History, historians and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
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Whether or not the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) intended to write history, it certainly engaged with the past while historians were virtually absent. This article therefore sets out to take a closer look at the relationship between history, historians and the TRC. An overview of the literature reveals that historians have examined the TRC from a philosophical perspective and analysed its report as a historical narrative. Although some historians praise the TRC, most of them stand critically towards its epistemology, ethics, methodology and content. In the same way, some historians are inspired by the TRC’s alternative way of engaging with the past but others point to the dangers of its stress on a post-apartheid present. Overall, historians seldom explicitly write about or engage with the TRC because they consider it a flawed and even dangerous enterprise. The inaccessibility of the archives also impedes historians from picking up the road map the commission tried to provide. Some historians nevertheless felt inspired by the TRC to launch oral history projects or practice public history. Also, while the combination of history writing and reconciliation is often criticized, some historians claim to have written reconciliation history without violating their historiographical standards. All of this doesn’t lead to a simple conclusion with regards to the impact the TRC had – and still does – on history writing, what it means to be a historian and the concept of history in post-apartheid South Africa. What is clear, however, is that the TRC engaged with the past in varying ways and therefore caused historians to approach it in equally diverging ways. This is reason enough to study the relationship between history, the TRC and historians in greater detail.
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