Carnegie Mellon University

Accounting for the Past: Memory, Responsibility, and The Political Motivation Requirement in the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission Amnesty Hearings

Author: Susan Lawrence
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2005

In this study, I ask how responsibility for human rights violations is construed in the Amnesty Committee hearings of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). I find that the amnesty hearing accounts mute rather than emphasize individual responsibility for political violence. The TRC had conceived of its hearings as a memory exercise that would generate a new culture of responsibility to counter the apartheid legacy of thoughtless submission to a morally corrupt authority. While transitions tend to pose difficulties for establishing responsibility for a previous regime's atrocities, the TRC had seemed positioned to do better. I argue that the commission's need to determine whether amnesty applicants' offenses had been politically motivated gave the accounts their distinctive and vexing shape.

I conduct a discourse analysis of amnesty hearing transcripts from three cases. To examine this question of how the participants' talk in the hearings was shaped by the need to establish political motivation, I interpret the intertextual relationship between the amnesty accounts, on the one hand, and the criteria for determining political motivation, laid out in the legislation that established the TRC, on the other. I then examine constructions of responsibility as they arise from the accounts.

Orienting to the political motivation requirement, perpetrators' initial statements to the committee operate as apologia, defenses of conduct, for their offenses. These explanations repeat apartheid-era justifications for violence. In the examination phase of the hearings and in its decisions, the Amnesty Committee counters some of these justifications but remains silent on others. Troublingly, the amnesty decisions construct political violence as action for which individuals bear less responsibility than they would for violence identified as non-political. The ethico-political dispositions that emerge from the amnesty hearings, then, provide an uncertain foundation for the emergence of a responsible society.

This project demonstrates how a rhetorical and discourse analytic approach can contribute conceptual and methodological clarity to memory studies: first, a rhetorical understanding of these accounts distinguishes between the intentions of a potential memory-maker--in this case, the TRC--and the discourse produced under its aegis. Second, the study emphasizes the value of grounding theories of memory in close, systematic studies of particular cases. This study also contributes to a rhetoric of political transition, showing how a specific constraint of a truth commission's situation dampened its discourse's transitional potential. .