Reconciliation is not a bed of roses: Tough lessons from Rwanda

2017-11-09 09:53

The horrific scenes of Monday, 30th October 2017, represented the most vivid signal that the country’s rainbow nation fragile bubble might burst at any time. Dubbed the #BlackMonday movement, the organisers, consciously or unconsciously, gave an opportunity to thousands of South Africa’s white racists, mostly Afrikaners, to come out of the closet. And the poor African majority could only wail on social media and through statements as symbols of their oppression and hatred, like the old flag, were brandied with pride and provocation in the streets.

It has suddenly dawned upon all South Africans, from all racial backgrounds, that reconciliation is not easy to achieve. While the legal and policy reforms were crucial to tame racial divisions, they have not assisted to change some of the deep-rooted racial attitudes borne out of our unfortunate past.

In one of his classical speeches, late ‘Father of the Socialist Revolution’, Commandant Fidel Castro said in 1959; “Revolution is not a bed of roses. Revolution is a struggle between the future and the past”. I believe it is befitting to borrow from these words of wisdom and profess; ‘Reconciliation is not a bed of roses”. This dialectical assessment by Castro about the revolution is relevant even for reconciliation. Let us draw some lessons from Rwanda and how it attained reconciliation, in an attempt to demonstrate that reconciliation, like revolution, is a struggle between the future and the present.

Lessons from the Rwandan experience

In 1994, Rwanda experienced a brutal, unfortunate genocide which lasted for 100 days. During this period, about one million Rwandans lost their lives. This war, which was fuelled by the colonialists’ agenda to divide Rwandans across fake tribal lines, was halted by the revolutionary forces of the Rwanda Patriotic Front – Inkotanyi, led by, amongst others, current President Major General Paul Kagame.

After the Inkotanyi forces took power by force, a detailed process of reconciliation began. This was not a symbolic, superficial approach to reconciliation, but it was a process which prioritized justice. In addition to the work of the national reconciliation commission, facilitated by the United Nations, Rwanda also revived the pre-colonial community courts, known as the Gacaca courts. Each perpetrator was tried and, where guilt was established, sanctions were handed. Some were jailed, whilst some were sanctioned to do community service. The victims of the genocide felt a sense of justice, and both victims and perpetrators worked hand in hand to rebuild their country.

Today Rwanda is one of the best models of reconciliation used in the whole world. They do not use colonial classification of Hutu or Tutsi, but are all Rwandans. The country has moved from a crisis it was in 1994, and boasts, amongst others, amongst the highest in terms of Human Development Index, thanks to its successful reconciliation project.

The case of South Africa

In 1994, the same year when the genocide occurred in Rwanda, South Africa held the first democratic elections ever. It was faced with a difficult task to reconcile its peoples after centuries of colonialism and hatred. A number of reforms were made to ensure that all were equal. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also played its role in trying to foster harmony amongst the people. All these had a short term effect.

This is because in South Africa, the reconciliation agenda was predominantly superficial, in that many who committed crimes during the colonial era continue unpunished. Many of the victims, and families of the victims, are yet to get justice. In South Africa, the crux of crimes committed against the indigenous peoples were on property, land in particular, and minerals. The perpetrators of these crimes are modern-day heroes, rather than villains.

In its report Apartheid Grand Corruption: Assessing the scales of crimes of profit in South Africa from 1976 to 1994, the Institute of Security Studies (2006) makes horrendous finding about wholesale crimes that brought South Africa to its current state. According to the report, theft that began in 1652 with the arrival of settlers in the Cape. The atrocities continued, involving the Broederbond, amongst others, and saw companies like Afrikaner mining company, Genkor, being involved in grand corruption and theft.

The report also noted that companies like Sanlam, Nasionale Pers (Naspers), Rembrandt etc., worked in cahoots with successive colonial regimes to steal from our people. None of those companies have paid a single cent back to the people of South Africa. These are some of the facts that make our reconciliation project fallible. These are some of the facts that remind us that reconciliation is not a bed of roses, but a struggle between the future and the past.

On land, the report was unequivocal that the 1913 Land Act facilitated the dispossession of the Africans of their land, in favour of whites. “These crony capitalists were the beneficiaries of political patronage resulting from the convergence of interests between the business and political elite in the country”, the report said. Till today, the Anglo American or Billions of this country are regarded as heroes, rather than thieves who stole from our people.  


It is not clear how, in the case of South Africa, reconciliation can be attained when the victims remain victims, and perpetrators are heroes. How are the victims of crimes of apartheid and colonialism supposed to reconcile with the perpetrators, when justice has not been served? Until land, minerals and all the wealth is returned to its rightful owners, reconciliation shall remain but a bubble, ready to burst at any given moment. There can never be reconciliation without justice, for reconciliation is not a bed of roses.

Makhele is an ANC member. He writes in his personal capacity


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