Narrative inequality in the TRC hearings

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South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission victim hearings were a highly unusual discourse event in which previously silenced and powerless people were offered a prestigious public forum and speech format to tell about their experiences of human rights violations. However, despite the equal access offered to victims for the telling of their stories, pre-existing inequalities persisted and were reflected in the relative ‘hearability’ of these stories. We use the concept of ‘pretextuality’ to account for the relative hearability. The concept refers to the varying degrees of competence in language varieties, literacy and narrative skills that people bring with them to a communicative interaction, and which influence the impact of their narratives. Through detailed analysis of selected testimonies, we demonstrate ways in which the inequalities suggested above emerged in the hearings.


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