Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Stages of Transition by Catherine M. Cole

Cole, Catherine M. Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Stages of Transition. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010. 264 pages; $65.00 hardcover, $24.95 paperback

In an article entitled “Performance, Transitional Justice, and the Law: South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Catherine M. Cole suggests that “while many performance and theatre scholars have been drawn to write about South Africa’s TRC, most have focused on theatrical or aesthetic representations of the commission rather than on the commission itself as performance” (Cole 2007, 186). Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Stages of Transition, is written in part to address this gap in the scholarly literature. In this text, the South African TRC is framed as the performance of a “quasi-legal” ritual which enlists evidentiary witnesses and a multi-lingual audience to create a “complete picture” of the apartheid regime. Cole acknowledges that employing a grammar of performance to explore the traumatic experiences of violence in South Africa may be contentious, but her theoretical framework engenders a critique of the structural limitations of the Truth Commission in painstaking detail without discounting the potential for participant agency in the reconciliation process.

Using the “trial” as a point of departure, she questions the purchase of transitional justice in South Africa. Cole draws heavily from Diana Taylor’s methodology to explore the repertoire of the South African TRC, which represents “embodied memory: ‘performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing—in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible” (29). Historical political trials and the Commission enact an “accumulation of information” where certain truths (factual over narrative) are favoured to build a substantive written archive. Cole provides a thorough genealogy of embodied practices (in place of traditional archival research) to trace the conjunctures between the political and justice systems of the apartheid state and the “evolution” of the current South African state. From this, she observes significant discrepancies between the performance of the Commission’s various actors (which she identifies as predominantly affective) and the performative power of the Commission itself to realize democratic change in this post-apartheid society.

Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission reveals a catalogue of problems associated with the TRC: the negligible attention paid to TRC and media personnel experiencing vicarious trauma, the continuum of discriminatory labour practices enacted by the Commission, and the assembly line of translation. Cole cites Deborah Posel, who in The Making of Apartheid, 1948-1961 “contends that the public hearings [of the TRC] made for ‘good theatre, but bad history’” because the Commission’s truth-telling practices and final report were “deeply flawed” (26). According to Cole, methodological rigor combined with nuanced testimonial analysis can produce “good history” as long as it respects the heterogeneity of actors who organize and participate in these events and the myriad ways testimony is provided. Cole uses Phillip Miller’s cantata REwind[1] to demonstrate the cacophony inherent in the reconciliation process as well as the possibility for audience interpretation and misinterpretation of witness testimony. The REwind cantata also helps to problematize the validity of the historical narratives disseminated by the apartheid state and by the Commission’s final reports.

Yet the most interesting aspect of Cole’s study is the immanent (and fulsome) critique of the scholarship surrounding South Africa’s TRC. Cole advocates for a “humanistic” approach to the study of testimony and she provides a salient critique of traditional social science approaches that depend on the statistical analysis based on the TRC’s final reports, which, as Cole points out, were significantly less popular than media broadcasts. Moreover, Cole asserts that much of the sizable testimonial archive collected from TRC proceedings is “rich and largely neglected” and that numerous academics iteratively sample testimonies cited in a few canonical texts such as Krog’s Country of My Skull instead of expanding the scholarly purview of testimonial research associated with the Commission (26).She also demonstrates a substantive gap in the scholarship relating to the political implications of television’s role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Cole’s analytical approach to testimony or media productions is not overly novel and perhaps a little overstated in the text. Nonetheless, the scope and depth of Cole’s study is impressive. Everything—from judicial settings and spaces, articles of clothing, to public symbols—is contextualized by comprehensive historical detail. In conclusion, Cole’s assessment of the TRC as a performance is apt as her interpretation engenders a refusal to place the violence and suffering of the apartheid state in the past and helps to situate the process of reconciliation in South Africa as ongoing instead of static.

Robyn Green is a doctoral candidate in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Her doctoral research explores the efficacy of the Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada by considering how reparation and compensation practices may become potential sites for therapeutic governance.


 [1] Phillip Miller’s REwind is a commemorative, multi-media cantata which incorporates TRC testimonies as part of the performance content.

Works Cited

Cole, Catherine M. 2007. “Performance, Transitional Justice, and the Law: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Theatre Journal 59 (2): 167-187.