Jillian Edelstein, 'Truth and Lies - Stories from the Turth and Reconciliation Commision in South Africa'

IssueMarch - May 2003
Review by Roberta Bacic

This is a very special book. Its main strength lies in the fact that Jillian Edelstein - a professional, South African-born and well known photographer - was there when the Commission did its job. Not only in the geographical places in which it took place, but she also took pictures of the principal actors of this incredible and impressive experience, something which showed the world that apartheid was something that could no longer exist.

Jillian combines her powerful images and portraits with the testimonies of those who came forward to give evidence. Both the people who wanted their stories to be heard and the ones who were hoping to have the chance of being granted amnesty. They are wonderful black and white photos which show the faces, the features, the stance, gestures, and feelings of the men and women who supported apartheid and the ones who suffered its consequences. They also show several of the settings where events took place and some of the landscapes and urban environments where these people came from. Just looking at the pictures makes the book indispensable: one would never get rid of it. The South African Commission started its hearings in 1996. Itsc hair was Archbishop Desmond Tutu and its main task was to investigate over thirty years of human rights violations under apartheid. It was founded under the belief that truth was the only means by which the people of South Africa could come to a common understanding of their past, and that that understanding was an imperative if the country was to shape a new national identity in the future.

Jillian Edelstein's interesting foreword gives an account of why she created this book. It is followed by a powerful introduction by Michael Ignatieff. He says: “Jillian Edelstein's pictures take us back to the way it really was: the municipal halls, the men and women listening to the testimony. [...] All this detail is essential to any understanding of what abstractions like truth, justice and reconciliation actually mean. Jillian has preserved the reality of the process so that we will remember that truth and reconciliation were the work of individuals, who refused to live with silence, with lies, with equivocations and excuses.”Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a clinical psychologist, includes a chapter on “Memory and Trauma”. She joined the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 as a member of the Human Rights Violations Committee. She says, “Contrary to common protestations against revisiting the past, there is an urgency to talk about the past among many of those who have suffered gross violations of human rights. Sometimes retelling a story over and over again provides a way of returning to the original pain and hence reconnection with the lost loved one.”

Last but not least, The AOP Gallery (The Association of Photographers, 81 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS, Britain), exhibited a good number of the photographs and stories between 11 February and 2 March 2002. It was sponsored by Olympus. I had seen the adverts in the Metro newspaper and, this being a topic which interests me most, and takes up a great part of my life, I went there. In fact, I did so on three occasions. I stood in front of many of the photos for along time, just connecting to the person(s) in front of me and the situation(s). But also, my feelings and thoughts brought me back to my work at the Chilean National Corporation of Reparation and Reconciliation. Powerful indeed. It also brought back Jillian Slovo's book Red Dust, which is also based on the South African truth Commission. When I got hold of Jillian Edlestein's book I found, to my surprise, that Jillian Slovo also endorses it, saying: “It catalogues not only the pain but the triumph of ordinary people over a brutal past. It is a testimony to the necessity of looking at what happened.”

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