Violent Accounts

Understanding the Psychology of Perpetrators through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

212 pages

1 table

March, 2014

ISBN: 9781479821600



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Robert N. Kraft is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Otterbein University (Westerville, OH). He is the author of Memory Perceived: Recalling the Holocaust.  

All books by Robert N. Kraft

Violent Accounts presents a compelling study of how ordinary people commit extraordinary acts of violence and how perpetrators and victims manage in the aftermath. Grounded in extensive, qualitative analysis of perpetrator testimony, the volume reveals the individual experiences of perpetrators as well as general patterns of influence that lead to collective violence.
Drawing on public testimony from the amnesty hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the book interweaves hundreds of hours of testimony from seventy-four violent perpetrators in apartheid South Africa, including twelve major cases that involved direct interactions between victims and perpetrators. The analysis of perpetrator testimony covers all tiers on the hierarchy of organized violence, from executives who translated political doctrine into general strategies, to managers who translated these general strategies into specific plans, to the staff—the foot soldiers—who carried out the destructive plans of these managers.  
Vivid and accessible, Violent Accounts is a work of innovative scholarship that transcends the particulars of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reveal broader themes and unexpected insights about perpetrators of collective violence, the confrontations between victims and perpetrators in the aftermath of this violence, the reality of multiple truths, the complexities of reconciliation, and lessons of restorative justice.


  • "Delivers a rigorously grounded analysis of the accounts of perpetrators of collective violence during South Africa's apartheid years. These accounts provide rich material with which to address the politics of restorative justice and the reconciliatory promises of public testimony, but more importantly, they provide an analytic template for further work on advancing the psychological study of violence of different types across the world."


  • "This is a sophisticated and impressive study of testimony from perpetrators of political violence given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. It is sharp and insightful and adds considerably to our knowledge of perpetrators of violence as well as the process of restorative justice."

    —Donald Foster, University of Cape Town

  • “An important volume on multiple levels. Violent Accounts is important methodologically as a carefully conceived and meticulously rendered description of the structures and systems of qualitative research. It is also a signature contribution to the literature on the phenomenology of memory and on the psychology of violence from both the perpetrators’ and the victims’ perspectives. At the same time, Kraft’s work should be a must-read for policy makers and others interested in developing more humane and lasting strategies for addressing the consequences of violent confrontations within and between communities, whether on the level of neighborhoods or nations. And finally, it is a deeply moving and thought-provoking exploration of the larger ethical challenges of understanding and confronting violence with a view toward embracing reconciliation and restorative justice as more fully human ways of moving forward together in the aftermath of war and aggression.”

    —Mary Brydon-Miller, University of Cincinnati

  • “Provides a compelling and fascinating glimpse into the mental states of people who commit heinous, morally shocking crimes. Kraft’s studious survey of the accounts of violent actions by both South African freedom fighters and policemen promotes a profound understanding of what human beings are capable of doing—and of how they do things that in retrospect are indefensible. This book is a great contribution to the psychology of what drives typical, well-meaning individual human beings to perpetrate evil.”

    —Roy F. Baumeister, author of Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty