Bodies of Truth
Law, Memory, and Emancipation in Post-Apartheid South Africa
Rita Kesselring



At the truth and Reconciliation Commission, victims spoke about their losses, their hardships, and their horrendous experiences under apartheid rule. They made us—the commissioners, their fellow South Africans, and the global community—listen, cry, and feel with them. The Truth Commission was very important to mark the point where remorse, forgiveness, and reconciliation became finally possible, but we should not forget that victims’ suffering did not necessarily stop when the commission’s work ended. The lifetime of the commission was too short to listen to everyone, even though each and every person who lived under apartheid has a singular story to tell. Many, during the commission’s lifespan, were not yet prepared to put their sufferings into words.

Twenty years on, the publication of this book is, unfortunately, still timely. Unlike many books about apartheid, Rita Kesselring’s is not only about the past. It is about the persistence of the past into the present. It illuminates how the present society sometimes perpetuates the chasms of the past. In our urge to build a new South Africa, we have neglected thousands of victims and their plights. They have been patient. They have joined in building a new society. But memories do not simply go away. There are memories we all share, but which burden some of us more heavily than others.

Victims formed groups, engaged with the Truth Commission, pointed out the shortcomings of the commission’s work, and offered their help in addressing those shortcomings. Victims went to court against those who refused to contribute, to show remorse, or to help repair. Meeting in court is not how we had hoped to build our society. The law can sometimes do more harm than good. But sometimes, the law wakes us up and reminds us of our duties to discuss as fellow human beings the questions the plaintiffs raise.

I commend the courage of all those who stood up and spoke out, in the courts and elsewhere. This book brings us closer to those who do not seek the limelight. It offers us insight into the people who cannot or do not want to speak out. We must listen to them. Together, we must finish the work that the commission started.

Rita Kesselring, a young Swiss anthropologist, enhances our understanding of the intricacies of victims’ lives in today’s South Africa. She listened to victims. She shared their frustration with a society that seems to have turned the ability to move on into a touchstone of good victimhood. Let her book be a reminder that a political transition does not automatically bring social equality. Today, twenty years after the commission, we no longer need to discuss whether retribution, amnesty, or reconciliation is the way forward. We need to deliver on the dream and the promise of a new South Africa.

God bless you.
Reverend Mpho Tutu
November 2015