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Autumn 2002 | Volume 25, Number 4 | Faculty
Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa
Gallagher’s New Book Spotlights the Writings of Exiles and Prisoners

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 I’d read.”

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.”


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