| Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa
Gallagher’s New Book Spotlights the Writings of Exiles and
CONFESSING ADMIRATION FOR the victims of apartheid
in South Africa, Professor of English Susan VanZanten Gallagher
is the author of a new book on writings from that nation.
Truth and Reconciliation: The Confessional Mode in South African
Literature was published this fall by Heinemann as a part of
its Studies in African Literature series.
In the book, Gallagher relates the concepts of self, society and
confession to the problem of apartheid, focusing on the writings
of exiles and prisoners. She ends by conveying the power of confession
— which she defines as both admitting guilt and testifying to the
truth — in the healing of South Africa.
This national healing is made visible in Gallagher’s account of
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings of the mid-1990s.
In these government hearings, she says, both definitions of confession
were prominent. Perpetrators confessed in public to crimes of violating
human rights, and victims of apartheid testified about the atrocities
they suffered. The perpetrators were granted immunity if they confessed
everything, and if they proved they had committed the crimes in
pursuit of a political goal. The victims were formally thanked for
their testimony, which, they were told, would help create a more
just system of government.
Gallagher’s earlier book, A Story of South Africa (Harvard University
Press, 1991), deals with the writings of novelist J.M. Coetzee,
a white South African whose novel Disgrace won the Booker Prize
in 1999. “After I wrote the book on Coetzee,” says Gallagher, “I
became interested in the theme of confession, which shows up everywhere
in South African literature. The practices of religious and judicial
confession affected the people who were writing.”
By studying South African writers, Gallagher also rediscovered her
own Dutch roots. She felt a kinship with the Afrikaners whose Dutch
ancestors had settled in the African nation. “I decided to concentrate
on South African work written in English. I fell in love with the
stories, which contained some of the most gifted and moving writing
In 1996, Gallagher traveled through South Africa, attending the
TRC hearings herself. She later wrote in Christianity Today, “Apartheid
South Africa was deliberately structured
to silence those who
were demonized as ‘other.’ The TRC process, in response, was designed
to restore ‘the human and civil dignity’ of the victims of apartheid
by giving them a collective opportunity to tell their stories, to
fashion new public narratives and identities.”
In Truth and Reconciliation, Gallagher shows how confessional
literature, like the TRC hearings, can offer a chance for reconciliation.
She writes, “In the confessional mode of acknowledging debt … new
human associations based on peace, justice and faith can be born.”
— By MARGARET D. SMITH
— PHOTO BY GREG SCHNEIDER
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