Performing South Africa's Truth Commission

Performing South Africa's Truth Commission

Stages of Transition
Catherine M. Cole
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 12/22/2009
Format: Paperback 10 b&w illus.
ISBN: 978-0-253-22145-2
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South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commissions helped to end apartheid by providing a forum that exposed the nation's gross human rights abuses, provided amnesty and reparations to selected individuals, and eventually promoted national unity and healing. The success or failure of these commissions has been widely debated, but this is the first book to view the truth commission as public ritual and national theater. Catherine M. Cole brings an ethnographer's ear, a stage director's eye, and a historian's judgment to understand the vocabulary and practices of theater that mattered to the South Africans who participated in the reconciliation process. Cole looks closely at the record of the commissions, and sees their tortured expressiveness as a medium for performing evidence and truth to legitimize a new South Africa.

Author Bio

Catherine M. Cole is Professor in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Ghana's Concert Party Theatre (IUP, 2001) and editor (with Takyiwaa Manuh and Stephan F. Miescher) of Africa After Gender? (IUP, 2006).


“An ethnographer's ear, a stage director's eye, and a historian's judgment bring an understanding of the practices of theater that mattered to the South Africans, while seeing their tortured expressiveness as a medium for performing evidence and truth to legitimize a new South Africa. "Offers a powerful lens into the performance of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission." -Diana Taylor, New York University”

“There are many ways of telling the story about how people told their story. Catherine Cole looks at the functioning of the Truth Commission as a mode of story-telling in itself. Her empathetic and richly detailed recovery of information adds a new dimension: an objective and nuanced story of the passionate TRC story of the stories of pain.”
 — Albie Sachs, Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa

“Cole takes us through new routes as she lays out a startlingly new mapping of the Truth Commission and its place in South African performative and cultural life. An original and meticulous study of one of the most important examples of transitional justice of our era. Compelling reading both for South Africans and international readers.”
 — Liz Gunner, University of the Witwatersrand

“Cole's description of both the achievements and failures of the South African TRC is a substantial contribution to the debate as to what is justice. This is a book not only for lawyers and those involved in the dramatic arts and philosophers. The depth of Cole's research and clarity of the arguments advanced is a very useful contribution as to what ought to be done in our troubled world.”
 — George Bizos, Senior Counsel, Legal Resources Center, South Africa

“An exceptionally cogent and substantial project by a leading scholar in theater and performance studies.”
 — Joseph Roach, Yale University

“Offers a powerful lens into the performance of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
 — Diana Taylor, New York University

“In this important book, Catherine Cole wisely observes that commissions still 'grapple with the ultimate failure of traditional jurisprudence in the face of contending demands for justice, reparation, acknowledgement, mourning, healing, reconciliation, and the promulgation of public memory' (x). Truth commissions can only attempt to write the future of the past. [However, as the author], 'This book has made you a secondary witness'.Fall 2012”
 — The Drama Review TDR

“I would submit that no comparable media studies analysis approaches the level of complex layering with which Cole, sensitive to mediumspecificity but also to the vagaries of performance as such, thinks of television itself as a polyvalent, indeed over-determined, kind of performer, juggling the work of Brechtian narrator, Greek chorus member, vaudevillian magician, and melodramatic star actor.Contemporary Theatre Review”
 — Contemporary Theatre Review

“The book stands apart from the mostly academic literature that uses the testimonies from the public hearings to analyze narratives, silences and agency or as a springboard for further analysis of patterns of violence, human rights violation, gender bias, prospects for reconciliation and so forth. It also stands apart from the broad spectrum of work informed by different scientific traditions and legal positivism that has characterized the search for the foundation of transitional justice, reconciliation, and rights-based approaches.”
 — PoLAR

“Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission is a must-read for anyone interested in the work of the Truth Commission.”
 — Safundi : S African & Amer Comp Stds

“The five well-crafted chapters present instances of how the public or the nation experienced or witnessed the public proceedings of the commission either directly or mediated through the news media or art. Cole manages—and this is no small feat—in the first two chapters to position the performance perspective. She also recasts the related fields of transitional justice and political trials to reveal new dimensions of the constitutive fields of specific trials in South Africa and transitional justice.”
 — Political and Legal Anthropology Review

“[T]his multifaceted work on the TRC as a performed enactment of transition from apartheid to democracy offers a stimulating interpretation of the process by a scholar with a convincing interest in and profound understanding of the complexities of the South African process of transformation. ”
 — L'Homme

“Cole's study significantly enhances our understanding of the TRC. . . . [It] is to be welcomed as a true example of committed scholarship. ”
 — Journal of Theatre Research International

“Cole retrieves the commission from any narrow legal or quantitative assessment to uncover a promising literariness at its core that should be read and interpreted.October 2011”
 — Ed Charlton, University of Cambridge

“In this beautifully constructed and densely argued volume, Cole attends to actors, scripts, and audiences, and also to the literary and artistic renderings that carried the TRC hearings to a nation and to the world. ”
 — Interventions

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

1. Spectacles of Legality: Performance, Transitional Justice, and the Law
2. Justice in Transition: Political Trials, 1956<N>1964
3. Witnessing and Interpreting Testimony: Live, Present, Public, and Speaking in Many Tongues
4. Eyes and Ears of the Nation: Television and the Implicated Witness
5. Dragons in the Living Room: Truth and Reconciliation in Repertoire, 2006
Afterword: What "Truth" Meant to the TRC

Select Bibliography

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