Catherine M. Cole


On her book Performing South Africa's Truth Commission: Stages of Transition

Cover Interview of February 11, 2010


By viewing the TRC as performance we can see the potential for such forums as truth commissions to dramatize the complexity of the present’s relationship with the past, especially in places that have experienced massive, state-sponsored violations of human rights.  Performance can provide a necessary corrective to the often-narrow epistemologies that often govern such bodies in terms of statement-taking protocols, investigative and corroborative processes, and published findings.

The next set of questions Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission raises is how much we can generalize South Africa’s experience to other forums of transitional justice elsewhere in the world.  A performative public truth commission made sense for South Africa, both because of the country’s history of spectacular political trials during the early years of apartheid, and because of the unique constellation of performers who brought South Africa’s TRC into being: the charisma and showmanship of key interlocutors such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the way South Africa as a multi-lingual state necessitated the prominence of language interpreters who were, essentially, the first actors to re-perform testimony.  But how does the TRC’s embrace of public performance translate elsewhere in the world?  Does South Africa provide a model that can be replicated elsewhere?  If so, how?  If not, why not?  This is where I hope other scholars will take up and extend my work by applying it to other geographic locations.

When I first started research in 2002, my topic was decidedly politically incorrect in South Africa.  One of my hopes is that this book might be part of a fresh reconsideration of the TRC by South Africans, one that moves beyond a narrowly evaluative mode.  While outside the country the TRC is generally celebrated as a great success, South Africans are profoundly ambivalent about their experience with transitional justice.  The TRC is seen as being emblematic of the morally and politically problematic compromises that brought about a new dispensation as well as of the failures and disappointments of the post-apartheid era.

Whether we think of the TRC was a success or failure, the TRC did put into the public record an extraordinary amount of testimony and information from people who had long been excluded from representation at all.  So I think the commission deserves reconsideration as an archive, as a repository that tells us much beyond what the commission’s narrow mandate was meant to achieve.

I also hope this book will lead to a revaluation of the TRC’s rich audio-visual archive.  This record is dense, evocative, and voluminous, but also neglected and imperiled.  The analogue audio and VHS tapes are now quite old and fragile.  They document what may well prove to be one of the richest records of the TRC’s complex cultural work.  Ironically it is artists—not scholars—who have recognized this archive’s importance.

© 2010 Catherine Cole