Justificatory discourse of the perpetrator in TRC testimonies : a discourse-historical analysis

Bernard, Taryn (2009-03)

Thesis (MA (General Linguistics))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.


This study investigates the ways in which former South African Police (SAP) perpetrators of human rights violations justify their criminal actions in testifying before the Amnesty Committee (AC) of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In particular, attention goes to the testimonies of former Commissioner of Police Johan van der Merwe, and former member of the Security Branch section of the SAP, Jeffrey Benzien. A key assumption in the study is that the justification of human rights violations is a discursive practice that is largely language dependent (Reisigl & Wodak 200: xi). The research draws on the theoretical aims and methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). It refers largely to Benke and Wodak’s (2003) discourse–historical study on the justificatory discourse of ex-Wehrmacht officers of the Austrian army. This study therefore takes a discourse-historical approach to discourse and the data, an approach which takes into consideration the surrounding political and historical context of the selected texts, which are, in this case, the testimonies of perpetrators at the AC hearings. Besides an analysis of the justificatory discourses produced by two former police officers, the study reflects on how the discursive strategies of the apartheid perpetrators compare with one another and with the ex- Wehrmacht officers. CDA and the discourse-historical approach provide interdisciplinary angles on linguistic analysis of a text. For this reason, a review is given of literature which relates the study to political, historical and philosophical insights. The analysis particularly makes use of Foster et al.’s (2005) socio-political study of apartheid perpetrator narratives. The study reveals that perpetrators used a fixed set of justificatory discursive strategies to talk about human rights violations, and their role in such violations. These linguistic strategies are used for a number of different reasons, including reducing personal responsibility, avoiding talking about past atrocities, saving face where personal malicious and degenerate behaviour is made public and diverting feelings of personal guilt. On a discourse theoretical level the study eventually convinces that there are generic strategies typically used in justificatory discourse, whether it be in response to Wehrmacht atrocities of the Second World War or to security force excesses in repressing aspirations of disenfranchised citizens during the last thirty years of the Nationalist government in South Africa. Some stories don’t want to be told. They walk away, carrying their suitcases held together with grey string. Look at their disappearing curved spines. Hunch-backs. Harmed ones. Hold alls. Some stories refuse to be danced or mimed, drop their scuffed canes and clattering tap-shoes, erase their traces in nursery rhymes or ancient games like blind man’s bluff. Excerpt from “Parts of Speech” by Ingrid de Kok

Please refer to this item in SUNScholar by using the following persistent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/1571
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