Going out

Jonathan VanAntwerpen
7 min readJun 26, 2021
Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa | Antjie Krog | Photo: Jonathan VanAntwerpen

The glimmer of an idea, not even half-formed, that I might write about truth and reconciliation first began to take shape while reading a borrowed book on a sunny beach in southern California. Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa is a “searing and luminous” book by Antjie Krog, an Afrikaner poet who covered the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a journalist.

At the time, though I had heard of the South African Truth Commission (TRC) and read about its public hearings in the New York Times and elsewhere, I knew very little about what “reconciliation” was or was thought to be. And I had never visited South Africa. Yet I was captivated — taken by the spectacle and the emotive force of the TRC’s public theater, overwhelmed by the history of suffering it storied, and moved by the varied struggles of South Africans who were attempting to reach forward while also looking back.

This captivation was undoubtedly naïve and uninformed in many ways, culturally problematic and politically loaded. But it would be an exercise in cheap reflexivity and empty pretense to recall the initial impulse behind what would become years of work and then simply cast it aside as ignorant and misguided, while striking the pose of the knowing critical sociologist.

Instead, what I tried to do through my research and writing was to understand — to make some sense of — my own preoccupation with the spectacle of truth and reconciliation. Mostly, however, I sought to understand the preoccupations of others — to plumb the enthusiasm or horror, inspiration or disgust, longing or anxiety that the language of reconciliation evoked, and to appraise the myriad discourses spun out in its midst of such affect.

I have no expertise to claim about what does, or does not, bring about peace or restore justice. I do not know what leads to reconciliation, or how to assess with social scientific precision whether or not it has arrived. Indeed, I am often not sure I know — and here I take comfort in the fact that I am clearly not alone — what reconciliation is. One response to not knowing, to ambiguity, to conceptual confusion, to polyvalence, is stipulation. We sweep away uncertainty by laying down an operational definition at the outset.

Because to proceed in such a manner would have foreclosed attention to the definitional struggles I sought to study, I leaned into a different investigative and analytic strategy. It was precisely the struggle over the meaning and mobilization of “reconciliation” and kindred terms that most interested me, and that I sought to story, to analyze, to understand. So I worked with an open understanding of reconciliation and a fluid conception of the diverse spaces in which the term was deployed.

Given the proliferation of scholarly and political debates about reconciliation and transitional justice, this meant reading a substantial number of books and articles — and the primary sources for my research were published texts on reconciliation, truth commissions, transitional justice, and related topics. Yet in my attempt to grasp and construct the relatively new field of transitional justice, and to come to terms with the mobilization of discourses of reconciliation within it, I did not limit myself to such texts.

The writing of sociology, as Harvey Molotch once put it, is helped enormously by “going out — not as leader but earnest listener who stays awhile.” I came to sociology as a student of philosophy who lived with and through books, and my first real foray into social scientific research had given me a taste for the archive. Yet I tried to follow Molotch’s excellent admonitions against always “staying inside” — and to heed the guidance of my graduate school advisor, Michael Burawoy, who encouraged me from early on to get out of Berkeley.

While a great bulk of my research was inevitably conducted in the stacks of the library, with my nose in one book or another — or, more often than not, in this age of “info-glut,” wired up to an internet connection, with the soft glow of a laptop my only company — I did go out “into the field” as an observant participant in social practices and organizational spaces defined by, and defining of, contemporary understandings of reconciliation.

I took my inspiration in good part from those who had come before me in the UC Berkeley Department of Sociology — especially Michael Burawoy and his team of “global ethnographers.” Among other things, this meant taking certain cues from, and attempting to take part in, a collective effort to “rethink the meaning of fieldwork, releasing it from solitary confinement, from being bound to a single place and time,” and thus seeking to “endow fieldwork with the flexibility to adjust to the space-time coordinates of the subject population” and to “self-consciously combine dwelling with traveling.”

Like Burawoy’s global ethnographers, I sought to “dwell” and to “travel.” But I also sought to dwell, I might say, with the travelers, and especially with those cosmopolitan “frequent travelers” whose elite location both affords them particular social power and reflects a peculiar perspective on the world.

“Even in our theoretical stance to the world,” Charles Taylor once wrote, “we are agents.” I made it my work to attend to those mostly cosmopolitan agents who had theorized — some more explicitly and systematically than others — about reconciliation and transitional justice.

My field research was multi-sited. It started with a period of initial historical work and textual analysis in Berkeley, as I delved into the history of truth and reconciliation in Chile and South Africa, and began to familiarize myself with an already voluminous academic and popular literature on truth commissions. Reading edited volumes like Dealing with the Past: Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa and Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions, as well as poring over a wide range of other regularly cited texts, from Neil Kritz’s massive three-volume collection on transitional justice to Mahmood Mamdani’s piercing critique of the TRC, I began to get a feel for the contours of the field, a sense of its recent historical trajectory, an impression of its keywords and its discursive centers of gravity, and an inkling of the shape of some of its most central and persistent matters of disagreement.

In the fall of 2003, I left for Cape Town. Supported by a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, I spent most of my six months in South Africa working out of yet another library — though this was not a university library but rather the basement room of a relatively small, local NGO called the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. There I sat, surrounded by the Institute’s collection of books and pamphlets on truth, reconciliation and the South African transition, and by an increasingly tall stack of my own books, carried back from regular trips to Clarke’s Bookshop on Long Street.

From Cape Town I went on to New York City, where the International Center for Transitional Justice had recently set up shop near Wall Street. I was keen to learn more about the Center and its approaches to reconciliation — just as I had been interested in efforts to promote reconciliation being made by the Institute in Cape Town. But what I had proposed, and what I sought to carry out, was not simply a study, comparative or otherwise, of these organizations. Rather, by linking up with two recently established international NGOs devoted to the work of truth, reconciliation, and transitional justice — both with direct connections to South Africa’s TRC, and both established in its aftermath — I aimed to position myself at twin hubs in an emerging transnational network, vantage points from which to examine both the nascent field and the South African commission’s effects on it.

There was another reason to go on from Cape Town to New York, and that had something to do with the geography of power, and with the flow of resources and people, information and ideas, from one part of the world to another. “The contemporary world is rife with modeling,” John Meyer and his colleagues had written. “The poor and weak and peripheral copy the rich and strong and central.” I endeavored to trace a different sort of discursive trajectory, the movement of an idea from the global South to the North, from the so-called semi-periphery to the center, and to see how the idea had been shaped and reshaped in the course of its travel.

My time in Cape Town had been an opportunity to dig deeper into the place of reconciliation discourse in South Africa’s political transition. Yet it also gave me — more forcefully and compellingly than I had imagined it might — both the feel of a field stretching well beyond North America and a set of critical questions to take back with me as I returned to the United States. Sitting in Berkeley, and just beginning to think through the terms and ambitions of my research, I had expected to turn up a story about elite actors dominating the scene, imprinting their conceptions of reconciliation throughout the world. What I found was something more interesting and more complicated: a field shot through with contestation and confusion regarding the meaning and value of reconciliation, not least among the intellectuals and activists who preoccupied me. So I set out to tell the story of that contestation and confusion, and to show how it had shaped and transformed prominent theories of reconciliation in a multitude of ways.

[Adapted from: Jonathan VanAntwerpen, In the shadow of the secular: Theories of reconciliation and the South African TRC.]



Jonathan VanAntwerpen

Jonathan VanAntwerpen is a program director at the Henry Luce Foundation. Originally trained as a philosopher, he holds a Ph.D. in sociology from UC-Berkeley.