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“Method and Memory: The TRC Reconstructs the Soweto Uprising”

Aaron Ross, 2010, History

Thanks to the Vagelos Undergraduate Research Grant, I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa for two weeks in May to conduct research for my senior honors history thesis tentatively called, “Method and Memory: The TRC Reconstructs the Soweto Uprising.” Through my research, I hoped to shed more light on my central question of how the methodology employed by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission during its 1996 inquiry into the famous Soweto uprising of 1976 contributed to shaping historical memory of the episode within South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established shortly after the end of apartheid to, among other things, investigate human rights abuses that had occurred between 1960 and 1994, present as comprehensive a picture as possible of what transpired under apartheid, and allow victims the cathartic experience of telling their stories publicly.

Methodology was crucial in influencing the outcomes of the TRC, but for a commission charged with investigating 35 years of ugly and controversial history, no single model or approach could possibly fit all cases. The inquiry into the Soweto uprising presented special methodological questions, given its historical distance from the present and its iconic role in the story of the antiapartheid struggle. The Soweto uprising refers to the firing by police upon Sowetan students protesting a government ruling on education and the widespread violence that ensued. The uprising is often viewed as a seminal moment in the liberation struggle that opened the door for its resurgence in the 1980s and apartheid downfall in the early 1990s. As a result, its legacy has been hotly contested over the years, from the basic facts to questions such as who was responsible for sparking the uprising. Thus, I hypothesized that methodological questions like whom the commission interviewed and how it chose to recount the episode would weigh heavily upon South Africans’ memories of what took place in 1976, issues I hoped to explore primarily by examining commission records in South African archives and interviewing South Africans.

What I began to see clearly in South Africa was that the TRC had actually devoted precious little attention to the Soweto uprising despite its central role in national history. The commission held only two days of hearings dedicated to the uprising and produced in its final report a staid account based on testimony from familiar figures in narratives of the event. The various sources I consulted in South Africa bore this idea out. The commission records and relevant newspaper clippings I looked at in archives both at the University of the Witwatersrand, where I stayed, and the National Archives in Pretoria gave little indication that the Soweto inquiry received anything close to the attention it would appear to merit. Nor did the Sowetans I interviewed appear to have been particularly invested in or aware of the TRC process. Several historians—including one who curated the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, which is dedicated to the uprising—helped me understand why this was, and I increasingly began to focus in on this question.

Together, these experiences in South Africa helped crystallize for me the complex relationship of historical events, memory, and politics. Every resource I employed proved valuable in some way, but above all, it was talking to South Africans—average people and scholars alike—that helped me understand the forces underlying the TRC’s Soweto inquiry and, moreover, gave me an unparalleled first-hand education in oral history.

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