In 1994, rather than trying crimes and violations of human rights committed during the apartheid era in a criminal court, South Africa decided to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) where perpetrators could seek amnesty in exchange for true and full accounts of the crimes they committed. The decision centred on the idea of reconciliation, which was a hallmark of the late Nelson Mandela’s leadership.
Over the course of two years, the TRC took statements from 22,000 victims of apartheid and received applications for amnesty from 7,100 perpetrators, of which 1,146 were granted amnesty. Whether it was the right decision remains controversial, but it is certain that the commission contributed largely to revealing the harsh injustices endured by victims during apartheid. The TRC was possible because of the work of interpreters who translated 11 official languages spoken by victims, perpetrators, and all other participants. There were 23 interpreters (later rising to around 35); this article focuses on the accounts of two.
Afrikaans was first declared an official language with English of the Union of South Africa in 1925 and promoted by National Party (NP) which came into power in 1948 and affirmed Afrikaner Nationalism and racial separation, rendering Afrikaans synonymous with White oppression Language policies & the TRC
South Africa is well known for its diversity. It is dubbed the ‘rainbow nation’, not just because of the diverse skin colours or religious beliefs, but also because of the multiple languages spoken. For South African’s, the colourful mixture of languages is one of the hard earned rights they gained especially since language had been used as a tool of oppression before the first national election in 1994. In fact, the infamous Soweto Uprising of 1976 was as a result of students protesting against Afrikaans as the imposed medium of instruction in schools, which was perceived as ‘the oppressor’s language.’ The uprising was a historical turning point and sparked widespread revolt across the country; this eventually led to the collapse of the apartheid system.
Language rights are a crucial element in democracy. Neville Edward Alexander, a multilingual proponent, explains: ‘The self-esteem, self-confidence, potential creativity and spontaneity that come with being able to use the language(s) that have shaped one from early childhood (one’s “mother tongue”) is the foundation of all democratic policies and institutions. To be denied the use of this language is the very meaning of oppression.’
Acknowledging the historically diminished use and status of indigenous languages, South Africa’s new constitution (adopted on 8 May 1996) proclaimed 11 official languages. This meant that South Africans had been granted the right to speak in the language they chose and participate in the cultural aspects associated with that language. In 1994, against the backdrop of the forthcoming constitution, and based on the notion that victims of apartheid were to disclose horrific personal accounts in their mother tongue, it was decided that the TRC hearings would be equipped with interpreters for each of the 11 official languages.
What made the TRC unique was not only that it was conducted in a multilingual setting, but that it dealt with a past deeply marked by linguistic and cultural barriers between the oppressors and the oppressed. Also, it was the first commission to hold public hearings, many of which were broadcast on national television. These features added a new dimension to the work of the interpreters.
Recounting the days of working for the TRC, two former interpreters, Abubakr Peterson and Louis Nel, agree that the most difficult part of the job was dealing with the sheer horror of stories and emotions. What made it even more demanding was that the requirement for amnesty was to give full disclosure of crimes committed; however, showing remorse was not requisite. ‘To interpret the details shared by perpetrators of victims they killed in front of families was difficult. They told the stories in sort of a nonchalant way, and it felt like a cold, clinical process,’ recounts Petersen. Nel agrees: ‘There was no reconciliation in the process. It was not a meeting of souls, just sharing of information on the assumption that all information had been disclosed.’ One of the reasons for choosing the TRC over a criminal court was that in many cases, victims were deceased, so the only living witnesses were the perpetrators. If a criminal court was chosen, the accused had to be convicted of crimes beyond reasonable doubt, which would have put victims at a significant disadvantage since perpetrators had often destroyed evidence. Thus, by the full disclosure of truth, the commission prevented perpetrators claiming their innocence by lying and withholding truths. Similarly, the commission did not require the expression of remorse, in order to avoid perpetrators fabricating stories with insincere repentance, so as to gain sympathy from judges.
In actuality, just like any legal process, applicants were often groomed and prepared on what to say in the court by their attorneys, leaving room for doubt in terms of ‘full disclosure of truths.’ Interpreters learned to recognise when applicants were lying, but they had to keep it to themselves.
Nevertheless, the fact that remorse was not required does not mean all cases were remorseless. Brian Mitchell, a former police captain responsible for the murders of eleven innocent people at Trust Feed Farm, admitted his wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness from the relatives of the victims at the hearings. He went on to visit and help rebuild the community.
Petersen says through interpreting hundreds of accounts, he learned that: ‘Forgiveness requires courage and some people have a huge capacity and courage to forgive. But conversely, it is amazing to see the capacity of some to inflict harm on others, especially when they think they won’t get caught.’
Although Petersen and Nel describe the TRC procedure as a straightforward legal process, they did see elements of human engagement. When a mother became very emotional while giving a statement about her son who was killed by the police and dumped in a river so that the body could be consumed by crocodiles, interpreters saw the applicant’s advocate turn red with embarrassment. ‘At such moments you are starkly reminded that it is not merely exchanges of facts, but it involves human beings in the most intimate way possible,’ describes Nel.
What is surprising is that despite the emotional toll they endured, the interpreters were not counselled or debriefed on how to deal with traumatic experiences. ‘I want to say that after so many years of the TRC we are strong and not affected, but we are affected. Although it was legalistic experiences, there were too many raw emotions. And if you get emotionally involved with the stories that you are interpreting, you are going to be depressed. So we developed a sense of detachment, which dehumanised you in some way,’ says Petersen. Even decades after the TRC, they live with the experiences. They can’t watch dramas or movies about human trauma in which people endure harmful emotions. In fact, one of their colleagues left the country indefinitely because after the TRC she felt every single corner of South Africa was filled with stories of dread so she couldn’t go anywhere. ‘Had some degree of counselling been offered to her, she would still be here,’ recounts Nel.
For court interpreters, conveying emotions of witnesses can be a challenging task. People communicate not only in words, but also in paralanguage such as tone of voice and facial expressions. In fact, a linguistic study shows the denotive meanings of actual words spoken account for only 7% of communication, while 38% is the tone of voice and the rest is body language. Since all the paralinguistic features have a great impact on how the testimony is received, interpreters need to understand and convey emotions of witnesses. It was particularly difficult in the TRC hearings which were often full of emotionally-charged and horrifying accounts. ‘It is important to portray emotions in terms of fluctuation of the tone of voice, but at the same time you have to be very aware of crossing the fine line between portraying speakers’ emotions and portraying your own emotions. Because you are still a human being, you can’t merely be a conduit or a switch, changing from one language to another automatically,’ says Nel. In fact, there were occasions where the hearing had to stop because interpreters became emotional. ‘Because we are dealing with South African criminals and victims as a South African, and with something that happened in our very recent past, what you are interpreting is always related to you in some way, and emotions were very high irrespective of who you are,’ says Nel.
Another challenge the TRC interpreters faced was technical language issues. The level of atrocities uncovered through the hearings was unprecedented, and they had to find words to describe unspeakable experiences of victims and perpetrators. In particular, the legal terminology used throughout the hearings was intricate and often didn’t exist in indigenous languages so interpreters had to invent new words. In multilingual, multi-cultural settings, mere translations of words do not carry the same connotative meanings from language to language. There was a high risk that the lack or disregard of cultural understanding could lead to the misrepresentation of testimonies.
Despite the challenges, Nel and Petersen are confident that the scale of atrocities was never lost in translation. ‘We had situations where families of victims, who couldn’t understand any of the languages other than their own language, started to think the interpreter was the one who was telling the story of killing their children, although it was actually the perpetrator’s story. And they felt apprehensive toward the interpreter, which was difficult to deal with. But at the same time, we knew that it was our responsibility to ensure nothing was lost in translation,’ says Petersen.
Irrespective of the unforeseen consequences and hardships they endured, Petersen and Nel do not regret the decision to participate in the TRC. ‘There are certain instances in history that can be seen as a beacon, and I’m grateful for all the pieces that fell into place for me to participate and make a contribution to the TRC,’ says Nel. Also, they declined to be recognised as victims or heroes. ‘Sympathy was wrongly directed at us. There were victims and families who needed it. It should always be about the victims and national reconciliation, not us.’
The commission’s goal was to promote national reconciliation and to identify the causes, nature and extent of violence during apartheid. The TRC contributed to the development of simultaneous interpretation as a viable alternative in facilitating interactions and bridging language barriers. The availability of interpreters for 11 languages gave people a voice and made it possible for them to break their silence and disclose what happened under the name of apartheid to both national and international audiences. But in terms of national reconciliation, the answer is more complicated. ‘Years around the TRC, there was a thin veneer of reconciliation that consisted of individual acts of reconciliation made possible by interpreters at the hearings, but personally I think national conciliation has never taken place in this country. And I believe the TRC was a starting point, not the end goal,’ says Nel.
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