Truth, Justice and Decolonisation

Dr Vanessa Barolsky1

1Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Melbourne, Australia

This presentation will be a comparative investigation of the role of truth processes in establishing the conditions for just solidarity in the democratic nation-state, in the wake of a history of colonialism and dispossession in Australia and South Africa. Although Australia and South Africa are profoundly different societies, they both face the universal problematic of establishing democratic cohesion and have, in diverse ways, turned to ‘truth’ as part of their response. While the South African experience of truth telling has in many ways shaped the international discourse and practice on truth telling and transitional justice in its wake, Australia is at the beginning of its own process of conceptualising the possibility of a truth process. In these discussions, the South African experience of a truth commission has frequently been evoked, sometimes in idealised terms. This presentation will explore what a more critical engagement with the South African experience could bring to the development of a truth process in Australia. In particular, the South African TRC was significantly critiqued for the manner in which it yoked truth to reconciliation in ways that ostensibly compromised the possibility for substantive social transformation. South Africa is now rife with calls for ‘decolonisation’. What then would be the terms of a truth process that linked truth to decolonisation from the outset in the Australian context? Decolonisation is already central to Indigenous Australians’ imaginary of sovereignty and autonomy.  The current demand for truth-telling in Australia emerged as part of a triumvirate of demands including Treaty, Truth and Recognition. Therefore, the desire for truth telling developed within the context of an aspiration for a just political settlement. However, what does decolonisation mean in a self-consciously multicultural settler-colonial polity such as Australia? This presentation will explore, in the light of these questions, what the South African experience and transitional justice more broadly can offer settler colonial contexts with a more a distant history of dispossession. Such contexts have frequently been omitted from the ambit of traditional transitional justice theory and practice, which has primarily focused on societies who have experienced a recent political rupture.


Dr Vanessa Barolsky is an Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) working with the recently established Collaborative Centre of Excellence for Resilient Communities and Inclusive Societies (CERCIS). She works across several disciplinary areas including sociology, anthropology and criminology to tackle questions related to social conflict and its transformation. This includes critical engagements with social cohesion, truth and reconciliation, as well as political and criminal violence and questions of social regulation, law and justice. Prior to her employment at ADI, Dr Barolsky was a Research Specialist at the Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery Programme of the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa where she led numerous interdisciplinary studies on key social challenges such as access to justice, violent crime and safety policy. Before the HSRC, Dr Barolsky worked at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) where she was one of the authors of the Commission’s final report.


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