June 09, 2004
Graeme Simpson, executive director and co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) in South Africa, spoke in Rosenau Hall on “‘Revealing is Healing’: Evaluating South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process in its psycho-social and political context.”The Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, along with the Office of Global Health and the School of Public Health, hosted South African historian and lawyer Graeme Simpson for this year’s Godfrey M. Hochbaum Distinguished Lecture (held in March, 2004). Simpson has been a leading human rights activist in South Africa for over 20 years. Among his many accomplishments, he helped pioneer one of South Africa’s first trauma counseling services for victims of violence, led in the development of school-based violence prevention and reconciliation programs, and started one of that country’s first police reform projects. In his lecture, Simpson spoke about the mixed results produced by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an entity he has worked with from its earliest days through to recent efforts to evaluate its achievements. In his talk, he sought to “complexify” romanticized versions of the TRC’s work, which has been widely credited with helping avert internecine strife in South Africa during its transition to democracy.Political events in the early 1990s help contextualize the origins of the TRC. At that time, although the all-white apartheid government was under siege by the African National Congress, it still had an army and could still wield power. The minority (13%) white population feared large-scale retribution if and when it relinquished apartheid rule. In this environment, the South African government would agree to one-person, one-vote elections only in exchange for the guarantee that its politicians, police, and army officers would never be put on trial and that the majority of its bureaucrats could retain their jobs for up to 5 years. The African National Congress refused to accede to a blanket amnesty. Both parties finally agreed to the compromise that amnesty would be granted only to individuals, and only after those individuals applied for it and made a full confession of their actions. Those who did not apply for amnesty lived with the threat that they might face future prosecution. In this setting, the TRC was established to do three things: to depose individuals who applied for amnesty; to gather verbal testimony and other evidence from victims and victims’ family members; and to oversee compensation for victims and their families.
Simpson emphasized that, at the time it was established, the TRC was a creative response to a terrible impasse, and it produced some important results. The hearings did, for example, provide a formal, public way to document and catalogue thousands of acts of political violence against specific individuals whose suffering would have otherwise remained collective and anonymous. Their stories are shattering and, collectively, the documentation is a powerful achievement. Nevertheless, the TRC did not bring the apartheid government’s architects and actors to justice, but instead immunized all those who sought amnesty as long as they agreed to tell their stories. This was, Simpson emphasized, a “bitter pill to swallow” for an entire population victimized by state-sponsored terror. The consequences of that decision continue to haunt the post-apartheid state.
Simpson’s lecture critiqued one major assumption undergirding the TRC process. Briefly, he objected to the assumption that when victims recount their stories and have those stories validated and confirmed by perpetrators, the experience is cathartic enough to create reconciliation among victims and perpetrators. Drawing attention to the TRC catch-phrase, “revealing is healing,” Simpson pointed out that such an assumption is reductive and even coercive. The slogan may have been intended originally to underscore the cathartic and humanizing value to a society of knowing its past. Yet, almost inevitably, the idea was applied to individual victims and their families, who were, he emphasized, under considerable pressure to forgive their assailants. Over the years, since he helped found the TRC and spell out its rules and structure, Simpson has come to believe that this expectation is untenable. Victims, he emphasized, have already made terrible sacrifices. The policeman who committed torture and murder, and the bureaucrat who ordered the acts, still had their jobs, plus amnesty. To expect these victims to forgive their assailants following a confession denies the validity of victims’ continuing sense of outrage and anger. Simply knowing “the Truth,” Simpson insisted, is not enough to enable most victims to forgive and move on and, he insisted, we must respect this position. “We cannot afford to treat this [i.e., forgiveness on the part of victims towards their perpetrators] as the norm.”
Simpson underscored his point about the complexity of building reconciliation in South Africa with three examples of victim testimony. In one case, a woman came forward to recount her experience of political torture and gang rape, but her assailants confessed only to acts of torture in their testimony. They were granted immunity despite their partial testimony. For this woman, reconciliation was out of the question since the rape had constituted the most horrific dimension of the assault. Whereas she had given up her legal right to prosecute the men, they had gained amnesty without having made a full confession, as required by the terms of the TRC.
Simpson continued by making the point that, even if specific individuals have the magnanimity to forgive their assailants, it’s crucial to recognize that the effects of the apartheid system are generational. He cited the story of an assassin under the apartheid regime whose sense of contrition for having murdered a young man led him, 18 years later, to apologize to his victim’s family. Instead of encountering gratitude for his contrition, family members pressed him for details. As recorded on videotape, the assassin became progressively more uneasy during the encounter, retreating from his “comfortable version of events,” until, at one crucial moment, the 16 year-old son of the murder victim brained the assassin with an ashtray. The story, Simpson emphasized, is representative of both how complex the reconciliation process is, and how the impact of state violence and institutionalized racism progresses through generations.
Simpson closed his talk by making the point that, “It’s hard to talk about South Africa as a post-conflict society.” As he concluded, the “truth process” initiated by the TRC should be understood to represent a sliver of the overall effort to address social justice in that country.
Graeme Simpson spent 4 days in residence at UNC-Chapel Hill as the Cecil G. Sheps Visiting Scholar in Social Justice; his stay here was sponsored by the UNC Law School, the UNC School of Medicine, the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, and the SPH Office of Global Health. Simpson joins a long line of world-renowned thinkers and public health leaders who have delivered the annual Hochbaum Distinguished Lecture. Others include Neil Weinstein (1990), Alfred McAllister (1991), Kenneth Warner (1992), Katherine Long (1993), Jean Forster (1994), Irwin Rosenstock (1995), Martin Fishbein (1996), Allan Brandt (1997), Jay Winsten (1998), James Garbarino (1999), and Patricia King (2002).
Godfrey Hochbaum is widely recognized as the father of the Health Belief Model, probably the most widely used model in the world today for planning health education activities and a key conceptual framework for understanding health behaviors. Hochbaum was a professor in HBHE from 1972 until his retirement in 1988. He continued to be active in the Department until his death in 2000.
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