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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2005, Vol. 5 No. 1 .


Bearing Witness. Women and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa
Fiona C. Ross


London and Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 2003
206 pp 16.99 HB ISBN 0-7453-1892-4, PB ISBN 0-7453-1891-6


This is the first book to examine the gendered dimensions of bearing witness to the truth of past violence from an anthropological and ethnographic viewpoint. Its context is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. Fiona Ross explores how the TRC?s emphasis on apartheid?s spectacular dimensions effectively silenced women?s political activities, framing women as victims. The book offers insights into both the achievements and limitations of testimony and human rights discourse as measures of suffering and recovery.

In the Introduction, Ross reiterates the aims of Truth Commissions to link history, suffering, justice, human rights, accountability and witnessing. Her emphasis differs, it is on giving voice to suffering and she questions conventional tendencies to homogenise suffering and recovery. Instead, she pays enormous respect to the testimonies, experiences and actual words of women activists, drawing on the particularity of the ?politics of intimacy? (p2). Her methodology is based on careful attentiveness and empathetic listening. She interrogates rigorously the assumption that truth always heals suggesting rather, that individual experiences of violence were reduced ?from narratives of pain into "data" about human rights violations? (p14).

This prompts Ross to scrutinise the fact that while men and women made roughly equal numbers of statements, ?79 percent of women testified about violence committed against men? (p17). Women refrained from speaking of the harms inflicted on them, particularly about sexual violations in the context of political violence. Special hearings on women were instituted. However, Ross suggests that in making women a category, the Commission essentialised gendered suffering. Hence Ross is motivated to understand how the subject is constituted in its manifold differences. Also, she wondered why those women who had actively opposed the apartheid state rarely gave testimony.

In her outline of testimonial practices, Ross shows how women testified to layers of experience like family life, domesticity, the disruptions of time and place, silence and secrecy (including not being allowed to ask husbands for information) and the horror of not being able to verbalize all experiences. In these testimonies, the voice of the self is clear. Yet, Ross warns that the Commission?s assumption that all experiences can be articulated misses the meanings of silence and the gaps between fragile words.

The women members of liberation and anti-apartheid organisations testified differently to those women who were not activists, shedding light on deep pain during detention, including the vicious violation of sexual tortures and rapes. Rape Crisis give startling statistics that ?one woman is raped every 36 seconds in South Africa, usually by men they know? (p 63). Ross talks of the haunting shame of the activists who had been sexually assaulted as prisoners and intricately analyses the constitution of self-identity. Yet, in a chapter titled ?In Pursuit of the Ordinary? Ross gives humorous accounts of women political activists? innovative struggle to resist the damage caused to social institutions by apartheid and to continue as community activists, seeking recuperative spaces.

Ross concludes by warning of the limitations of testimony and voice in models of transitional justice. Her findings ?suggest the need for a new language of social suffering, one that permits the expression of the full range of experiences, admits the integrity of silence, recognises the fragmented and unfinished nature of social recovery, and does not presume closure? (p165). All readers interested in the methodological problems of narrative, testimony, truth, dealing with violence and pain, establishing relationships of trust, gauging harm will find this book useful. There is a richness of stories, disturbing accounts of human rights abuses and a moving sensitivity to the absences and inclusions of women?s experiences of apartheid. I strongly recommend this very readable book to a wide audience.


Dr Elisabeth Porter, INCORE Research Director, University of Ulster



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