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An Incomplete Reconciliation?

20 December 2013, 18:39

Things are never that simple:

A number of African states historically characterized by ethnic or racial conflict ended in violent drawn out civil wars, making South Africa’s position on transitional justice arguably efficient at the time.

South Africa had one of the most systematically racist societies of all time. It has been almost twenty years since our transition from Apartheid to a democracy, and while attempts have been made to heal the wounds of the past, as the saying goes, you can’t stick a plaster on a gaping wound.

Sure, the plaster may conceal the blood and provide a sense of comfort to the inflicted area for a while, but without proper care and attention that wound will fester and possibly become septic, spreading an infection to other areas of the body.

Reconciliation was never going to be a simple undertaking, especially in a country as complex and multi-faceted as South Africa. But that does not mean it should remain something that was only attempted in the formative years right after Apartheid.

Anger is still rife and there is still a need for reconciliatory processes to be encouraged so we can understand why. South Africa is not the same country it was 19 years ago so our approach to reconciliation and forgiveness should not be the same either. The first step to continuing this process is identifying the barriers in contemporary South Africa.

Why are we still not at peace? Why the anger?

For many victims and families of victims, the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) provided some sense of closure and healing, and for others it didn’t.

One problem with such a commission is that they seem to assume or imply that all citizens of a country share the belief that such platforms provide solace and comfort through the admission of guilt by the perpetrators; which is not always the case.

But reconciliation at this point cannot be centred on the atrocities of Apartheid. There are other issues, just as divisive, that are gaining momentum and creating social unrest in contemporary South Africa.

Race has shifted down to the 4th spot on the list of primary divisions as rated by South Africans, however it is still very intricately linked to class when it comes to the racial make-up of material exclusion.

And although they may be by-products of the previous political system, they do not have to become ingrained characteristics of our present-day country.

WHAT IT ALL MEANS

The Oxford Dictionary defines reconciliation as “the action of making one view or belief compatible with another”.  However the jury is still out on whether or not this definition of the word truly embraces what it is that South Africans want from reconciliation.

Many countries across the globe that have gone through internal disputes have made a number of attempts to right the wrongs of the past using reconciliation as a vehicle.  A tactic favoured by many countries and their respective politicians, is to erect statues and monuments in remembrance.

The idea is that citizens would otherwise forget and can hopefully collectively acknowledge a dark past using the above mentioned gesture. Another popular take on reconciliation is the use of arts and culture projects. In an attempt to try and express how South Africans feel about the violence of the past, the government has spared no expense in conveying their message through films such as Catch a fire and The Bang, Bang Club.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

In 1997 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up to investigate the human rights violations that took place in South Africa during Apartheid, between the years of 1960 and 1990.

One of the duties of the commission was to investigate atrocities committed by The National Party government as well as the leading resistance organisations – namely the ANC through uMkonto we Sizwe, the United Democaratic Movement, as well as the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Chairperson of the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained the reason behind the initiative was based on the presumption that “Forgiveness will follow confession and healing will happen, and so contribute to national unity and reconciliation.”

A key point should be to try and understand what it is that people expected to gain from these truth commissions. Perhaps the most obvious one is the need for retribution. When an injustice has been committed to an individual, the immediate and almost innate reaction is the need for vengeance.

However the TRC was set-up with exactly the opposite in mind. The plan was to give a voice to the victims of Apartheid who had suffered gross human rights violations, under the terms spelled out in a preamble to the constitution; “there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance; need for reparation but not for retaliation; a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation”. 

With that said, the emphasis of the TRC was on reconciliation, the truth and forgiveness, based on the belief that if South African’s knew the truth about our past, healing could begin taking place.  

THE COMMISSION CHAIRS

So in came the likes of Nobel Peace Prize Lorient and current multi-millionaire, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, arguably the face of the commission at the time. He was joined by Dr. Wendy Orr a medical practitioner and social activist; Advocate  Sisi Khampepe,  now a Constitutional court judge, and many others. 

Many of those who were on the committee were people of faith; this in turn gave the commission an appearance of balance.

Consequently, it also posed a problem. It implied that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process was one about forgiveness from a religious perspective, namely Christianity. This was a tall ask for those that were directly affected by what had happened since there were many who instead of forgiveness wanted retribution.

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES

When our democracy was only two years old, the government had already gone through a lot of effort to avoid a civil war and had attempted to give everyone a space to exist in peace in our new democracy.

In doing so, some hold the belief that the new South African government compromised far too much in ensuring that the white minority felt safe and catered for in the new system of governance. However, others argue that negotiations between the National Party and leading resistance organisations had to contend with the more ideological factions of both African and Afrikaner nationalism.

It was a pragmatic approach that chose reconciliation as a means toward a more socially cohesive society. And although we may be far from the all-inclusive freedom so hard fought for, we cannot blame reconciliation politics for the current inequality still present – and growing – in the country.

Another criticism of the commission was that it stated the only way in which the perpetrators were to receive amnesty, was if they displayed remorse for the crimes that they had committed. Which begged the question; how does one judge how much remorse is enough to excuse one of their crimes? What measures were in place to ensure that one could adequately assess true remorse from fake remorse?

However, with that said one cannot completely disregard what was done in the commission. People who believed that they were never going to have the opportunity to face the ones responsible for the physical, emotional and mental trauma they endured were finally able to do just that.

It also opened up a dialogue between all South Africans, whether it was behind closed doors or in public spaces, about the true nature of our politically violent past. No one could say they did not know.

DIVIDED OPINION

It is clear that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission served a very clear and tangible purpose. Resolving the country’s past issues and attempting to unite opposing ideas is initially what the commission set out to do, although there is reason to declare that it did the opposite.

There were many, who believed that the Truth and Reconciliation commission was nothing more than a show, put on in an attempt to try and appease a particular group in the country. However others viewed it differently. Nelson Mandela had this take on it, “Today we reap some of the harvest of what we sowed at the end of a South African famine.

And in the celebration and disappointment that attends such a harvest, we know that we shall have to sow again, and harvest again, over and over, to sustain our livelihood; to flourish as a community; and for our generation to know that when we finally go to rest for-ever; our progeny will be secure in the knowledge that two simple words will reign: Never Again!”.

BACK TO BASICS

Moving forward in our democracy, perhaps we should consider more closely the intended social impact of previous reconciliatory initiatives. And decide collectively what are trying to achieve in building a transitional democracy as a united nation.

As we find ourselves at a place where the social construct is crumbling and the fibres of our globally acclaimed cohesion are stretched to dangerous levels; we find ourselves in the eye of opportunity.

We have the advantage of recent history to look to for guidance as we hold tight to virtues of forgiveness and healing that were initially intended. Our short term objective has to be to build some form of social solidarity.

The TRC gave the nation a platform to work from. A platform where everyone is on the same page about what we are willing to do to accommodate each other. This was done in the hope that when it ended, there would be a mutual understanding of the steps that the country needed to take in order to prosper, as well as function as a democratic society and have a clean canvas to work from.

This literally means that the TRC was not the final conversation but rather the first of a series of ongoing conversations at which the rules of engagement were established.

As a South Africa in continued transition this is a very exciting realization.

THE CHALLENGES

One of the most critical concerns is that the country is still divided on many important levels - economic, racial, as well as social. Using the Reconciliation barometer as an indicator, it would appear that there is a growing relationship between economic exclusion and reconciliation. Issues of economic justice need to be central to the process of reconciliation – especially since the relationship between race and class present themselves as divisive factors in our society; creating an adverse effect on the possibility for greater interracial contact among all South Africans.

Material exclusion – based on class – continues to obstruct interracial reconciliation. A factor that remains important primarily because the majority of South Africans living in poverty are black and remain isolated from an interracial middle and upper class.

This is a barrier to reconciliation as it limits the possibility of cross-cultural conversations and relationships to develop among different groups in the country.

Kim Wale, author of the South African Reconciliation Barometer Report 2013 says “Reconciliation requires the building of bridges of understanding across lines of difference, especially where they have been reinforced by an unjust distribution of power.”

HYPOCRACY OR FAIR PLAY

It is not to say that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a failure in its efforts to unite the nation. Truth commissions by nature are faced with tremendous obstacles.

It is a fact however that the TRC was not the final chapter in the journey to reconciliation but rather the beginning. What it taught us for certain is that we have the capacity to sit together in complete calm and objectivity and work through our differences.

It took an incredible amount of love and sacrifice to get to the point we have and there is no reason at all for it to be wasted. Wasted is exactly what it shall be if we do not find each other in the short term.

There is added difficulty in that first those who were responsible for setting up and implementing the initial commission need to be honest with themselves, and the nation about what they hoped to achieve through the commission and reflect on whether they have reached the goals. 

They would then need to declare that because the job is incomplete it is a national priority that it be completed now so that the Generation of today and tomorrow can live in prosperous, sustainable harmony.

It is said that time heals all wounds, but in reality time creates infections in untreated wounds. Infections lead to amputations. Amputations slow you down.

As we march toward a new global chapter we cannot be slowed down or left behind. We are South Africa – the shining light of the world, the Mecca of cohesion, the epitome of tolerance. It’s time for us to step up and live up to our billing by dealing with the man in the mirror.

Regardless of how many protesting citizens the police are willing to kill, regardless of how much tax the leadership is prepared to steal, and regardless of how many institutions the politicians are committed to wrecking; you are still in command. You are still the highest order.

But you are only powerful with your peers.

Reconciliation can and will be achieved. When it happens and how is completely up to you and I. 

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