Learning the Power of Oral Histories in Advancing Human Rights
Day 5: Cape Town, South Africa—Truth and Reconciliation
Our Day’s Itinerary:
- Truth and Reconciliation at the Human Rights Media Centre
- Travel to Johannesburg
In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice body assembled after the abolition of apartheid in the hope of starting the country on a path of healing. The TRC was tasked with discovering and revealing the wrongs perpetrated under apartheid and providing amnesty when appropriate, and with identifying victims of gross human rights violations who could then be eligible for reparations. People were invited to submit written statements about their experiences and some were selected for public hearings. The TRC, though not without its flaws, was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to a full and free democracy in South Africa.
We had the honor today of meeting with Shirley Gunn of the Human Rights Media Centre, a dedicated organizer for the African National Congress during apartheid, and a key member of its military wing. She publicly testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and that experience has helped inform her current work documenting and disseminating oral histories. As a movement interested in restorative justice, alternatives to criminalization, and public hearings, we were so eager to have the chance to learn more about the Truth and Reconciliation process from Shirley.
She outlined the structure of the TRC and pointed out its major flaws: the thousands of people left out of the process, the accommodations made for perpetrators to receive amnesty through the process rather than be prosecuted for their crimes, and the lack of accessibility of the final report and the sanitization of the victim statements. Perhaps most importantly, to her, the process and being labeled as a “victim” felt like a re-victimization: “I’m much more than the sum of their torture and abuse. The TRC smothered us in the victim mentality.”
She had us riveted when telling the story of her path of politicization, her work as a trade union organizer and leading member of the ANC, the decision to go underground to be part of its military wing and receive military training, and her eventual capture. Even while being a respected member, she still had to endure sexism and defend against sexual violence. Her story sparked questions and discussion about what it meant to be a white ally or comrade during those times, moving from an anti-authoritarian stance to a role in civil society rather than governance, and what healing really looks like.
This connects to the incredible work Shirley does at the Human Rights Media Centre, which advances human rights through oral histories. Her experience with the TRC showed her that so many important stories were not being told. In her current work, she goes deep, gathering hours and hours of narrative, to capture excluded stories – such as those of single mothers, refugees, and former combatants – and she shares them in intergenerational settings to help bridge understanding. When asked how she keeps going, she responded, “I have a voice and I will use it. That and my history are my weapons.”
This was a fiery and inspiring close to our time in Cape Town. After lunch, we boarded a plane to Johannesburg for the second part of our learning exchange.
This international learning exchange was planned in conjunction with our esteemed partners at International Development Exchange (IDEX).