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by Trevor Lubbe (Cape Town)



The focal point of this paper will be to describe a piece of work I undertook for the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa during April 1996. This involved facilitating a group of TRC staff during the very first week of the public hearings. I would like to use this group experience to highlight some of the difficulties that arise in a specialised truth-seeking process of this kind, and in order to understand some of these difficulties I have drawn upon some ideas from psychoanalytic practice – which is also a truth-seeking enterprise of sorts, and which also brings in the past as part of its healing objective. Of course while analytic concepts can be used to illuminate other areas of inquiry it also the case that terms like truth-seeking, forgiveness, reconciliation are not commonplace in psychoanalytic discourse, though the term reparation has some currency when discussing the aims of psychoanalysis.

As a background to this presentation I will be describing how this work came about and I shall also be presenting some testimony from the first hearings in Cape Town. In this sense I am writing from the perspective as a witness – as someone who has recorded something of my feelings, impressions and experiences while moving in and out of this truth-seeking process, both on a personal and professional level.

Being a witness

I am interested in the subject of being a witness in all its different meanings, and in the relationship between the witness who presents testimony and the listener as someone who ‘bears witness’. Some psychoanalytic writers (Chused 1997) have written about the concept of the patient as witness and the therapist as listener who ‘bears witness’, but what interests me about this comparison are those special circumstances where the therapist and patient find themselves in the ‘same boat’. That is, those circumstances where the therapist is no longer a neutral observer or someone who bears silent witness, but who becomes a participant in some common or shared experience with the patient. This happens quite frequently in analysis when there is an unexpected break in the frame, which is the result of the intrusion of external reality. Obvious examples are when there is an electricity power cut, or when the therapist has to take a telephone call during the session. Both analyst and patient share this break in their typical roles/tasks which are suddenly thrown into relief, and this usually leads to a very thoughtful interlude with subjective reactions on either side – which may or may not overlap, or which may or may not be disclosed. One realisation that crops up is the awareness that patient and analyst have shared a real life moment together – and for the patient the sense of the analyst as a real person can have unexpected therapeutic benefits.

A similar type of sharing also happens, I believe, as a normal by-product of analysis when the patient externalizes an inner conflict in such a way as to draw the therapist into an interaction, which acts as a substitute for an internal conflict or an experience of intense emotion. Analysts now agree that the concept of a totally neutral or anonymous analyst is a myth and that intersubjective phenomena occupy an important role in the therapeutic process in psychoanalysis (Renik, 1995). Countertransference enactments, whether they form part of the analyst’s thinking or dreaming about the patient, or whether they are ‘acted in’ during the session, can be a critical source of information about the patients object relations – and developmentally speaking they may be the only means the patient has of communicating these relations. As to what degree countertransference disclosures by the analyst advance the aims of analysis there is less consensus amongst analysts. Some argue that these disclosures are a powerful agent of psychic change (Renik 1995, Gorkin 1987, Bollas 1987) while others count them as inevitable artifacts of grappling with the therapeutic task in hand (Grinberg 1962, Brenman Pick 1985).

Of course the role of disclosure is central to the truth-finding process of the TRC but, as I hope to show, while disclosure of the facts about past political atrocities may be essential to establishing the truth and the correct historical record, disclosure of these facts without disclosure of emotion is inimical to the reconciliation and forgiveness process. I will also ague that what makes disclosure of emotion particularly difficult is the degree of shame that has to be faced, and that the facts without the emotion can serve as a sophisticated defense against shame.

There are two features of the TRC process, and its context, that make it highly susceptible to phenomena around ‘being in the same boat’ with respect to emotional reactions. Firstly, as a concept the TRC has as its ideal the healing of a whole country, which theoretically includes everyone – victims, perpetrators, the public at large, as well as those taking authority over and responsibility for the process. This concept of a Truth Commission is different from a post-war tribunal or a war trial – it does not involve people from one country investigating those of another country. After the second World War, for example, towns in France and Germany were twinned-up to foster reconciliation. In South Africa, it is people from the same country who are presiding over the truth-seeking and reparation process – and because of shared history and shared pain this can either enhance, or create impediments to, the truth-seeking and recovery process.

Then there is something about the nature of trauma itself, what I would like to call its ‘adhesiveness’ – the way it ‘sticks’ to people who come into contact with it, even as third parties. When a witness unburdens himself or herself of a traumatic incident certain affects and phantasies can be transmitted to the listener, either directly or via a piggyback method where self-representations are deposited in the listener (Volkan 1996). This may cause a reverberation or even an alteration in the psyche of the recipient.

These factors – the context of the TRC and the ‘adhesive’ quality of trauma – are likely to ensure that what psychoanalysis calls countertransference factors will come into play quite prominently in the TRC process. There is one countertransference factor I’d particularly like to mention in the context of this paper: countertransference voyeurism (Bustos, 1990). This refers to the listener’s need to hear over and over again the details of traumatic testimony. This produces a type of defensive numbing in the listener, which enables him to sit though one testimony after another without succumbing to emotional exhaustion. However, this can also stimulate a type of unconscious professional dependency on working with victims of trauma.– the listener grows to ‘need’ the trauma victim, both for their testimony and for the defence (numbing) required to cope with the emotional impact of such testimony. This can create problems around allowing others (family members, supervisors) into what is going on, and to a degree of professional and intellectual territoriality around working with this client group (Bustos, 1990).


My interest in the work of the Truth Commission began at the time when details of the parliamentary Bill authorizing the Commission and its work was made public for the first time in late 1995. It was apparent at the start that the Bill contained no provisions for psychological services for those giving testimony or for the those who would be staffing the Commission. At this time I was the Chairperson of a newly established Division of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy within the Psychological Society of South Africa, which only the year before had embarked on its own transformation programme to accommodate the new political realities of the day. In fact the launch day of our new Division had been given over to the theme of ‘Healing The Past’ and the contribution a psychoanalytic approach might make towards this goal (Sandler et al 1995). At this time we wrote on two occasions to the Minister about these concerns but received no reply or acknowledgement. Three months later the Bill was passed and the process of appointing Commissioners began. The State President appointed the Archbishop Desmond Tutu as head and Mr Alex Boraine as deputy, together with 15 other Commissioners. The Bill gave the Commission 2 years to complete its task of ‘Healing the Country’.

To date the work of the Commission has recieved worldwide coverage, but for those of who are unfamiliar with its rationale it may be helpful to give a brief summary of its overall aims and structures (Omar, 1995). Broadly stated, the objective of the Commission is to help South Africans come to terms with their violent past. To this end the Bill provides for three specialized Committees to be set up. Firstly, the Committee of Human Rights Violations, whose task it is to establish a comprehensive picture of gross human rights violations which took place inside and outside the country between 1 March 1960 – 5 December 1993. This Committee has the authority through its legal department to investigate claims for accuracy, to supeona people for testimony, and where necessary to search offices where information critical to the work of the Commission is being held. Another crucial task of this Committee is to identify by name victims, who have disappeared or died in detention, in order to establish their fate or their whereabouts. Survivors and their families will be given space to tell their stories at private and public hearings organized nationwide. Secondly, there is the Committee on Amnesty or Indemnity, which will consider applications from individuals who were responsible for gross human right violations and for past political offenses. A precondition for amnesty or indemnity is full disclosure of the facts surrounding such offenses and the Norgaard principles were included to determine the relationship between an act of gross human rights violation and the political motives put forward as mitigating factors The 3rd Committee is The Committee on Reparation & Rehabilitation which has the task of recognising the wrongs done to people and communities and of recommending appropriate legal, institutional, and administrative reparations. Provision is also made for witness protection programmes.

As is well known, one of the ongoing controversies surrounding the Commission has been the issue of granting amnesty to perpetrators of human rights violations. While the Bill makes amnesty by no means automatic, ie. it can only be granted if certain criteria are met by applicants, critics as well as families of victims with court proceedings pending against identified perpetrators, have argued that the TRC has sacrificed justice for reconciliation. This is a grave charge indeed, namely, that reconciliation and reparation is not the same as justice, and it is similar to the charges made against Truth Commissions in other countries like Argentina and Chile, where indemnity was safeguarded for perpetrators by the military governments of the day. In South Africa too, it must be said, the Truth Commission was born of political compromise, though what needs to be remembered is that the amnesty provision was part of the overall negotiated settlement in South Africa, negotiations that saw the first non-racial elections in the country. The Commission, therefore, was set up in a particular historical context and with specific political objectives, and this I believe is clearly reflected in the title of the Bill which authorized its existence – The National Unity & Reconciliation Act. Interestingly, Truth is not mentioned in the title, and nor was the Bill entitled the National Unity & Justice Bill, nor, for that matter, was it named the National Unity & Retribution Bill or the National Unity & Rage Bill.

In the Western Cape where I live the first hearings were set up in Cape Town for Mon 22 – Thurs 25 April 1996. Before these hearings several meetings and workshops were organised by the Commission, mainly to introduce and clarify to NGOs and Civil Society groupings the main emphases that the Commission would be taking. One such workshop took place on March 15 1996 with the aim of exploring and surveying peoples ideas on ‘Reparation’ –- what ideas, what mechanisms of reparation, would people see as realistic or necessary as part of the TRC process. At this workshop several civic organizations, church bodies, and mental health sector bodies were represented and, deviating from the programme, a call was made for the Commission to take seriously the need for psychological support services for witnesses giving testimony and for staff involved in the hearings.

As we entered the week of 22 April I received an invitation to our organization to attend the Hearings. This was followed up by a telephone call to say that at the end of a days hearings requests for debriefing services might be made. I was struck by the specific request for debriefing – a concept I had only previously encountered in readings about work with survivors of natural or man-made disasters. I presumed that in the context of public hearings, the debriefing would be psychological debriefing, and would involve objectives like – the ventilation and sharing of impressions and feelings about the day’s hearings, strange reactions, thinking about group issues and tensions, and the mobilization of resources among members. This, anyway, was how I intended to approach the work if this was requested.

I would like to describe for you the first day of the first hearings as I experienced them.

First public hearing 22/4/96

The hearings were held at the Nico Malan nursing college in Athlone – a traditionally working class, mixed-race suburb of Cape Town. Nico Malan was the Administrator of the Cape Province in the1950s, a liberal Afrikaner with a special interest in primary health care. The Nursing College was accessible via a very long straight road which ran through an impoverished area – flanked on either side by open fields, then by clusters of small shops, abject-looking cafes and businesses. Life was going on as usual in South Africa – like it always seemed to go on as usual, whatever the events of the day – whether this was a national football fixture, a terrible political atrocity, or like today some major historical and long-awaited day in in the lives of many people. ‘When the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.’ as W H Auden once put it.

Security at the College was rather low key by South African standards – a small group of policemen and security service personnel manning the check points. Again I wondered, given the historical importance of this event, how modest, even inconsequential, the whole set-up appeared – like a weekday school function, or a day conference, where one or two VIP keynote speakers would be present.

The hall itself was quite a large space with a stage towards the front. A large banner hung over the stage decorated with the picture of a dove with a flower (not a leaf) in its beak and a sign which read ‘Let the Truth be heard. Unite the Nation’. On the stage were arranged a semicircle of tables with microphones. Placed before these tables was a single table with two chairs. In the body of the hall to the right stood a large bank of electronic hardware feeding overhead speakers. Behind these stood a series of glass booths which housed the translators. Headphones were placed on most seats with separate channels for English, Afrikaans & Xhosa and Zulu. Some soothing Mozart was filtering through the overhead speakers. I was struck by all the technology, and also by a sense that the setting appeared so unprepared for emotion.

My first shock came when I caught sight of the Commission’s new Cape Town liaison officer, whom I had met the week before at the Reparation Workshop. Then, he had struck me as fresh-faced, gentle-mannered young man who had formerly occupied the position of spokesperson of a non-governmental grouping called the ‘Religious Response to the TRC’. Now he appeared before me with all his hair shorn off, cropped to a number 2. He wore a green poloneck and a parrabat-styled anorack giving himself the appearance of a hardened military conscript.

The hall was teeming with press and television representatives, both national and international, who had camped themselves mainly in an area marked ‘dignitaries’. Cameras were pointing in all directions. People were filing in and the hall filled up rapidly. A man wearing a headphone crouched next to me in the aisle talking into a gadget. I felt a sudden pang about appearing on national TV during my Easter break, and instinctively I shrunk into my seat. This moment of anxiety, however, helped me to focus on my own situation, to get in touch some of my own feelings. I became aware of the a note book I had brought with me, in case I was called upon later the day to do some work.

Had I come as a recorder too? As someone hoping to remain an observer, hoping perhaps to screen myself via a professional persona from the emotional testimony that would undoubtedly unfold in the hours ahead? How prepared was I to encounter certain truths and feelings about our country’s shameful past, and in particular this city’s past, this region’s past, where as a child, as a teenager, and as a student I used to live and where events had taken place in the surrounding suburbs and towns of which I had little or no personal experience, and in many cases what personal knowledge I had of them had been filtered through the media of the day – through radio reports, headlines in newspapers. Of course, in adult life this would change as my horizons broadened and the scope of my experiences, friends, and colleagues multiplied, but for many white South Africans, and it must be said for other communities too, the Commission would be bringing us closer to a version of our history for so long unknown to us, and for so long obscured – by propaganda, media distortion, cover-ups, and, of course, by the sheer banality of everyday apartheid, mediated through rationalization, denial, and dissociation.

In the light of all this I began to wonder just how it would be possible to occupy a professional role, where the need for personal learning and participation in the truth finding process would be so compelling and so necessary. Would these have to be separated out in the time-honoured South African way – by splitting – or could a way be found of combining these in a non-defensive way. Obviously it would not be possible for the Commission to draw everyone into the process on the same level, particularly into the pain of the process. Perhaps for some the involvement would be now, in the present, but for others this would come later – when the record had been taken for everyone to see and consult. Then, of course, there was also an overarching issue – a psychological one – that whoever we are, within ourselves, we all have reasons and longings to be forgiven for something in our past.

Soon a side door opened and the then Archbishop, his deputy, and other Commissioners filed in. They came unexpectedly to the front of the stage – and this was a cue which sparked the media personnel into life. They rushed forward noisily and covered the Commissioners in a blaze of light. The Commissioners looked solemn and nervous, but friendly, and then took up their positions on the stage. Another group of about 12 people, barely noticed, had been following the Commissioners and only now did they come into view. These were the witnesses for the day accompanied by selected family members and a number of briefers. They stood stranded at the front of the stage for a moment, cameras aimed at them from all sides, before someone showed them to a row of seats in the front. It felt painfully sad, and I was very aware of feeling angry at all this pointing. On stage a member of the Human Rights Violation Committee read out the names of the witnesses who would be giving evidence during the day. The Archbishop then asked everyone to stand, while he came down from the stage to shake the hand of each witness. This was another opportunity for cameras to move to do more frantic pointing

The new National Anthem was then sung; which combines Nkosi Sikelel’ with verses of the old Anthem (‘Die Stem’) sung in Afrikaans. The singing was very low key and depressing, with a greater liveliness evident amongst the press. At the end the Archbishop said a prayer in all languages. After this everyone settled down. The press trooped off and the Archbishop said to the witnesses, ‘Thank you for exposing yourself to the gaze of the world. We must give thanks for our wonderful ubuntu!’ (good-heartedness).

The first witness was Mr A , a man of mixed race in his late 40s who chose to start his testimony by giving some biographical details about himself. Before starting, by the way, all witnesses were required to swear an oath that they would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Mr A spoke in English and he went into quite some detail about his life, his family background, schooling, choice of career and so on.

At the time of the incident he wished to describe he was working in management in Provincial Government in the city of Durban. On the day preceding the incident, in May 1962, he mentioned that he’d been to see his priest who had administered ‘the oils’ which had left him feeling in better spirits after this blessing. He had been working late in his office on the second floor (other colleagues having left for the day) and he had left his desk momentarily to go to the mensroom. He entered an unlocked cubicle and used the toilet. On his way out of the cubicle there was a terrible crash and the next thing he recalled was standing outside the building looking up at fire and smoke spewing from the windows above. A police officer appeared on the scene and would not believe he’d actually been in the building. Only when he accompanied the officer back into the building, and saw that his office had been totally destroyed, the ceilings having caved in, did he realize that a bomb had gone off. He then recalled that he’d been standing at a window shouting for help. Mr A required some medical attention but he said his escape had been miraculous. ‘Had nature not called me I would have died or been severely injured.’

He went on to report his sense of hurt and humiliation at seeing the headlines the following day, ‘Man caught with his pants down’. His work had been subsequently affected. He had seen a psychiatrist who had diagnosed depression. He was transferred back to Cape Town to be near his family but no-one from his office came to see him. Before, he had had a responsible job and people came to see him all the time; now he felt left alone and treated like someone with a mental disorder. ‘One minute I was like a school principle and then I was the caretaker.’

He was asked by one of the Commissioners whom he thought was responsible for the bomb. He hesitated and seemed reluctant to point a finger at the ANC. Bombs were going off in other State buildings at the time, he said. There was never a court case, no-one had ever claimed responsibility for the bomb, and no statement had been made by the authorities. He was then asked what the Commission could do for him. He said that previously he had been very angry and had wanted reparation, particularly for his subsequent depression and his loss of status in society. Now he wanted nothing. He commented that a few years after the incident he had entered the church and become a minister. He had forgiven those responsible. At the end one commissioner asked if the incident had taken place after office hours. Yes, he replied, at 5.15pm.

The next witness was Mrs N and her two sons who were presenting testimony about the death of her husband in detention in 1963. 1963 was the year that the infamous legislation allowing 90 days detention without trial was passed in Parliament, and it seemed that her husband was the first victim to die in detention. Mrs N reported that in the early part of that year her husband had gone missing. Police came to inform her that he had been in a Pretoria prison where he had killed himself. She was told to travel to Pretoria to identify his body and when she arrived, she was taken to several prisons but his body could not be found. She became terrified when she was advised by local comrades that her own life might be in danger, so she fled back to Cape Town. There she was arrested and taken back to Pretoria with her baby son where she was detained in a linen closet at a prison because their were no facilities. In the morning she was taken to her husband’s inquest. She heard that he had hung himself using his pajamas. She gave no evidence and was not allowed to call any witnesses. No body had been located and there has been no burial. Her eldest son then spoke. He said he was 6 yrs old when his father disappeared. He recalled police coming to the house and the adults crying. When his mother left he had waited for her return from Johannesburg. He said, ‘We expected a funeral. My father loved us a lot. He taught us revolutionary songs. He loved the struggle too, he lived for the struggle. He gave up his family and his whole life for the struggle. We are convinced he did not kill himself.’

On my way home from the hearings I made a stop at the Truth Commission’s offices to collect a message. The message invited me to take a group of Commission staff for debriefings at the end of Wednesdays hearings. Several staff groups were mentioned – Commissioners (6-9 participants), Briefers (5), Research & Media (6-20), Logistics & Statement Takers (9-12). and my name appeared alongside the Commissioners in a column marked ‘Facilitator’. On my way out of the building I decided to use the mensroom but found the door stiff and difficult to open. I managed to push my way in only to discover a scene of total chaos. Broken tiles were strewn everywhere. All the hand-basins had been smashed off the walls leaving taps suspended quite bizarrely in space. And the toilets had been reduced to rubble, piles of smashed porcelain heaped in the cubicles. The receptionist, a white plain-clothed policeman, said that the bathrooms were being renovated, and I left the building with the day’s testimony reverberating inside me in a new way.

Hearings, 24/4/96

On the Wednesday I attended the hearings. In the morning there were two pieces of testimony of particularly gruesome content which left everyone a bit rattled and in a state of rawness and disbelief. I want to mention the second – the testimony of Mrs T.

During February 1985 the community of Crossroads, a squatter camp in Cape Town, was being forcibly removed to another sight, now called Kaelisha. There was great resistance to the move which, in turn, was met with a particularly brutal response by the State, and many people were shot and killed and many others maimed. Mrs T reported that during these riots in Crossroads she had joined a march against the removals. Without warning the march was suddenly teargassed and also came under gunfire. She was wounded in the leg and was rescued by comrades who took her to a nearby house. The whole area had been sealed off, therefore no ambulances could enter the township. She eventually got to hospital where she was guarded and questioned by police over 2 days. She said she spent 21/2 months in hospital – her leg was in ‘cement’ but it did not heal properly.

When she finished her testimony she was then addressed by one of the Commissioners who asked, ‘Will you please show the Archbishop the scar on your leg.’ She stood up, pulled up her skirt and revealed a scar. The Commissioner continued, ‘That wasn’t the only place you were shot, was it Mrs T?’ ‘No.’ she replied, ‘I still have several bullets in my body.’ After a short pause she said, ‘Some bullets are in my vagina.’ There was a stunned silence which was eventually broken by the Archbishop who turned to his colleagues ‘Any other questions?’. One Commissioner asked, ‘Do you remember the name of the doctor who treated you? Was it a man or a woman?’ She could not recall. What would you like the Commission to do for you? was the next question. ‘I have four children’, she replied, ‘and I am unemployed. I want treatment for my leg which swells up in the heat.’ There was another stunned silence. Someone asked, ‘Do you want help to see other specialists? Would you like someone to take out the bullets?’ ‘Yes’, she replied.


The Afrikaans word for shame is ‘skaam’. In its Indo-European origins the word ‘shame’ has its roots in the word ‘skem’, which means ‘to cover’ (Pines 1995). There are many English words that are derived from this root to mean structures that cover or protect – the word ‘chamber’, for example, and the word ‘camera’. Pines reminds us that ‘camera’ is a word for ‘room’, and its photographical allusion refers to a room that has been set aside for the exposure of film that is sensitive to light. Such private spaces, he says, can attract the interest of the creative and the curious as well as the perverse and, as we know, cameras can be used as much for cocooning and moderating light as they can be used for throwing light intrusively and unremittingly on a subject for the purposes of humiliation and sensationalism. The voyeur, for instance, looks on from a distance, a non-participant, yet participating without permission in someone else’s privacy – a kind of stealing; taking without being seen. With shame normally comes the lowering of the eyes, whereas the voyeur circumvents shame through secrecy, through not being watched himself. In place of shame one gets megalomania.

Both Pines (1994) and Helen Lewis (1971) have used the image of the figure/ground phenomenon to elucidate the experience of shame. Normally, says Pines, as figures, we form part of the background in which we locate ourselves; this gives us a context and a kind of covering. But if we are suddenly and unexpectedly made to stand out against the background we feel uncovered and painfully self aware – this is the essence of the shame experience, though this version begins to resemble the Noel Edmund’s theory of shame.

It is truer, I think, to say that shame comes in many different shades and hues; there are different levels of shame with aspects belonging to the individual, the social, and the cultural domain. Firstly, there is, as Pines suggests, the shame that comes from the unanticipated exposure to the spotlight which leaves the self with an experience of defencelessness. All traumas must involve a shaming aspect in this respect, since all traumas involve the loss of control over events, loss of control over the environment, loss of control of the self. In psychotherapy too there is always shame anxiety present, because the very act of self-disclosure or self-uncovering can cause shame. All effective psychotherapy must teach self-observation not self-loathing – the self must be observed and not become the cause of disgust (Wurmser 1987).

Secondly, but linked to the theme of self control, there is the shame that flows from not measuring up to an expected ideal. In Freudian terminology shame reflects a discrepancy between the ego and the ego ideal, whereas in guilt the discrepancy exists between the ego and the superego though the relationship between guilt and shame can be subtle and interactive. In victimized communities, where a high value is placed on the ideological understanding of the people’s suffering, and how to overcome such suffering, there can be shame associated with not keeping self-control in the face of the oppressor (see Straker et al 1992). Thirdly, there is the shaming that in many cultures comes from having no death certificate, no grave, no headstone for those who have disappeared and assumed dead. This kind of shame also leads people to mourn or bear their suffering in secret. It can lead to passivity, ego-restriction, and a kind of learned despair and helplessness, or even to dissociation. Fourthly, there is the perpetrators shame, the shame that goes with impunity, but in the case of the perpetrator there is such a degree of terror of shame, such a dread of acknowledging the mess and the flaw that has created the mess, that often all one encounters are many defensive layers against shame which, of course, vary in their degree of sophistication, ingenuity, and effectiveness. I would like to mention some of these defenses (adapted from Wurmster, 1987).

i) Hiding and wishing to disappear. Withdrawing from society, from the public view. Also reflected in passivity, and a withholding of participation in the social and political transformation process – closing down a business prematurely, moving to a smallholding on the edge of the Karoo, taking early retirement packages, emigration to countries that are well known for having tiny black populations.

ii) The opposite of hiding – exhibitionism. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide. Look at me – look at my fabulous tan and look at the results of my daily gym exercises. Look how impressive are our achievements in the sporting world. Look at our annual 20% Unit Trust growth rate.’ Conspicuous spending on an endless variety of home comforts in white and black communities can also serve to allay a sense of defilement.

iii) Reverence and awe directed towards idealized leaders. There are two variations of this. ‘We have nothing to be ashamed of – we were obeying the wishes of our wise leaders.’ and ‘Look at our wonderful new wise President – a saint, a paragon of forgiveness, moderation, and self-restraint who encourages us to move forward.’

iv) Self-idealization and claims of uniqueness. ‘We are a special country made up of so many diverse ethnic groups, so many shades of language, traditions and culture – a ‘rainbow’ nation. We have rare and unmatched resources – we are a ‘gold’ country. We have always had a form of democracy – look at the rest of Africa. In our progression to full democracy we avoided the overthrow of society by violent means. Look at our shining new Constitution – the envy of the world! We have little to learn from the experiences of other countries’.

v) The denial of primitive aggression. ‘It simply cannot be true that human beings can be so inherently cruel.’ This view is reflected in the appeal of certain psychological theories that place aggression as a secondary phenomenon, not primary, but contingent upon the frustration of needs, the failure of maternal or environmental provision.

All of these I believe act as defenses against our extreme vulnerability to shame and shame anxiety.

Debriefing session 24/4/96

Now I would now like to go on to discuss the debriefing meeting with Commissioners which occurred after the hearings I have just mentioned. I’m not going to discuss this meeting in too much detail but I’d like to draw out some of the main themes.

The hearings ended at about 4.30pm and and I was told we were meeting in an adjoining room but we had to leave the building to get there. There was a fierce wind blowing outside and several people complained of the cold. We reached a door which to everyone’s surprise was locked. Someone went off to find a key. Members huddled around the corner seeking shelter from the wind. Some concern was expressed about whether everyone would be attending. Eventually the door was opened from the inside by a white policeman. He jangled a huge bunch of keys as we entered and then he promptly left by another door. Through the glass panel I could see him locking the room with a chain. One Commissioner intervened and asked him to leave it open as were expecting other members. I inquired what room this was and was told it was the room used by the witnesses during hearings. There were several easy chairs scattered around and on a long table there stood an urn and line of washed cups.

It soon became apparent that none of the men, four Commissioners in all, and including the male leadership, were not about to appear for this meeting. They seemed to have left the premises, apparently to attend to some business. One senior member , however, was being represented by his wife – though she made it clear that he needed to attend this meeting. The circle of six women and myself settled down. Suddenly an overhead speaker, which no-one had noticed, barked in life – ‘Would Meneer K please report to the reception desk.’

There were several themes that emerged in the course of this session. One was a sense of collective awkwardness and unease about how little people were asking for what they had suffered. This felt awkward and in some ways unreal, but also left members feeling deeply humbled (and I think relieved) when placed alongside the kind of losses and injuries suffered. Then there was the theme of what I will call resilience. Clearly all of these women present, some of them high profile figures in civil society, had been chosen as Commissioners because of their long standing experience and work in areas of human rights and in dealing with victims of torture, forced removals, refugees and so on. They had all earned their spurs, so to speak, in the line of fire, and without exception in their own fields they would be regarded by South Africans as veterans of the struggle against apartheid. As such, it must be said, they would have made many sacrifices over the years. My thoughts turned to the issue of the ‘wounded healer’ and about the emotional reserves required to cope with testimony which would surely elicit powerful cross-identifications – to use Winnicott’s term.

One member expressed this theme of resilience succinctly, by stating that she had not heard anything new today. She had worked in many organizations over the years dealing with people’s tragedy, and in what sounded like a personal disclosure she said that she had developed a sort of shell around herself. She was so full of what had to be done for the victims that she couldn’t think about herself – therefore she wasn’t convinced about the usefulness of debriefing for Commissioners. Other members made comments which had a similar ring of self-disclosure, but they came out in the kind of facile way that led no-one able to respond. These were comments like ‘I hadn’t expected to be so upset hearing about how parents had lost their children. I don’t have any children of my own– perhaps this was why I am in the helping professions.’ What struck me in the first half hour was the absence of emotion in the room, particularly given the testimony of the day, and I struggled to get hold of anything that might lead us anywhere. At times I had the distinct feeling there was a competition underway amongst members to see who’s shell would show the first signs of cracking.

Then I remember moving on, in my mind, to thinking about the kind of psychic numbing normally associated with post-traumatic stress symptoms. Soon I realized that even though this was a group of colleagues, some of them being friends, there must be present some very normal worries about disclosure and trust. With time moving on I asked if this was the first opportunity they had had to meet as a group in this way. They confirmed this, and I went on to comment that perhaps there was some uncertainty about how much they could rely upon one another for help. This brought a flurry of denials, exemplified by one member who said they were all helping one another – ‘The Commission should be renamed the Truth & Hugging Commission.’ I said that sounded like a good principle, but as had been pointed out, some members were not present today to offer their help and support, nor were they present to receive help from others.

This impasse was finally broken by one of the younger members who said with great feeling that there were images from people’s testimony that kept coming into her mind. She began to weep and said that she had met people in the past week who were known to her, people whom she had been to school with and whose whole lives had been affected by what they had been through. This brought other members to life as they searched for tissues. The young woman continued: ‘It wasn’t simply that this or that person had lost an arm or a leg as a result of being shot – it was that their whole lives had been affected.’ As this woman spoke I felt overcome with sadness and I could feel my own tears welling up – which were visible to others in the room. There was now a long silence and the whole atmosphere went very flat. Soon a terrible depression settled over everyone, including myself. It felt quite dreadful, and soon I began to experience some panic about what should be said next.

I decided to talk about how depressing it felt now that someone had been upset. I started to explore the issue of expectations – perhaps because of their roles as Commissioners it was expected they should not have their own normal feelings about the Hearings. And perhaps as a group of peers they were not expecting of themselves, or of one another, to have ordinary feelings either. This seemed to open things up a bit and to allow members to speak more freely and more personally about the day’s experience – about how angry some of the testimony by victims had made them feel, about how awkward it felt when witnesses appeared to forgive so easily, about how numbing it felt to hear witness after witness recount such dreadful experiences, and so on. It also allowed one member to mention her conflict with the rest of her colleagues. The meeting ended on a note of disorientation, however – it wasn’t clear whether a further meeting would take place the following day ,the last day of the hearings.

Several days passed and I received a telephone call informing me that at a meeting of all Commissioners a decision was taken not to continue the debriefing meetings. No explanation was given but I was offered, in the place of the Commissioners, a group of Statement Takers and given the name of the lead statement taker to make contact with. This I did, and it led to some fruitful work over the next few months with this particular group who represented the point for entry, for staff as well as the public, into the truth telling process.

I was left feeling quite rejected, and quite guilty too. Had I caused some disturbance for the group? Had I used the wrong approach? Were they upset with me? Had I made a mistake by showing my own feelings in the group? Did they experience me as weak? I reminded myself of how awful it felt when some real upset and tears had been allowed to emerge in the group. Was it too much to expect Commissioners to be the ears and eyes of the nation, to know and experience on a whole society’s behalf, the terrible truths of the past, and also to expect of them some capacity for self reflection and reflection on their own process? Perhaps in an organization whose objective it is to hold up a mirror to a whole society, there is a need, at some of its levels, to be exempt from trying to encompass the totality of the process. While the task of such a Commission, to be sure, was to draw as many people as possible into the pain of the country’s past, how viable would it be for any one structure to encompass all this pain? Perhaps sending, on your behalf, a representative for debriefing, may well be a sane form of delegation: someone needs to hold the structure together and to give it a name, while others have to emerse themselves more in the process.


Perhaps by way of a conclusion I could return to the subject I mentioned at the start – of being in the ‘same boat’. In a chapter in her book entitled ‘The Cry of Mute Children’ Ilany Kogan (1995) describes how during the Gulf War when scud missiles were landing on Israeli cities some psychoanalysts who were working with children of Holocaust survivors found it necessary to set aside their usual technique by acknowledging to their patients the shared reality of a life-threatening situation. They also acknowledged some of their own emotional reactions to the situation. This was found to be beneficial for this particular client group because many of their symptoms had their origins in the fact that their parents, as Holocaust survivors, had not been able to share their emotional legacy with them, but instead had transmitted aspects of their trauma to them.

No theory of healing and no theory of truth-telling in relation to trauma and healing, and certainly no theory of truth-finding in relation to forgiveness, has ever been spelled out by the Truth Commission, or by those who have so unswervingly championed its benefits. If there is one concept informing the relation between truth and forgiveness that has emerged in the course of Commission’s work, it is that most, if not all, things – if they are allowed to come out – can be forgiven. This is a controversial concept that in part stems from the particular theological cloak under which the Commission appears at times to be functioning, a cloak that attempts to obviate the victim’s right not to reconcile, and seeks to neutralise the victim’s right to anger in the service of healing.

In psychoanalysis there are always two classes of object that are involved in any healing process – the internal object has to undergo repair and damage to the the object ‘objectively perceived’ has to addressed. The link between object and self repair must be the availability – both internally and in reality – of a qualitatively good-enough repair situation that includes an emotional relationship. In the context of South Africa today I believe it is only possible to say sorry, and for this to mean something, if this is said in the context of a emotional exchange or relationship. Therefore relational factors seem to be necessary for the personal and the wider social forms of healing and reconciliation envisioned by the Commission.

To some extent this has been achieved where victims and perpetrators have faced one another at these hearings and where honest feelings have been shared on both sides, but not in a symmetrical way. This remains an important format for healing that is yet to be fully exploited in the South African context. Of course, in these later stages the Commission has moved into the phase of exhumations, literally digging up the past, and uncovering the remains of people secretly murdered. We need no longer be challenged in our imaginations as to the ghastliness of the deeds of the past, nor do we need, once more, to be spared the grim reality. In their rawness and palpability these exhumations are the final proof, and the final statement of what has to be faced. It is this type of rawness, however, that may make it impossible for many people to negotiate primary reconciliation at this time, and, as has been found in other countries, this may only be possible for the decendents of victims and perpetrators to achieve – a dialogue leading to some genuine form of closure and reconciliation.


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