Doing justice to Mandela’s legacy

—Robert N. Kraft

A remarkable set of events occurred in South Africa in the final half decade of the 20th century – events that are now mostly forgotten. In the outpouring of tributes to Nelson Mandela’s life and leadership, many people remembered his transcendent wisdom in negotiating the stormy transition from apartheid to democracy and his triumphant victory in May of 1994 as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, but few recalled the truth commission that followed.

In 1995, guided by President Mandela and mandated by an act of Parliament, South Africa created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a massive, temporary institution whose mission was to reveal the specifics of widespread human rights abuses and to begin repairing the damage from nearly half a century of brutal repression known as apartheid.

To appreciate the magnitude and merit of Mandela’s accomplishments as a national conciliator requires traveling back in time – to South Africa in the middle of 1990, shortly after Mandela’s release from prison in the forty-second year of official apartheid.  When Mandela emerged as the chief negotiator for the African National Congress, he faced not only an entrenched apartheid government but also the beginning of unprecedented volatility in the provinces of South Africa.

From July 1990 to April 1994, nearly 14,000 people died in politically motivated violence, a rate of more than 300 deaths a month. Transposed to the present population of the United States, that would be 110,000 deaths due to political violence in a four-year period – or 2,300 deaths every month. Neither the difficulty nor the urgency of Mandela’s task should  be underestimated.

After his election to the presidency, Mandela then worked with a diverse group of leaders to manage the aftermath of apartheid. The result was the TRC. To accomplish its eponymous goals of gathering truth and promoting reconciliation, the TRC obtained testimony from the victims and the perpetrators of apartheid. Victims gave testimony to the Human Rights Violations Committee to document the crimes committed against them and their families and to apply for reparations. Perpetrators gave testimony to the Amnesty Committee to inform the nation of the specific crimes they carried out during apartheid and to obtain amnesty for these crimes – acts that were illegal even under apartheid law. If the crimes were judged to be politically motivated, and if the perpetrators made full disclosure, they were given amnesty.  Freedom was granted in exchange for truth.

Listening to the victims’ stories made sense for healing the wounds of apartheid, but the idea of granting amnesty to violent perpetrators faced understandably passionate opposition. Heinous crimes had been committed. Tens of thousands of people had suffered lasting harm from these specific crimes, and millions had endured profound hardship due to the laws of apartheid. One reasonable approach, then, would be to punish those who had committed the wrongdoing. (After all, Franz Kafka wrote The Penal Colony – not The Reconciliation Colony, and Dostoyevsky did not write Crime and Amnesty.)

Set in motion by the forceful persuasion of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the amnesty hearings proceeded – from 1996 to 2001. Acting as an itinerant axis mundi, the Amnesty Committee moved from Durban to Pretoria to Johannesburg to East London to Pietermaritzburg to Cape Town, hearing hundreds of amnesty cases and sending several resonant messages throughout South Africa: truths about widespread human rights violations will be uncovered, secrets of illegality will be disclosed, government crimes will be illuminated, and perpetrators will be held publicly accountable for their crimes.

In part, the TRC has faded from view for most of us because it occurred during an obscure period of time: in the words of noted correspondent Rupert Hart-Davis, “too old to be news and too young to be history – the day before yesterday.” Yet it was the TRC that transformed an emerging set of principles for finding truth and resolving long-term national conflicts into an established tradition, a tradition that continues today in those countries working to adapt its principles to their own traditions.

Two truth commissions completed their work just last year – the Gacaca system in Rwanda and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission in Kenya. In Canada, a truth commission is currently in operation, endeavoring to investigate and repair the damage inflicted by more than 120 years of the Canadian government’s program of Indian Residential Schools (  Each of these commissions drew on the work of the South African TRC.

For those countries traumatized by widespread injustice or sustained violence, the findings of the TRC represent news in the making, but for the rest of the world, the TRC remains the day before yesterday. Over the next generation, however, as policy makers and community leaders continue to study the TRC, awareness of its principles will grow and propagate. Within a generation, the TRC is likely to become both news and history. Even with its flaws and limitations, the TRC stands as an enduring example of the potential for restorative justice on a national scale and a prototype for other national truth commissions.

More generally, after the foundational concepts of restorative justice enter the cultural lexicon, it is only a matter of time before they enter political discussions and national public policy. For many nations, Nelson Mandela’s South African legacy will then become bold possibility – a realistic solution for investigating and reconciling large-scale violations of human rights and constitutional guarantees. Indeed, we may someday see such a truth commission in the United States.

Robert N. Kraft is author of Violent Accounts: Understanding the Psychology of Perpetrators through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2014).

In memoriam: Hugo Chávez

—Michael D. Yates

The death of Hugo Chávez saddens those struggling for a better world. He was a great champion of the impoverished workers and peasants of both Venezuela and the world, and a steadfast and bold critic of the rapacious and murderous imperialism of the United States.

Monthly Review Press is proud of the books we have published on Venezuela, books which describe, analyze, and show solidarity with the Venezuelan road to democratic socialism. A key element in building a revolutionary, new society is to ensure the health of the people. This has been one of Chávez’s singular achievements; millions of poor Venezuelans have received (free) medical care for the first time. In cooperation with Cuba, Venezuela has begun to construct a system of patient-centered, decentralized, and preventive health care, a process examined in Steve Brouwer’s Revolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba Are Changing the World’s Conception of Health Care. Remarkably, peasants and workers are themselves trained to be doctors, in a work and study program pioneered by Cuba.

Under Chávez, Venezuela has striven to secure its political and economic independence from the United States, which has had a sordid history of intervention in the country and in all of Latin America. Not only did he help to engineer a strong economy not dependent on the United States, he never hesitated to challenge with words and deeds its imperialist practices. Given the implacable hostility of the United States to Venezuela, examined with great care by Eva Golinger in Bush versus Chávez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, it is remarkable that Chávez remained in power, winning democratic elections and surviving a Bush-engineered coup. This is a testament to the depth of his revolution and the growing power of Latin American governments to steer a course independent of the United States, a power inspired by Venezuela.

Following the failed coup in April 2002, when massive popular protest propelled him back to the presidency, Chávez sat down with Marta Harnecker and provided insights into his own political trajectory and the nature of what he called “socialism for the twenty-first century.” His words were later published in Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2005).

While Monthly Review Press must sell books to remain in operation, our main purpose has always been to promote radical thought and action in the world. We have published books in which authors have expressed the deepest admiration for Hugo Chávez, but praise for a radical leader is never our goal; it is the empowerment of the masses of workers and peasants we want to help achieve. And yet, it must be said that our love for Chávez has been amply repaid.

In April 2009, at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad, Chávez arose from his seat, walked over to Barack Obama and handed him a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic work of the centuries-long exploitation of Latin America by the great imperialist nations (including, of course, the United States): Open Veins of Latin America. He inscribed the book, “For Obama, with affection.” As word of this spread around the world, the English edition of the book reached #2 on Amazon’s sales charts. This was a great boon to Monthly Review Press and to our distributor, NYU Press. We were inundated with emails and phone calls, and I remember having to quickly re-read the book (which I had used in my classes when I was a teacher), so that I could write and deliver, within one day, a review to an Australian magazine.

Let us hope that as the Venezuelan revolution continues and as the imperial power of the United States someday diminishes in response to popular revolt here, it won’t be necessary for the president of one country to give such a book to the leader of another. Because Hugo Chávez’s dream and that of every revolutionary person will have been realized… That there be no rich and poor, that there be no exploiter and exploited, that there be only one healthy and happy humanity.

Michael D. Yates is a writer, editor, and labor educator. He is Associate Editor of Monthly Review and Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press.

In memoriam: Alfred F. Young

—Gregory Nobles

I am both saddened and honored to write a tribute to my friend and NYU Press co-author Al Young, who died on November 6, after suffering two heart attacks. Back in May, when he had the first one, he wrote, in his unsentimental and sort of self-deprecating fashion, that, “I talk very little, if that can be imagined.” I couldn’t imagine that, in fact, and I wrote back to express my surprise and concern about his condition, telling him how much the rest of us in the profession still needed him. Once again, he responded in his usual straightforward way: “Why the surprise: I am 87 after all. Dubious about crowds waiting for the word from me, but maybe there are a few hurrahs.”

There are, and will always be, many hurrahs for Al Young from a very loyal crowd of historians who have indeed waited for and learned from his words. Tens of thousands of those words came in the many books he wrote—two of which he published with NYU Press. These include Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution (2006) and Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding (2011), on which I was co-author. For over thirty years, as long as I’ve been reading Al Young’s work, I’ve been impressed not just with the reach of his remarkable intellect, but with the intensity of his scholarly knowledge of early American history. It’s hard to imagine anyone who knew the field better or cared more about really getting history right, especially about getting ordinary people—and their politics—into the picture. He did that himself, of course, whether writing about groups such as Massachusetts mechanics or individual figures like George Robert Twelves Hewes or Deborah Sampson. He also promoted and praised that approach in other historians, and he now has a legion of “younger” scholars—some of whom, like me, are now in their sixties—who proudly carry his influence in their own works.

The words I most value from Al Young, though, are the personal ones that came in his typically typo-filled letters and emails. Those words could be as challenging as they were encouraging (and they certainly were in his many responses to my various drafts of Whose Revolution), but in the end they were invariably perceptive and, above all, right on the mark. Like many of us who knew and loved Al, I can’t imagine making my way in the history profession without his friendship, guidance, and commitment as an ally, both professional and political. I get uneasy with the term “mentor,” because it’s thrown around so easily these days,  but if I had to pick the one historian whose opinion I most wanted to know, whose advice and criticism I most willingly took, and whose acceptance of my work I most wanted to have, it’d be Al. He’s gone now, but I suspect he’ll always be with me, with all of us, as a model of intellectual courage, integrity, and generosity. We may not be able to meet the standards he set for us but, in his memory, we still ought to try.

Gregory Nobles is Professor in the School of History, Technology, and Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Along with professor Alfred F. Young, he is the author of Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding.