and perceptions of the TRC differ, the silence of white people on the TRC is qualitatively different from the silence of black people. The silences differ in order and meaning because often the silencing process is also different. Some are silenced by powerlessness and yet some are silent because they are powerful and it is in their interest to be silent! What then are the meanings of the silences of the South African churches and their theologians at this time in the history of South Africa? Is it the calculated silence of power or is it the crushing silence of powerlessness? In addition we must ask, not merely on whose side the churches are, but on whose side the churches are silent? The silences with which the South African church and theological scene is now replete must be faced honestly, explored, unmasked and carefully articulated especially in instances where we are personally involved.

Borrowing from the notions of hidden and public transcripts (Scott 1990), I believe that West (1997:6) may help us in beginning to explore the meanings of the alleged silence of the poor and the marginalised. I agree with him in suggesting that our role as theologians (or organic intellectuals) consists in more than merely conscientising the marginalised to break their silence, for the culture of silence may be a strategy which should not be disrupted without consultation with the marginalised silent ones. However, it may not be a bad idea to expose, unmask and articulate the silence of the rich, the powerful, the white and the male!

Exploring the Church and Theological Silence

Many explanations for the theological silence are possible most of them are nothing but plain excuses. The first explanation is the myth of deployment to which I referred in my earlier work (Maluleke 1997a:69). I argued then for a nuanced if not sympathetic view of the myth of deployment. I now wonder whether the myth of deployment is itself anything more than a transparently convenient excuse for an equally convenient silence on behalf of the church. The alleged deployment is a thoroughly tenuous one with no basis in practical and factual reality.

Secondly, there is the explanation encapsulated in the sentiment often expressed thus: We need to give the Mandela government time. It is too early to expect much from a government which has only been in power for three years. When this is said we are often reminded of the Apartheid legacy with which our present historic government has been left to deal with. Thus workers have been advised to tighten their belts. However, the emerging (small but powerful) black elite class which includes politicians and top civil servants are neither tightening their belts nor waiting. Property and land owners the overwhelming majority of whom are white are not waiting to give the New South Africa a chance. They are cashing in on their constitutionally entrenched property rights and the lucrative demand-related property prices as middle class blacks flood the previously whites-only suburbs. As the whites cash in on their Apartheid-inspired fortunes, they complain endlessly about deteriorating standards and the crime rate.

Yet another explanation for silence is an extension or variation of the myth of deployment, namely the suggestion that South African churches have been weakened by the loss of many able and skilled leaders. In my earlier article (Maluleke 1997a), I had taken a very sympathetic view to this suggestion, admitting that the South African ecumenical and theological communities were indeed weaker due to the loss of skilled leaders. Now I am not so sure. The truth of the matter is that it is South African Christians, churches and communities that produced these leaders, not vice versa. Have South African churches suddenly become so dependent on the few leaders they moulded that they must now cease to be prophetic simply because these leaders are now employed somewhere in the government and its structures? Further- more, the South African ecumenical and prophetic movements did not only produce individual leaders. We did not only produce bishop Tutu, Frank Chikane, Beyers Naud‚ and others; we also evolved strong ecumenical bodies and organisations to institutionalise and depersonalise their ideas. I am thinking here of organisations such as the Institute for Contextual Theology (ICT) and the South African Council of Churches (SACC) as well as its several regional councils. We did not only produce Itumeleng Mosala, Takatso Mofokeng, Simon Maimela, Mokgethi Motlhabi, Allan Boesak, Gabriel Setiloane, Manas Buthelezi and others; we also constructed a radical local theology South African Black Theology a theology which is bigger than the contributions of these individual theologians. To say, therefore, that the theological silence of today is due to the tremendous loss of theologians and leaders is nothing but an excuse. It is not only a refusal to face up to the genuine reasons for our silence, but also a refusal to own up to the side on which we are silent.

The fourth explanation for theological silence is captured in the rather unfortunate words attributed to bishop Tutu, who is alleged to have said after the release of Mandela and the unbanning of political organisations in South Africa that the church must now go back to being the church (West 1997:5). The hidden charge here is that the South African church was not really the church when it urged Christians to participate in the struggle for liberation and for a just society (Kairos Document 1985:28). In seeking to become churches again, many South African churches have reverted to massive ecumenical and political apathy as well as an upsurge of denominationalism (cf. De Gruchy 1995). Church denominations are now engaging in inward-looking rather than outward-looking activities:

It is tragically ironic that when the nation was divided by apartheid we found our unity in the struggle, and now, at the precise moment when the new South Africa is seeking to achieve national reconciliation, the church seems to be going back into its denominational shells. An era of national reconciliation must surely challenge us to become more deeply reconciled with each other within the body of Christ (De Gruchy 1995:14).

The warning of West (1997:12) is crucial, both in helping us to see the futility of going back to being the church and finding a possible way forward:

The church must not go back to being the church; rather, shaped by the struggles and stories of the vast majority of its members, the church must go forward to being a church that facilitates the subjugated, incipient, and hidden theologies and readings of those whose working faith was forged in their daily struggles against the forces of death and with the God of life.

The fifth and final point of exploration may have to do with a misunderstanding of the implications of the present government's secularist policies (De Gruchy 1997). There are two extreme and unhelpful positions that tend to be taken here: On the one hand there are those Christians who equate a secular state with a God- less even anti-Christian state especially the so-called right- wing groups. On the other hand there are those who view a secular state as implying that all religions must now look only inward, equating all forms of public religious witness as aggressiveness and intolerance. These could include many churches within the ecumenical family who are suffering from the acute guilt of having protested much too softly, without vigorous resistance, against Apartheid, and having been hegemonic, with little tolerance for other religions. Both stances have understandable historical roots in South Africa, but they are neither satisfactory nor acceptable, especially as explanations and reasons for church and theological silence. Right-wing groups have of course not been silent, especially on secular-state issues and the abortion debate. But they too have been silent on political and socio-economic issues.

Theological Advocacy

Much of the theological comment on the TRC so far has been at the practical and advocacy level, where churches and religious people are simply encouraged to support the TRC in various ways (cf. Maluleke 1997a:74). While advocacy essays have been very constructive, there is need to go beyond this. The task of churches and theologians is not merely to advertise the TRC and call on people to support it. Nor is our task mainly and only in helping people either to understand or use the present TRC process adequately. We must do more than either producing manuals on how to apply for amnesty or giving pastoral care to the victims who make submissions before the TRC. Our task is to probe the provisions upon which the TRC has been established, observe its competencies and functions and do so with a clear distinction between TRC ideals and its actual progress on the ground. Such probing must be done against the background of our own radical theologies of liberation. Indeed more than the production of human rights manuals (SACC 1997) is required. It is not as if the existence of the constitution and the so-called instruments of democracy such as the Bill of Rights, Gender Commission, Human Rights Commission, TRC and the Land Commission are sufficient in and of themselves so that all that is left is simple and mere application. These instruments and the philosophies/theologies upon which they are based still need to be debated.

Evaluating Critical Theological Comment So Far

South African theologians recognise that the notions of truth and reconciliation lie in the heart of at least the Christian tradition (Botman & Petersen 1996b:12), that Christianity is the religion of reconciliation (Moltmann 1992:63), and that reconciliation is our job, the industry we work in ... [and the] reason for our existence (Smit 1995:3). However, there has been a paucity of critical theological reflections on the TRC in general and such theological concepts as truth, reconciliation and forgiveness in particular. The only collection of serious theological reflections on the TRC remains, as mentioned already, Botman and Petersen (1996a). Almost all the essays in this book express a recognition of the need for both the TRC and the task of national healing. Many of them encourage South Africans to support the TRC process in various ways. Some, particularly the two editors, Petersen and Botman, make rather glib statements of praise to both the TRC and the Mandela government (Maluleke 1997b).

Vigilant Theological Reflection

It is one thing to acknowledge the need for national healing even reconciliation or national unity but it is something else not to probe whether the processes, strategies, discourses, gesticulations and theologies currently in circulation are conducive to genuine national healing and genuine reconciliation. This is where much of the current theological comment on the TRC process has been extremely deficient. If national healing, unity and reconciliation are indeed crucial for the people of South Africa, then we need sharp, thorough, deep and honest theological reflection on it. Is the legislation on which the TRC has been established empowering and liberating? What does the legislation and the TRC process do to the victims? Is there a concrete, even if only emerging, material basis for the TRC's work of reconciliation so that it can be meaningful to the victims, or is the entire TRC only meant to be symbolic in the most abstract sense of the word (cf. Mosala 1987)?

The New Theology of Reconciliation

Statements to the effect that the work of the TRC is a deeply spiritual, theological and moral endeavour (Villa-Vicencio 1996:138) must not be taken at face value. While it could be possible for the TRC to become a spiritual, theological and moral endeavour, the ideal must not be mistaken for the actual. It may be true that reconciliation, spirituality and morality are indeed central to the Christian faith, but how they are understood and applied within the context of the TRC is another matter. Employing a hermeneutic of suspicion, we should seek to unmask and explore the spirituality and theology of the TRC process, inspired as it is by legal and political-settlement motivations.

In the same way that the Kairos theologians explored, unmasked and identified Church and State theologies, theologians should be unmasking and exploring the distinctive theology, spirituality and morality of the TRC process. It appears to be a theology based on some political and legal hijacking of notions such as truth, reconciliation and forgiveness. What the Kairos theologians said about hijacked Christian notions such as reconciliation by what they dubbed church theology may be useful to recall now:

There are conflicts where one side is a fully armed and violent oppressor while the other side is defenceless and oppressed. There are conflicts that can only be described as the struggle between justice and injustice, good and evil, God and the devil. To speak of reconciling these two is not only a mistaken application of the Christian idea of reconciliation, it is a total betrayal of all that Christian faith has ever meant (Kairos Document 1985:17).

The basis upon which current TRC-type reconciliation is sought and understood must be explored. For now the basis appears to be the following: perpetrators get amnesty, victims get their stories told and some possible reparations and the nation gets the truth. These must be viewed against other national initiatives geared towards national reconciliation. Such would include some of the socio-economic projects which are meant to create wealth and jobs. But is the lot of the lowest among the victims, the poor, the female and the black in South Africa being improved through measures such as the TRC process? Can full and genuine reconciliation be found within the framework of the present TRC process?

The spirituality and morality of the TRC are partly characterised by much tears on the part of victims, periodic religious ceremonies, court-room-like amnesty applications, high salaries for the commissioners and lawyers (Mda 1997a, 1997b) and an ever increasing bill for the taxpayer. It is a spirituality based on the use of the need for national healing as an absolute principle which is so crucial that it is better to be doing something purporting to support that aim, however superficial and futile the something might be. The morality of the TRC process offers a clearly defined set of requirements for amnesty but ambiguous and non-existent criteria for reparations and the rehabilitation of victims. The theology of the TRC is one of restorative justice for the perpetrators but one which demands or at least subtly expects black people not to succumb to bitterness, anger or aggression no matter how much they are exploited or traumatised (Boesak 1996:67).

Liberated by Stories?

Much has been made of the supposedly liberating story-telling and narrative possibilities that the TRC opens up for everyone, especially the so-called victims (cf Botman 1996, Villa-Vicencio 1996). But the truth is that the TRC context only allows for extremely edited stories, if at all. These stories must first be submitted in legal statement form and lawyers can prevent story- tellers from mentioning the names of their clients. And many victims simply do not have the money to oppose amnesty applications legally. The few who scrape together enough money to oppose amnesty applications have due to the very strong bias of the Promotion of National Unity Act towards the perpetrators only one possible but tenuous ground for opposing amnesty applications, namely lack of full disclosure. To prove lack of full disclosure is not only difficult but very costly and many victims cannot afford it. What we are hearing is not the whole story it is perhaps not even a story; what we are hearing are often legal forms of yet to be told stories (West 1997:10).

Plausible Theology

There is a plausible theology being cooked some contours of which we have highlighted above to pacify the victims and rationalise the inequalities. It is a devious theology because in many instances it has stolen the terminology and the gestures of Liberation Theology and if one does not listen carefully one might even think one is still hearing the passionate and radical sounds of Liberation Theology, Black Theology and African Theology. All the right words are there: reconciliation, justice, non-racism, non-sexism, solidarity, etc. The musical tune is familiar but the meaning and contents have changed and the gestures are empty. Solidarity with the poor has made way for the notion of critical solidarity with the state (Nolan 1995:152) and a unilateral redefinition of the struggle:

... the prophetic task of the church in post-apartheid South Africa must be redefined in terms of critical solidarity. The struggle is no longer to be understood primarily in terms of resistance and liberation, but in terms of reconstruction and transformation. Being in critical solidarity means giving support for those initiatives which may lead to the establishment not only of a new, but also just, social order. It means that the church remains prophetic in its stance towards a new democratically elected government, that it must stand for the truth, but now on the basis of a shared commitment to the realization of national reconstruction [emphasis mine] (De Gruchy 1996:221f).

Note how transformation and reconstruction are substituted for liberation and how former commitment to the poor has now become a shared commitment with the state (cf. Maluleke 1996b; 1996c) and this is put forward as the new basis of prophetic Christianity. But this is a huge ideological and theological shift, which cannot be explained away by a love for democracy and a just society. The appearance of a government which is allegedly committed to a just/democratic society and national reconstruction has not eliminated poverty from South Africa. Are we seeing therefore a change of loyalties here from the poor to the powerful? Are former prophetic theologians becoming state theologians? Apparently liberationist notions and issues like racism, sexism, economic issues, justice you name it continue to be rehearsed and referred to, but the frameworks, starting points, solidarities and commitments are different.

Commissioners, Perpetrators and Victims on Stage

I have hinted above at the limitations imposed by the Promotion of National Unity legislation. Elsewhere (Maluleke 1997a:64) I pointed out that this piece of legislation tends to fasten onto the bloody and gruesome details of the activities of the foot soldiers who carried out instructions [or were allowed to be a law unto themselves], without getting to the thinkers, planners and legitimizers of Apartheid's criminal activities, except by way of implication. One of the recent developments around the activities of the TRC has been the phenomenon of group or institutional submissions from the media, some legal bodies and some church bodies. But since the TRC legislation has not really been properly geared to such institutional probing, these group submissions have often been clumsy and self-justifying. Nor are the objectives of such group hearings clear. If amnesty can be given to a perpetrator who makes a full disclosure should such amnesty also be given to institutions, bodies, communities and organisations that produced, fostered and nurtured the perpetrators? The submissions of churches will soon be high- lighted at the forthcoming Faith-Communities Hearings scheduled for 17-19th November 1997.

I agree with both Bam (1997) and Mamdani (1997) that the categories of perpetrators and victims tend to reduce the Apartheid system to the experiences of a tiny minority of people. There are many more victims and perpetrators than those making submissions and amnesty applications. An even more serious problem is that the process has the potential to reduce the rest of us into spectators in a play whose main actors are the commissioners, victims and perpetrators. Mamdani also argues that as well as perpetrators and victims the category of beneficiaries needs to be added for the perpetrators are only a tiny minority of the beneficiaries.

Under the Spell of Mandela and Tutu

If the previous dispensation was one of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, we have now entered a new period. We are now in the period of Nelson Mandela and bishop Desmond Tutu. It is true that both have been potent symbols of resistance for a considerable part of the forty-year Afrikaner rule. But now, Tutu and Mandela have moved to centre stage and they define and encapsulate hegemony. What we are finding is that doing theology in the Mandela-Tutu era is a tricky business. The one urges reconciliation and the other agitates persuasively and passionately for forgiveness. Both get maximum media exposure, by virtue of their positions and stature, so that their hegemony is strengthened daily. Their combined moral stature is enormous, not only within South Africa but in the whole wide world. What, then, can anyone say or do in the face of leaders of such depth and stature? The danger is there their hard-earned moral stature may be disempowering to the rest of the nation. Even the powerful liberal media of South Africa has been forced back by the moral stature of our current crop of leaders. Somehow, we need to find a way of breaking the spell without undermining the stature of our leaders. Churches must break the spell sooner rather than later. The quality of the lives of South Africans, especially the poorest of the poor, is far more important than political and cultural politeness. We must take heed of the analysis of Ngugi wa Thiongo (1993:151) on what went wrong in independent Kenya:

In 1962, Jomo Kenyatta was released from eight years in prison, and he proceeded to negotiate away everything that the Mau Mau armed struggle had fought for. Colonial structures were left intact, and today Kenya under successor Daniel Arap Moi is one of the most repressive states in the world.... Kenyatta lost on the negotiating table what had already been won on the battlefield by the Kenyan people. Black South Africa cannot accept, or indeed afford, the replacement of the 1910 neo-colonial arrangement under white-minority supervision by a 1990s refined neo- colonialist arrangement to be run by a black minority.


I have argued elsewhere (Maluleke 1996, 1997a, 1997b) that part of the deficit of present-day theology in South Africa is the inability to connect meaningfully to Black and African Theologies. If ever there was a time when we needed Black and African Theology, it is now. The other theologies have proven themselves incapable of exploring and articulating either the continuing silences or the silencings of the poor and the black people, especially black women. What we need now in South Africa is not simply more Christian theology; Apartheid was Christian theology. Whereas South African Christian theology was represented by what Kairos theologians have called church and state theology, Black and African Theology were driven by the quests and struggles of black people for cultural, political, spiritual, economic and ecclesial self- determination. South African Black theologians have in agreement with other liberation theologians often declared that the liberation of oppressed people is far more important than questions of Christian orthodoxy. This is how seriously the poor and the oppressed were regarded in those theologies. The implications of placing the struggles of poor black people at the centre of the theological task are significant. In such an enterprise, our criteria, strategies and methodologies will be governed by the demands, ethics, symbols and strategies of the struggles of the poor.

The New South Africa and its mostly superficial search for racial and cultural harmony will cease to be the standard by which we measure things or the source from which we construct our criteria. In other words, the New South Africa must cease to be both a referee and player at the same time. How can the New South Africa be constructed and evaluated on the basis of its own ambiguous, unknown principles? Our criteria must be derived from elsewhere the struggle of the black poor a struggle whose aim is to liberate all. In other words, the basic question to ask whether the topic is the TRC, Affirmative Action, Reconstruction and Development, etc. is: to what extent does this enhance or disrupt the struggles of the oppressed? To what extent does the TRC process as it is currently unfolding advance or frustrate the aims of that struggle? This is the question South African Black Theologians have posed of Christianity itself and of themselves as theologians. The basic question we raise of the TRC process is the same. We should not ask a New South Africa question, such as whether it is contributing to national unity and racial harmony, etc. We must ask what this process is doing to the growing masses of the poor.

Current Reparation Proposals

Recently, the TRC's Reparations and Rehabilitations Committee finally announced its proposals for reparation measures for the thousands of victims who made submissions. These are mere proposals, still to be debated in parliament sometime next year. The announced reparations strategy encompasses five categories: urgent need grants, annual pension-type grants of between R17 000 and R23 000, symbolic reparations, community reparations and institutional-reform reparations. It is estimated that these will cost about 3 billion Rands about 0.25% of the South African annual budget. It is perhaps instructive that what a victim will receive in an annual payout is less than what a commissioner now earns per month. Also, many of the perpetrators applying for amnesty have already received their golden handshakes from the government. A few victims organisations and representatives have said that there was little consultation with the victims about the type and amount of reparations. Questions raised about the quantity and quality of reparations are often answered with the suggestion that no amount of money can make up for the suffering of victims. One wishes that this argument would also be used with respect to the general financial cost of the TRC and its own gravy train (Mda 1997b) otherwise one detects a double standard.


There is a sense in which healing and reconciliation are such crucial processes for us in this country that we cannot leave the job in the hands of a small, temporary and ambiguous commission. The healing and the reconciling of South Africans is much bigger than the commission, its frameworks and operational assumptions. It is about more than storytelling and amnesty. We therefore first have to explore, analyse and combat the emerging theological paradigm the theology of reconciliation under which the TRC is now operating. Unless we are vigilant, there is a real danger that the current TRC process may deal rather lightly with the deep wounds of God's people.


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1 Dr Tinyiko Sam Maluleke teaches Missiology in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria.

2 Although the notion of ubuntu has now become fashionable (cf. Maluleke 1996d, Mbigi 1997, Battle 1996) it is by no means a self-explanatory idea. The notion of ubuntu is a fiercely contested one and it is not yet clear in whose hands it will finally land. Nor is it yet clear what this notion will be used for. It has been connected to theology, the purported African rennaisance, management theory, educational theory, ethics and now the TRC.

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