Avowing Truth, Embodying Justice: A Theological Analysis of Truth-Telling and Transitional Justice in South Africa

Ryno Louis van der Riet

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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This study presents a theological analysis of the hermeneutic and ethical challenges of truth-telling in the pursuit of justice within the context of transitional justice in South Africa. The main research objective of the study is to deepen understanding of the exchange between theological perspectives on truth-telling for justice, and the enacted mandates of transitional justice. This exchange is drawn from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and is shown to have implications for the public theology of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. The first chapter introduces and frames the systematic, theological rationale and methodology of the study and the chosen hermeneutical contours concerned with historical theology, Christian ethics, and public theology. A porous division is introduced between ascribing truth and constituting truthfulness, in order to test the theological argument for the embodiment of truth-telling. Naming this division is a descriptive attempt that contributes to contouring the challenges of avowing truth while embodying justice. Based on a public theological rationale and methodology, these challenges are addressed as theological problems with consequences for Christian public witness. Chapter Two and Four explore these challenges of truth and truthfulness as enacted in both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (Chapter Two) and in Reformed public theologies in South Africa (Chapter Four). In Chapters Three and Five, two conversation partners are chosen to aid the analysis of the challenges of truth-telling; Michel Foucault, primarily in conversation with the TRC, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in conversation with Reformed public theologies in South Africa. The historical philosophy of Foucault on regimes of truth is taken from his Louvain lecture series Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice (Chapter Three). As a long-standing conversation partner in the formation of public theologies in South Africa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought on truth-telling is chosen and drawn specifically from his essay, What Does it Mean to Tell the Truth (Chapter Five). The sixth chapter concludes the analyses presented in this study by summarizing and drawing together the contours of truth, truthfulness and truth-telling in the previous chapters. These contours are shaped by perspectives on how truth and truthfulness have been enacted in transitional justice, and in Reformed public theologies in South Africa, and by asking how a focus on truth-telling has contributed to better understanding how truth and truthfulness function in transitional justice. Finally, these various perspectives on the problematic of truth-telling are used to suggest future research possibilities for the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, especially regarding race and sexuality as issues of human dignity and theological anthropology. The contours of a theological hermeneutic of truth-telling that emerge from the TRC, Foucault, Reformed public theologies, and Bonhoeffer demonstrate the practice of confession as a quintessential form of avowing truth and embodying justice. This study demonstrates that conceptual clarity and historical descriptions of what it means to tell the truth has made a theological enquiry into truth-telling more suited to the demands of restorative justice. The research contributes to the demands of working with verifiable (whether through judicial practice, personal testimony or other) information; the demand of qualifying and identifying who is responsible for the action steps necessary to bring about justice; and the demand to know how those telling the truth come to know what they claim as truth and as true. The concept of truth-telling emerges as an apt description for the embodiment of truth and truthfulness and is therefore not a stand-alone concept. Truth-telling is unavoidable for both theological witnessing and for transitional justice practices as it stresses the embodied nature of what it means to tell the truth for justice.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Van der Borght, Eduardus, Supervisor
  • Vosloo, R.R., Supervisor, -
Award date15 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2021


  • Truth-telling, Restorative Justice, Public Theology, South Africa, Dutch Reformed Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Michel Foucault, Transitional Justice, Truth, Ethics


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