Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa

The TRC and theatre

[Van Heerden (2008)][1] P99: Arguably the most important dramatic production dealing with the theme of South Africans’ reconciliation with their past to be staged in the first decade of the new South Africa did not take place in a theatre nor was it done by theatre practitioners (except if the media were to be accepted as “theatre practitioners” of sorts...). Nevertheless it mesmerised audiences around the country and it echoed around the globe. Within a year after the elections of April 1994 legislation was drafted to form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Its mandate was to look into the apartheid years, specifically from March 1960 to December 1993, and to establish as complete a picture as possible of the human rights violations committed during that period. In broad terms, its ambitious and challenging objective was to seek the truth, record it and make it public knowledge; to restore the moral order of South African society; to help create an environment which valued human dignity and respected the law; and to prevent the brutalities of the past from ever being repeated.

The TRC held its first hearings in April 1996 and was scheduled to complete its work by December 1997, but in effect continued late into 1998. For more than two years the people of South Africa were an audience to the emotional, harrowing and traumatic drama that unfolded at the hearings around the country, enacted by protagonists and antagonists from across the spectrum of the painful recent past and broadcast via television, radio and the print media into every home. “The Truth Commission function(ed) as a sharply focused microcosm of the broader South African society in transition” (Krog, 1998: vii). The public nature of the proceedings allowed the nation to identify with the individuals appearing before the commission and the theatrical nature of the drama was clear.

An incident, suitably described in theatrical terms by Mark Gevisser in The Sunday Independent, illustrates the depth of emotions experienced at the TRC: “The commission’s model of confession and redemption might be Christian, but the notion that we will attain self-knowledge through the public performance of our inner conflicts is straight out of Greek tragedy. When Fort Calata's widow, Nomonde, let out a piercing wail on remembering her husband's murder; the entire East London hall, led by Bishop Desmond Tutu, stood up and began singing Senzenina? [What have we done?] - a Greek chorus to her agony, taking on the trauma collectively” (Gevisser, 1997).

While the TRC was holding its hearings across the country three important productions relating very closely to the drama of the Commission premièred in 1997: The Story I am about to tell – indaba engizoyixoxa, Ubu and the Truth Commission and The Dead Wait.

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