“It was pointed out that we none of us possess a king of fiat by which we can say, ‘Let bygones be bygones’ and, hey presto, they then become bygones…the past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately” (Tutu 28).
In the aftermath of the apartheid in South Africa, there was great consideration as to what should be done to deal with the trauma that took place during that time. A barrier was those who had contributed to it, those “who opposed the trial option and suggested…that we let bygones be bygones” (27). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission would ultimately become the solution, where victims were encouraged to share their stories not to assign blame but to ensure “summum bonum–the greatest good” (31).
I was very eager to read this story because last semester, my classmates and I watched the film Dawnland, a documentary about Maine’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commision (TRC) with the Native populations that live here. I don’t exaggerate when I say that film changed me. I learned so much and strove to share that knowledge with others. This quote stuck out to me, though, because it shows the problems that some people have with TRCs.
One of the first stories that we hear in the film is from an older woman named Georgina, who was understandably frustrated with the idea of sharing her story. She asked, “some of the wounds are so deep, how do you propose that we’re supposed to be healing?” (Mazo & Pender-Cudlip). She shared how she and her sister had been put into a bathtub full of bleach by her foster mother, who was determined to lighten the color of their skin. She was far from the only one who had suffered, too. For this reason, like in South Africa, not all would “acquiesce in the conciliatory approach” (40).
Georgina’s concerns, I felt, were valid. What she and others have gone through was horrific, and if someone had framed TRCs to her as simply a way to make nice with perpetrators, I think she would be greatly offended. History did indeed haunt her. I understand the point of TRCs, but I can see how the idea of having to essentially re-traumatize yourself by sharing stories from your past to strangers would be an uncomfortable one. Georgina was right to ask how this group was going to help her, especially when they were mostly non-Native and did not have that shared history of pain. Who may have been seeking a way to make themselves feel better rather than truly address their privilege.
Apartheid was such a strong period of South African history, where hundreds were hurt and killed. Critics of TRCs may wonder how storytelling could fix that. How it could save Native peoples from their pain at the hands of white settlers and foster parents. For me, I resonate with that quote by George Santayana, “‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it’” (qtd. In Tutu 29). If we don’t hear these stories, not only is healing impossible but also, it helps outsiders see the wrong that was done very clearly. That even if they were not directly involved, they were still letting it continue. Maybe speaking up can’t rewrite Georgina’s story, but it can provide closure and a more favorable ending. It can reach others who need to see that they were not alone, and that moving forward is possible.
What do you see as pros and cons of TRCs?
Class discussion and impact:
My contributions: today I gave my opinion on Nadia’s article, saying that it did challenge people’s assumptions and also wondered about the impact of children seeing everything going on with COVID-19. I noted that, with Hayley’s quote, Tutu probably was being genuine in his idea that seeing everyone together is sort of like a scientific discovery. I shared my QCQ, as well as my conversation with my mother and the concerns that she had with TRCs, and I noted that a lack of acceptance within TRCs could be problematic for avoiding justice.
Others’ contributions: First of all I really wanted to highlight Nadia and her article, because it’s always great to see student work out in the public. She had some interesting points to share with us in class. Sinead’s QCQ prompted me to share my own because of her emphasis on accepting or acknowledging the past in order to move forward, which I appreciated. Finally, Jill made a point that having your past in the public record would increase the likelihood of future retribution.
I enjoyed this class a lot. We didn’t really dive deep into the content because of time but I like what we had to say about justice in amnesty. I don’t personally agree with my mother that amnesty means a completely free ride, but I shared her concern because I do think others could easily have it. I liked that Hayley brought up the idea of whether or not prison means justice, which again I don’t necessarily see. And Professor Cripps noted the financial strain all those trials might have caused too. A situation like Apartheid pushes us to consider our own conceptions of justice; are we righteous folks seeking punishment for the guilty, or do we simply desire revenge? And where, too, do we think that revenge is going to take us? I like that we read this piece because I got to dive back into former concepts from my other class, and I definitely want to watch the Dawnland film again. I will hang onto these conversations and this reading when I consider justice in the future.