Bodies of Truth
Law, Memory, and Emancipation in Post-Apartheid South Africa
Stanford Studies in Human Rights
by Rita Kesselring
Published by: Stanford University Press
272 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9780804799782
- Published: October 2016
Bodies of Truth offers an intimate account of how apartheid victims deal with the long-term effects of violence, focusing on the intertwined themes of embodiment, injury, victimhood, and memory. In 2002, victims of apartheid-era violence filed suit against multinational corporations, accusing them of aiding and abetting the security forces of the apartheid regime. While the litigation made its way through the U.S. courts, thousands of victims of gross human rights violations have had to cope with painful memories of violence. They have also confronted an official discourse claiming that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the 1990s sufficiently addressed past injuries. This book shows victims' attempts to emancipate from their experiences by participating in legal actions, but also by creating new forms of sociality among themselves and in relation to broader South African society.
Rita Kesselring's ethnography draws on long-term research with members of the victim support group Khulumani and critical analysis of legal proceedings related to apartheid-era injury. Using juridical intervention as an entry point into the question of subjectivity, Kesselring asks how victimhood is experienced in the everyday for the women and men living on the periphery of Cape Town and in other parts of the country. She argues that the everyday practices of the survivors must be taken up by the state and broader society to allow for inclusive social change in a post-conflict setting.
The introduction provides an overview of how the political and social environment has changed for apartheid-era victims in South Africa since apartheid rule formally ended. Although the question of apartheid victimhood was prominent in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, since then, victims have experienced a stark decline in attention and support. Yet for most victims, the past lingers on in their lives and in their bodies. The chapter provides an overview of the two strands of analysis—the law and the body—through which the book examines the legacy of apartheid and the impact of the TRC on victims' social standing today. It presents the main theme of the book: how legal avenues and embodied memories of violence shape the possibility for new forms of sociality in a postconflict society.
This chapter documents the emergence of a victims' subject position during the TRC hearings, in post-TRC politics, and in the legal cases filed in South African and US courts. It outlines the gradual formation of a victims' consciousness around the Khulumani Support Group, a victims' advocacy group established in the early 1990s. In contrast to the reconciliatory approach of the TRC, there has been a juridification of the issue of apartheid victimhood. In reaction to the Mbeki administration's lack of interest in matters of victimhood and its preoccupation with pardoning the perpetrators, civil society has brought victimhood back to the attention of the state and the broader society through prominent civil lawsuits. Focusing on national and international politics, the chapter details how the apartheid litigations, which allege that multinational companies aided and abetted the apartheid regime, came to be filed under the Alien Tort Statute, and evaluates their significance.
This chapter looks at the actual workings of both South African and US courts hearing class actions. For plaintiffs, class actions offer the opportunity to make their claims heard as a collective. The law, however, needs to personalize an act of injury in order to adjudicate it. In South Africa, class actions are an emerging legal means. The chapter shows that both the judges and the victims who submit their shared social concerns to the courts must grapple with the tension between structural injury and individual injury. Although the law provides a discourse for articulating experiences vis-à-vis a public, drawing on the logic of the law may also break up a social collective. This force the law derives from a societal postconflict situation in which being different potentially makes one suspect and a target for accusations of witchcraft.
The chapter explores the different ways in which apartheid victims seek to make their victimhood social by communicating it to others. Many victims suffer from chronic pain or injuries. Chronic pain is particular, because it becomes part of a person's habituated being. It is unpredictable, because it is a restless habit that constantly threatens to disrupt one's life. The ethnographic data suggest that there is a real risk in speaking publicly about one's experiences. Society offers victims a limited number of social roles to occupy and to claim. However, victims' experiences of pain are not always malleable enough to adapt to these roles. As a result, victims' injured personhood often turns them into suspicious subjects in the eyes of the society. Silence is thus a solution for many victims to protect their painful memories.
The TRC was a governing institution that has had lasting effects for victims and their standing in society. Ever since it completed its work victims have to relate their personhood to the strong discourses shaped by the TRC. This chapter looks at how a new discourse can emerge in a hardened political and legalized environment. Employing several ethnographic vignettes, it shows that victims have to emancipate themselves from the bodily dimension of their victimhood to some degree in order to be politically effective. When people with similar experiences recognize one another in their subjectivities, collective political action may come about. Lawyers, precisely because their professional mandate is limited, play a key role in the emergence of a critical political mass.
The chapter addresses the question of how social change can happen if experiences of structural and socioeconomic violations of human rights are embodied. What kind of responses do people develop to routinized forms of suffering? It presents ethnographic data on the reconcilability of the body and outlines the social conditions that make it possible to change an injured personhood. Through new social and sensory experiences, people try to add new layers of habit memories to their subjective and social being. The tentative forms of sociality that emerge may help them to assume a new social position. Broader society needs to be receptive to these practices for them to be successful, though.
This chapter is a methodological postscript to the book. Ethnographies originate in everyday interactions with others, but anthropologists' analysis and interpretation of people's social world is often restricted to their words and identifiable actions. As is the case in every social setting, much of the knowledge we acquire during fieldwork remains unarticulated and habitual. We often lack the tools to even become aware of it, let alone to bring it into the predicated realm. Still, its existence is the only basis we have for recognizing unarticulated experiences of others. Anthropologists have become very interested in bodily experiences but have tended either to cognitively interpret the experience of others or to privilege their own experiences as a basis for ethnography. The chapter argues that we should instead use our own bodily experiences to intersubjectively recognize those of others, and proposes avenues for doing so.
The conclusion revises the anthropology of the law and suggests new avenues for the study of the body. In post-apartheid South Africa, ordinary victims do not have sufficiently differentiated public acknowledgment that will allow them to claim their victimhood in a positive way. As a result, there is a schism between persons who struggle to overcome their victimhood and those who have managed to reap the harvest of the "new South Africa." Legal developments in post-apartheid South Africa are manifestations of this tension. The chapter evaluates transitional justice mechanisms, which often work by proxy but fail to address lived experience. In contrast, the mundane and unspectacular practices of victims are emancipatory in the sense that they explore new forms of sociality based on lived experiences not directly related to dominant discourses.
Rita Kesselring is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the University of Basel, Switzerland.
"Bodies of Truth is essential reading for all those interested in the twenty-year aftermath of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Kesselring's innovative ethnography with victims seeking redress in the South African and U.S. Courts examines the limits of law and also makes a powerful case for the transformative potential of new forms of shared sociality. The imaginative combination of the anthropology of law and the body to understand the after-effects of violence in people's lives makes this a ground-breaking work." ~Richard Ashby Wilson, author of The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa
"Deeply serious and imaginative, Bodies of Truth connects anthropology of law and anthropology of the body. Rita Kesselring reveals that even when much is achieved legally in the struggle for transitional justice, bodily experiences of victimhood continue to haunt the victims, and endemic, systematic violence continues to shape the political sphere long after it has ended. Kesselring presents readers with ways in which liberation from habitual victimhood might be achieved." ~Paul Connerton, University of Cambridge
"In capturing the difficulty of understanding pain, Kesselring's subtle, challenging ethnography will make essential reading for any scholar trying to understand the challenges of coming to terms with victimhood and its aftermath and will be particularly important reading for scholars of apartheid and its wake." ~Nicholas Rush Smith, Anthropological Quarterly
"Bodies of Truth is essential reading for anyone interested in victims' quests for financial reparations since the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission finalized its work in 1998. Grounded in extensive transnational ethnography with a national victims' group that participated in class action lawsuits in the South African and US courts, Rita Kesselring's inventive monograph identifies the limits of law in recognizing and ameliorating harms committed by official agents of the avowedly racist apartheid government....Crucially, because Bodies of Truth integrates recent developments in the anthropology of the body with long-standing concerns about vernacular understandings of the law, this imaginative combination makes it a ground-breaking work." ~Richard Ashby Wilson, American Ethnologist