23 min read
19 Jun

The following is essay 16 from my book Dangerous Magic: Essays on Conflict Resolution in South Africa (paradigm Media, 2022). It shares some reflections on the difficult question so often asked of us - that of the place and value of reconciliation, forgiveness and redemption. 



Is there a place for reconciliation in South Africa?   

Memory is a weapon. 

Don Mattera  

Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part that we still have to work out. 

Damon Galgut  

… when the previous relationship between the parties has only been conflictual it is illogical and demeaning to the victimized group to expect them to put aside their differences and focus on some phantasy of a shared, harmonious past. 

Valerie Rosoux  

I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night. 

Khaled Hosseini  

But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road 

James Baldwin  

Reconciliation deals with the residues of conflict and trauma: events that have brought pain and suffering to a great number of people.  

Emma Hutchison and Roland Bleiker  

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvellous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.  

Rainer Maria Rilke


Personally, I believe that at least the question of reconciliation in South Africa affects all of us here, whatever we believe the answer should be, and whatever happens with this question in our future. Even the question itself seems to often run on various levels – the practical, the political, the emotional, the economic, pure conflict resolution principles, and several others. Arguments seem to deal with one topic, but often include one or more other conflict causes, drivers or results. In whatever way we choose to deal with the question, even if it is only to ignore it, it is a constant companion, one that continues to have a marked effect on our current and future conflicts, our prospects, our hopes and dreams. 

If you tend to agree with me on that, whatever the content of your reconciliation narrative may be, it hopefully follows that there is a value, a heuristic process at play here whereby there is a value in the questions themselves that we ask ourselves, over and above the answers we may come up with. Conflict resolution theory certainly shows us, as some of the topics in this book reflect, the strategic value in asking the right questions, in an extensive differentiation phase, in ensuring that the dynamics of timing and sequence (the ripeness of a conflict) and the necessity of having all the information on the table before we start building solutions. With that in mind then, I continue to find value (and comfort) in struggling with these questions, as much as they may seem to be generating new questions and problems, and as frustrating as our apparent lack of progress may be. Throughout this essay then, we will try to ask the right questions, hopefully thereby continuing and invigorating the reconciliation debate in ways that could lead to new answers and solutions. 

In doing so, we take a relatively fresh look at the challenge, specifically in approaching it not as a primarily political or economic question, but as a conflict resolution challenge. This does not necessarily change what we see, but it changes the place from where we see the facts, and sometimes that perspective change brings about its own benefits. Let’s then add a few more questions to the inquiry. Have the various groups and factions involved in the protracted South African conflicts, as caused and triggered by apartheid and its aftermath become reconciled? Have meaningful numbers of individuals done so? What is this reconciliation that is mentioned, and what does it look like in practice? Is it morally defensible in the South African context, and is it necessary for any national interest? Can an argument be made for national reconciliation and its pursuit simply on the basis of a realization that failing to do so continues to create new, cyclical conflicts?  

What is reconciliation? 

Like so many important concepts in the South African political arena, reconciliation seems like a simple idea, until we start to really look at it from up close. When can we say that conflict parties have become reconciled? When there is a formal peace treaty or written agreement of some sorts? When a formal peace process like our Truth and Reconciliation process has been concluded? When people live together in peace, or accept each other at some meaningful level? Have South Africans become reconciled in any sense of the term? Is reconciliation a process or a result? Was the rainbow nation a mirage? Does anyone still believe in the goal of reconciliation? I

n many important respects, South Africans remain as divided as ever, if not more so. While Bruce Whitfield (in "The Upside of Down") rightly points out the progress made in important areas, and our attendant unfounded pessimism in certain instances, the additional and sustained pressures of the recent Covid pandemic, its enduring consequences and the relentless parade of leadership failures all continue to place pressure on already fragile relationships. The cracks are widening in several important areas. From sustained calls and campaigns for the secession of the Cape (in many shades of detail), an apparent increased shrillness in political discourse, even among colleagues in the same party as well as across party-political lines, from paid social media influence campaigns and interest groups, from persistent factional feuds to cronyism in government, it would take a brave or deluded soul to claim that we have reached reconciliation as a nation. 

But what does this holy grail of reconciliation mean? When are we reconciled? Is it an objective goal, does it rely on numbers or statistics of some sort? Is reconciliation of any practical value to anyone in South Africa, leaving aside any considerations of moral or ethical value? The premise of this essay is that we have not achieved reconciliation (in any of its normal uses) by any meaningful matrix, that it is not strictly necessary that we do become reconciled, that it is nevertheless important and of great real world value that we do so in one or another definition of reconciliation, and in a legitimate and credible manner, and that we need to start working on this project as a matter of some urgency. The closest that we have come so far in achieving reconciliation, if we argue that reconciliation is a process, is that we have at some level started with that process. As far as that is concerned, I do not believe that reconciliation is a process or a result, as that causes significant difficulties in the practical application and use of the concept. It should best be seen as a hybrid of both, part process and part result. 

More specifically, I am calling for a return to a more substantive reconciliation negotiation process by all interested parties in trying to achieve this goal. I find it disconcerting that for some we have become reconciled and that it is time to "move on" - for others, we are doing alright and we can muddle along, and for others still that time for reconciliation has passed and that the time for alternatives has arrived. None of those conclusions are entirely accurate or in our best interests, either as individualised groups or as a nation. The way that we have been going about this these past three decades is outdated and insufficiently courageous. We have time left to us, but not much, and we need to get it right this time. 

Working concept of 'reconciliation'  

Let’s see if we can pin down a working concept of "reconciliation". We have to get as close to the idea as possible for effective debate. In order to do so, a few additional questions may illustrate the complexity of even the definition of the term. Can reconciliation be negotiated?  How do we distinguish between reconciliation and restitution? Is this the same as forgiveness? Not surprisingly, academic and even fieldwork show little consensus as to what reconciliation is, and what the necessary conditions for that would be. Some very good South African books on the topic in recent years have underscored the definitional and conceptual difficulties that some of these debates run into right at the start, and how that bedevils further constructive discussion.

Conflict resolution and peacebuilding, as academic disciplines, have continued to research and debate these concepts quite vigorously, with the result that we have an increasingly robust understanding of some of these concepts and challenges, as well as an increasing array of possible solutions. In approaching the concept, and the debate, from political, social or economic perspectives only much of the benefit of the conflict resolution work has been lost or not optimized. In comparing a few of the more rigorous attempts at such a definition we find that it is often an attempt at pinning the elusive concept down by using other nebulous concepts. So we find such definitions seeking to define reconciliation as "trust", as arriving at "the truth", as "transformation leading ultimately to an identity change". None of these efforts are of particular practical help, and we can hardly arrive at reconciliation if we do not know what it looks like. A truly South African definition would therefore best be crafted before any further work on this gets done (in my view, as part of an extended and revitalised return to a formal negotiating process), but let's get back to the definition challenge below. 

While we do not need to specifically assess and discuss the contents of each of these divisions, I agree with Valerie Rosoux that it is helpful to approach political reconciliation with three categories in mind, the structural, the psycho-social and the spiritual. A further and closer look at this shows that the first division deals with the issues at stake, while the latter two mainly deals with the relationship between the parties. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd referred to this third category as “the sacrament of reconciliation”, a rather apt description under the circumstances.  

Why is reconciliation necessary? 

I have, in struggling with this question from a South African perspective for many years, come to a simple answer: reconciliation isn’t strictly necessary. If the question is structured as a simple invitation to convince the listener conclusively of the need to reconcile then the best debate in its favour must simply lead to the exercise of a personal choice, a preference. I believe that a compelling case can be made for reconciliation (once we know what that is) in South Africa, and that this can be done on two main grounds, but I do not accept that reconciliation can be compelled by force of these arguments alone, or that this will be necessary. 

As we will see in this essay, I believe that a strong if qualified argument for reconciliation can be made based on the entirely personal benefits that can flow from reconciliation, and a possibly more mercenary argument based on the benefits that can be achieved from the stability that may follow on old conflicts and new being resolved successfully and in a lasting, transcendent manner. We will briefly consider both these arguments here. 

Reasons why we have not reached reconciliation 

One of the main reasons why I believe that we have not reached the reconciliation that we need as a nation is the inchoate state of the land question. Recent research on the land question, as well as some objective statistics in the experience of land claims, have shown that the land issue may be over-emphasized or even misunderstood as a conflict driver, but it remains an emotive and important facet in the debate, and as a tool in the strategies of many politicians. 

Reconciliation in a South African context will, to a large extent, be built around restitution and the delivery and management of perceptions and expectations around that topic. In many respects, this requirement is simply a manifestation of the conflict resolution principle that resolution, and by extension reconciliation, is not possible unless it includes justice. What exactly this land issue entails, what the options of resolution are and other practical considerations should all form part of this discussion. The skewed power relationships of the past have led to skewed land ownership, and this, like in conflicts such as Palestine, Zimbabwe, the Balkans, Liberia and so on, must be acknowledged as a legitimate and crucial part of the debate. What the true need and demand for “land” may be, what alternatives exist and what modern expectations of that outside of political rhetoric are could certainly do with clarity and focus. 

Our own reconciliation efforts lost speed and energy very early on, as a result of a range of apparently justified reasons. Topics like the land question were seemingly deferred because of its potential for conflict, and there was also clearly an expectation that a democratically elected government would effectively run with such reconciliation processes themselves. Even the academic field of conflict resolution lost interest in South Africa as a laboratory, presumably for the same reasons. These considerations, laudable as they may have been at the time, have, however, led to a few clear fault-lines in our society and its efforts at crafting its own identity and the reconciliation of seemingly divergent interests and even values. The best we can say in the defence of these delays and neglects of the pursuance of the reconciliation project is that timing is a crucial dynamic in conflict resolution, and that the present moment is a better opportunity for taking further such reconciliation efforts than say the transitional period would have been. But there are other reasons why we cannot say that we have reached reconciliation, by most definitions of the word. 

Here I have to agree with Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a South African clinical psychologist, who argues that in all the good work done and achieved by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it has not sufficiently addressed and dealt with the emotions of those traumatised. As several examples of conflict in this book show, we are not as rational, as cold and commercially interested as we would sometimes like to believe. Our conflicts often run on other, more important tracks than a simple “reasonable” approach. This is certainly not to turn these events into a soap opera of cheap emotion or opportunism, but to identify, acknowledge and respect the deep seated emotions, their triggers and conflict drivers that people are still dealing with to this very day. Between well-intentioned ignorance, time and resource pressures and a current, more cynical demand to “move along” we have never really dealt with the trauma of this conflict as a nation, and I still regularly meet people who clearly have not had the benefit of those emotions being acknowledged or dealt with. The passing of time is of no solace or help in conflict trauma if the root causes and triggers remain, if the conflict trauma is left as is, embedded in everyday life. This is also not an isolated opinion. It has nothing to do with cheap emotions or sentimentality. 

Hutchison and Bleiker (see article reference below) argue convincingly that to seek to exclude emotions from these conflict processes is an approach borne out of an earlier understanding of emotions as irrational, possibly harmful to reasonable thought processes, and of justice as a result free of passion, as opposed to a process that respects and includes emotion. Modern conflict resolution understands that perceptions, reflections and our choices are often “an inseparable mixture of emotional and rational processes.” Logically, these unresolved emotions create communities of fear and anger. Fear, anger and resentment remains, even though the primary and more visible conflict causes and triggers may have been removed or minimized. The prevailing approach, in political, law enforcement and even peacebuilding arenas remain one where security and stability are the main, or only concerns. Psychological concerns are seen as being of a lesser priority, something that can be addressed later. This is exactly what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission got wrong. Too many of these deep-seated emotional traumas and unresolved conflicts were acknowledged, but not resolved, and tacitly or otherwise left for “later”. This is not to say that security and stability should not be our primary concerns, only that the emotional impact of unresolved conflict leads inevitably to lasting, cyclical and generational conflicts. This, the emotional component of these unresolved conflicts, is where we find both an important cause of current and future conflicts, but also a compelling reason why reconciliation, for whatever stated reason, can benefit the individual and communities involved, as well as the country itself. 

To turn the question here into our earlier division: is reconciliation necessary when we consider these ongoing emotional concerns and faultlines? Presumably not, in the strictest sense. Is it advisable, is a common good, something that people can greatly benefit from if we do become reconciled? Yes, when we consider these emotions and how they remain unhealed and unresolved all these years later, the benefits of comprehensive reconciliation should become clearer. As Gobodo-Madikizela illustrates, the current models of reconciliation and healing are simply not enough. These should include strategies that foster meaningful interaction between victim and perpetrator, between different groups, if true reconciliation is to be achieved.  

A process for moving forward: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) 2.0  

In trying to continue to see the challenge through a specialized conflict resolution lens, I call for a more focused and dedicated renewal of these reconciliation efforts, specifically some form of national reconciliation negotiation forum - call it the TRC 2.0 - until someone names it more appropriately. Conflict resolution theory and practice inform us that cyclical and complex conflicts reach a stage where parties start considering their best alternatives to such conflicts when three requirements are met. These requirements, namely instability, a mutually hurting stand-off and a mutually attractive set of alternative resolutions that are seen as better options, have, in my view, been reached. As this brief discussion this far has shown, there are at this stage more questions than answers. What will constitute a truly South African reconciliation? Who should reconcile about what, when, how, why and even if reconciliation is necessary - the fact that these questions seem to have many possible replies underscores my (and others') suggestion that the time has come for the urgent institution of such a reconciliation forum, one supported and implemented by the government, one having as open and robust a discussion as necessary across as wide a canvass as possible and including as many parties as possible. The more isolated call for submissions on the land question recently has shown some semblance of what can be achieved if this is conducted efficiently and managed properly. 

Such a process, advisably guided or even conducted by skilled mediators, can in a relatively short and cost-effective manner bring great clarity to our questions as raised above; gather invaluable information, take great strides towards the resolution of intrinsic questions such as the land question, and above all, work towards a specific reconciliation programme, with goals and timeframes determined as a part of such a respectful, inclusive process, where the ultimate achievement is a marked and measurable improvement in our reconciliation as a nation. I would suggest a two phase approach to such a reconciliation process, with the first phase collecting information from individuals, activists, local communities and as wide a range of stakeholders as possible, and which information then gets discussed and used constructively at a second phase by a selected group of politicians, business leaders and other constructive contributors. Such a process can be guided by modern mediation guidelines, and can, if so decided, culminate in meaningful legislation. As even a brief consideration of the questions and issues at hand shows, these challenges will need patience and skill. Definitions and outcomes cannot be imposed, at least not without a thorough reconciliation process and programme having been conducted. Anything short of that would, right from the outset, be antithetical to the very concept of reconciliation.    

A brief note on reconciliation and power

Any reconciliation efforts in South Africa, at any level possible, must bear in mind the influence of power on reconciliation – power that was, power that tries to hold on to the status quo, power that seeks to simply change dictatorships, power that seeks its own benefit rather than societal benefit. Power is a crucial dynamic in conflicts, and in a protracted, generational conflict such as the South African political environment it has of course had decades in which to become entrenched and hidden in all walks of life.  

Conflict expert Kenneth Cloke describes these power dynamics well, and there is much here for us to take heed of in our conflict environments. “For these reasons, power always triggers resentment, along with a desire for its equalization and a demand that it be transferred or shared. These incite power to defend itself and counter-attack, recycling the conflict, justifying its escalation and discouraging completion, closure, disappearance, and prevention. What is more important, these dynamics occur in all conflicts regardless of scale, allowing petty, purely personal conflicts to fuel significant, social ones, and vice versa. Thus, small-scale interpersonal brutalities lay the foundation for large-scale dictatorships, torture and the systematic organization of social hatreds. Even the smallest bully creates a space and an archetype for larger ones, making bullying socially acceptable and encouraging it to spread. In this way, every small-scale demeaning or diminishing behavior, every refusal to listen or negotiate, every exercise of power or contempt, every effort to repress or curb one’s opponents, magnifies the social and political power of tyranny, making completion and closure more difficult on every scale. There is, of course, a fundamental distinction between power against, which instills fear; power over, which triggers resentment; power for, which encourages participation; and power with, which builds collaboration and trust. Power is a relationship rather than a thing. Through its diverse forms, one can distinguish debate from dialogue, adversarial from collaborative negotiation, and moralizing from consensus over shared values. Power arises in every human interaction and is invariably present in conflict. Yet power is fluid rather than fixed, allowing one kind of power to be transformed into another. In this way, changing the nature of people’s discourse and moving from debate to dialogue, or from lecturing to listening, fundamentally alters power relationships, increases genuine humility and collaboration, and encourages resolution, forgiveness, and reconciliation through interest-based processes that lead naturally to completion, closure, disappearance, and prevention. As rights are ultimately based on power, they are similarly impermanent and dependent on society’s willingness to limit abuses of power, and stabilize the ways it will be shared, balanced and manifested. In a muted way, everything that can be said of power can also be said of rights, except that rights rely on technical distinctions, bureaucracy and institutionalization, which power simply ignores. For this reason, while power encourages contempt, resistance and rebellion, rights encourage alienation, cynicism, and purely procedural interventions. In the end, power and rights are both inconsistent with affection, collaboration. and integrity, partly because they generate contempt and indifference, while affection, collaboration and integrity dismantle them. Carl Jung also found these elements mutually exclusive, writing: “Where love lives there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”

This shows us the interlinked dependencies between power and rights, and how these considerations have an impact on our conflicts in general, and reconciliation in particular.  

A duty to repair our reconciliation efforts  

If reconciliation is regarded as a common good, as something worth achieving even if for pragmatic or selfish goals, then we now have an opportunity, even a duty, to repair or build on the reconciliation efforts of the recent past. A well-constructed and implemented reconciliation process, such as we referred to above, would benefit from all our combined, focused and expressed anger, frustration, hopes and dreams, and wise leadership would be able to take all the current dispersed energy and build something worthwhile and lasting from that... a South Africa that is reconciled as a result of a modern, updated process that its own people designed, debated and implemented. In addition to these initial challenges inherent in a meaningful reconciliation project for South Africa, including a suggested process that could get and keep us focused in order to become a reconciled nation, I have argued that I believe that we are not, in any meaningful sense, a reconciled nation, and that we have urgent, complex and important work ahead of us. 

We have asked more questions than arrived at answers in our discussion thus far. These are difficult questions, running along deep emotional lines, involving narratives that are of crucial, identity-shaping importance to the majority of the people involved. The briefest investigation around the braai fire or on social media will show that, as can be expected, South Africans do not agree on what this “reconciliation” should entail. For some, it has a largely economic meaning – reconciliation must come with tangible, immediate economic benefits. 

Failing to do so, by this understanding, means that inequalities caused by the past remain unresolved, and this could never form the basis for any meaningful reconciliation. For others, reconciliation would mean that we move on from the events of the past, and that, as they would seek to convince us of, enough time has elapsed for us to now focus on what lies ahead without the need for meaningful compensation or redistribution of assets. This brings us back full circle to my earlier observation that the mere question of our reconciliation has value to us, and the different heated or indifferent reactions to the topic should tell us that much remains to be done. As Rwandan survivors wish to remind us “People are not here any longer. But ghosts stay around.” 

Maybe, as Richard Holbrooke reminded the people of Berlin post-conflict, a sounder strategy is not to wish those ghosts away, but that they should remain, be accommodated, be respected, that they are there to remind us of the past. Reconciliation cannot, should not have one simple meaning, but we do need to find some level of agreement on what that concept would include, what aspects of the conflict and the aftermath would need to be addressed for any such efforts to count as real reconciliation. Other shades and hues of meaning ascribed to this concept of reconciliation can of course be found, but these seem to be the most popular two divisions. As if to emphasize the need for urgent progress as far as reconciliation is concerned, I believe that we are witnessing an increased polarization between the abovementioned groups, some ironically still seeking reconciliation in apparently incompatible ways. The “other side” is increasingly vilified and viewed with distrust. The one group is accused of confusing reconciliation with economic self-enrichment and another group with wanting to “move on” in order to safeguard their privileges and unfairly gained assets, with many other nuances and distinctions added to the question. 

This lack of progress with reconciliation inevitably leads to frustration, a loss of confidence in the process and its possibilities, and it provides a fertile environment for those benefiting from our continued polarisation and other, more anarchic options. Even with a formal reconciliation negotiation process as I have called for earlier, a fine line will have to be walked by those involved in such process between an authoritarian declaration of what such reconciliation must look like, and being held hostage to malicious or unrealistic views of reconciliation. I believe that an urgent, skilled and representative process can achieve this goal in a matter of months, and with minimal costs involved. 

The framework of the eventual concept of reconciliation will, in my view, include a few important concepts that few people of goodwill will argue with. Reconciliation cannot be successful without justice, without comprehensive representation from the largest group to a single street community, it has to be transparent, the process has to have as much integrity as can be mustered, and must be conducted in a robust but respectful manner. A multi-disciplinary use of best practices in fields as diverse as conflict resolution, land and spatial planning and development, economics and finance and others as may prove necessary must be valued and pursued. Politicians must have an important but not dominant role in these discussions. The two tiered approach that I have suggested earlier on can give them an increasingly important role as we leave the data and opinion gathering stages and move into the formulation and implementation stage. 

And right there we have the start of a foundation upon which the harder, more contentious work can follow. As the concept hopefully starts to appear clearer as we chip away at the rock within which it is encased, we may achieve further clarity by adding a few ideas as to what reconciliation is not, or should not be. Reconciliation, if done correctly, is not cheap emotion, it is not an effort to turn us all into one homogenous group of best buddies. It is not a substitute for the hard work that lies ahead to fix our economy, our unemployment, our education and skills challenges. It is not a delaying tactic to achieve justice or a solid foundation upon which to build the country that our children deserve. It is not a quick fix, it is not disrespectful or dismissive of the blood and the tears that brought us here. Reconciliation is not revenge, it is not a subtle continuation of dominance of the one group over the others. It is not a shield to protect those who should step forward and accept responsibility and accountability.  

What remains to be discussed and negotiated once this level of clarity has been reached? Conflict resolution research and case studies show, as indicated, that reconciliation on the national level consists of three major components, being the structural (the interests and issues at stake), the psycho-social and the spiritual (the latter two dealing with the relationships between the parties). In our position the former can really be focused on through discussions on institutional reforms that may still be necessary. The guiding philosophy here can be the integration of all groups in a democratic polity, the restoration of human and civil rights where this may still be lagging, and a fair redistribution of wealth. As far as the relationship between the parties are concerned the healthiest approach would be to lay the foundation of a new relationship between them, while fully respecting and acknowledging their past relationship in as open and honest a way as possible.        

What is the “justice” that we should be seeking during such a process? Does it have a mainly economic component, can we afford to meet the expectations that have been allowed to grow in the darkness of political neglect of the reconciliation project?  Is it enough to remove as many obstacles and disadvantages to human flourishing as we can manage given our constraints? How long should such a process run for, should be community or state driven, managed and guided? The contentious and complex nature of these questions, as simple examples, again highlight the urgent necessity for the inclusive and urgent reconciliation process discussed earlier. Does reconciliation include, or even require, forgiveness? This term does not have to be seen as a theological concept only, as policy makers and scholars have convincingly argued. As much as FW de Klerk, for example, has often argued that forgiveness is less an outcome or result than it is a precondition for reconciliation, I do not believe that these two concepts are synonymous or that forgiveness needs to be such a precondition. There are several current modern models of reconciliation that allow for co-existence without forgiveness. Whether forgiveness has other personal advantages I will leave up to the individual reader to decide.   

Reconciliation, remembering and the narratives of truth In an important sense any debate about reconciliation requires a debate about the narratives we have about the past, what needs to be done, what is important and who creates and controls those narratives. Truth finding, truth retention and the importance of divergent narratives of that truth should all be considered and understood. Here I would like to think that South Africans in general have the benefit, if we want to be constructive about this, of a relatively clear understanding of what happened in at least their recent history. As a result of various reasons the apartheid past has been relatively well preserved, and I cannot see much of a significant challenge to what happened being put forward. It seems more in the arena of what to do with that information, where to and how to move forward that we are getting stuck. 

By this I do not mean that there does not exist a wide array of past narratives, but in its essence I believe that we have a clear enough picture of what happened in, say the last century, to be able to work with that as our foundation. This question of truth narratives is of greater practical importance than what may be apparent at first glance. While some may easily suggest that we disregard this “truth”, any requested or expected deviation from an accepted truth narrative may very well be experienced as demanding and threatening to some parties. Prof Rudolf Schussler (University of Bayreuth) has done valuable conflict work on reconciliation and how these truth narratives can lead to some very difficult questions around moral compromise. His work shows how, as seen from our respective truth narratives, any movement towards or compromise with an erstwhile opponent may seem like a moral compromise, something which not many people want to do. 

Schussler however shows rather effectively how moral truth is in any event often very difficult or impossible to establish, and that we make these moral compromises all the time in other spheres. The result is then that if we bracket these apparent compromises, to use his term, and set legitimate conditions for that bracketing or limited acceptance, there should be nothing untoward in making such moral compromises. We do not need to feel as if we have violated our truth narratives or values. Schussler also warns against enforced homogenization of these truth narratives. He makes the point that, as an example,  enforced or coerced continued public apologies can quickly become performative and lose any integrity and sincere value that they may have had, and that we should not “impose indignity as penalty” on previous perpetrators. 

More important than the establishment of a single “truth”, as we can see if we follow this line of reasoning, would be other common goods, other end goals to be pursued. Here we could make use of goals such as Margaret Walker’s moral repair, with its six requirements of 

  • assumption of responsibility by the wrongdoers
  • acknowledgement of wrongdoing
  • reinstatement of moral standards for conduct
  • building of trust in standards and compliance with them
  • building of trust and trustworthiness between persons
  • strengthening of adequate moral relationships between perpetrators and victims

In dealing with these topics Schussler is aiming for no more than a so-called modus vivendi (an arrangement between conflicting parties to coexist peacefully, one of the conflict models that would not require forgiveness). This approach has the benefit of not having to deal with competing truth narratives or in achieving any of the more lofty and ambitious traditional reconciliation goals that inspire some and leave others demotivated or despondent. Schussler concludes with: “However, to my best knowledge no empirical proof exists that more than a modus vivendi is required for a reasonably well-functioning political community.”  As we can see, the truth and people’s difficult journeys in retrieving it, maintaining it, acknowledging and respecting it, is of great importance in our assessment of our conflicts here in South Africa. 

The truth, however defined, can lead us towards healing and stability, or deeper down our paths of destructive conflict. These conflicts must be skilfully managed, not neglected like we are seeing so often. Our Truth and Reconciliation project has done invaluable, if incomplete work in that regard. In the intervening years conflict studies have come to a more comprehensive understanding of truth and how it can be retrieved and managed effectively. As we have seen, the question of what to do with the truth, if and when we arrive there, is in itself contentious. An insistence on truth retrieval and retention is important, effectively dealing with it is important, and this process we will need to get right this time. It may very well require a creative engagement with the different truths, without causing any of the causes, triggers or insecurities that we have dealt with. It may require, to use the wonderful term coined by Laura Filardo-Llamas (in relation to the 1998 Northern Irish Good Friday agreement), engagement with a “discursively paradoxical reality”. 

How this complex but crucial subject can influence us, and how to approach it, can maybe best be glimpsed from the following excerpt, using various sources, from Prof Paul Arthur’s excellent study on Memory retrieval and truth recovery: “A complementary question would be to ask: why not leave the past behind? There can be perfectly understandable reasons why people insist on remembering. It is a way of avoiding oblivion. A Guatemalan human rights activist provides one reason: ‘The war created fear, a lack of communication, a lack of confidence, an inability to resolve conflicts. You can’t reconcile with the living if you can’t reconcile with the dead’.” Further on in the same essay he says: “Remembering and forgetting, then, carry their own health warnings. Memory is multifaceted and manipulable. It is traumatic and capable of political appropriation. But lack of it can lead to oblivion. Perhaps the best we can expect is that we acknowledge that ‘the past is one of those issues that can only be dealt with when it has become less important, and this occurs when the past is about the past and not about determining the future’. It was the South African TRC that reminded us in the most dramatic way possible that ‘the most difficult task of all…is to remember and forget-not in the sense of collective amnesia, but in an altogether different way: as a release from the full weight and burden of the past.”  (For the full references and authorities cited in this passage, see the Paul Arthur article reference in the suggested reading section below.)  


 Peacebuilding and reconciliation  

As we will see in the next essay, the concept of peacebuilding and how that is structured has significant consequences for the chances of reconciliation to be a viable option in a society. Has the way that our initial peace been structured, with the negotiated trade-offs and the TRC approach, retarded or compromised our reconciliation? 

Important conflict variables in the reconciliation process 

Valerie Rosoux very helpfully points out three important variables that we need to consider in our assessment of our chances of anything approaching a successful reconciliation process. These three variables are

Leadership – leaders play an essential role in successful reconciliation efforts. Someone should at least start the process of a better understanding of the other, and to motivate others to make a journey that this leader has undergone as well. Examples would include Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu. As Prof Mark Anstey points out: “The use of violent and contentious tactics by an opponent is far more helpful to those resisting reconciliation than those supporting it.”-  

The robustness of institutions – this includes societal and governmental levels.

Former adversaries will only work towards reconciliation if they perceive such process as useful and profitable. To establish and run joint projects and joint platforms for this to be achieved would mainly be the work of those institutions. This is a fundamental requirement in order to obtain popular support for such effort. Our past has created cyclical conflicts and violence that gets perpetuated into our daily lives, and robust and enduring systems are essential for this to be done in a sustainable way. Does South Africa have any such remaining institutions? 

Timing – the crucial conflict element of the ripeness of the conflict and the willingness of the parties to consider reconciliation is here of some importance. Time in itself, as I argue here, however, is not enough to bring about such conflict ripeness, we also need other factors to be in place. Has the passing of three decades since democracy hurt our reconciliation aspirations, or are conditions ripe for progress with such efforts? Do we need more time? 


What should our aim then be as far as the question of meaningful reconciliation is concerned? Is it too late, can it be ignored, will it arrive all by itself after enough time has elapsed? Is a modus vivendi all we can, and should, be aiming for? Can we gather practical guidance from other countries and post-conflict groups? Professor Mark Anstey asks the very pertinent question whether we can distil valid and helpful principles and lessons from other, global reconciliations that have worked (say Franco-German or US-Japanese examples), or whether each conflict will have to be approached as being unique. Sri Lanka, Burundi, Rwanda and South Africa all face internal reconciliation challenges, but it is prudent to acknowledge their very different conflict realities. 

I lean towards acknowledging the value and importance of general principles but an accompanying understanding that every conflict and its reconciliation will ultimately stand or fall on the reading and implementation of local conditions. Anstey sums up our specific position with customary insight: “Belligerents have competing memories over the past, different views about dealing with these, and once shared hopes for a non-violent future have been expressed, different expectations as to how relations should be structured moving forward. Simply finding a way to co-exist into the future without resort to violence may be sufficient for some, but others demand justice for previous abuses and atrocities, or aspire to a deep qualitative change in relations, and beyond that, fundamental changes in the shape of political and economic relations. In these differences lie the seeds for further rounds of violence-and conflicts that simply mutate in their expressions and form. In South Africa steps to transform the demographics of ownership and participation in the economy have given rise to new conflicts even as parties broadly agree that change is required. Understanding the need for land reform for instance does not deal with who it should be removed from, or shared with, or keeping farms productive or wider food security issues.” 

We have looked at the various benefits that reconciliation, in the wide sense of that word, may bring about on a personal or even community level. I would suggest that reconciliation is a worthwhile and even commendable goal for us here in this conflict ravaged country, but that it cannot be imposed on people. We have taken some initial steps on the road to a reconciled future, but those efforts have been inadequate, and they have become stalled. 

Too much of the benefits of reconciliation have been left in the hands of political and other leaders, left in the very hands of people who may benefit from our division. We have looked at a suggested joint national project of reconciliation, and how the mechanics of such a project can be constructed if there is sufficient political and popular will for such reconciliation to happen. It is not going to happen just because we live together, or just because enough time has elapsed. Time, as we can now see in South Africa, harms unresolved conflict more than anything else. One thing that seems clear above all else in considering the contents and place of reconciliation is that we cannot be prescriptive about any part of it. Compelled reconciliation is an absurd concept. If reconciliation is going to happen it will need certain structural reforms and campaigns, such as some of the ideas that we have discussed here. It will need a real, on-the-ground sense of justice to be achieved by the majority of South Africans. It will, maybe even more than any such structural steps, need a lot of personal and individual effort, such as we have seen these last three decades. 

Reconciliation work on ourselves, helping our families and communities, helping those who need, and want, help in reconciling, are all good places to start for those who wish to work with reconciliation. The motives for such reconciliation, whether they are of a purely selfish nature, for personal healing, for stability, for economic growth or whatever else seem of secondary importance. But conflict studies also show us other lessons learned from global conflicts and their aftermaths. We see, for instance, that reconciliation efforts are hampered seriously if a party feels that they are being humiliated in the process. Our considerations earlier on about the value and importance of face saving in conflicts, as one instance, should help us with better understanding these processes. 

We see from other conflicts that the search for the truth, however defined, can in itself become a new battleground. How is this issue impacting on our own reconciliation debate? Have we managed to successfully reframe the lenses and focal points through which the past conflict and future reconciliation is to be approached? And speaking of the truth, what progress have we made insofar as apologies, remorse and reparation are concerned? These are all essential conflict building blocks. Do we have what Steven Pinker calls the moralization gap, where victims tend to enlarge their suffering while perpetrators minimize their culpability? Personally I believe that we have generally made good progress with establishing the truth of what happened, even though we have a long way to go on what to do with that truth. Big questions remain, as we can see. 

We can continue to add new, relevant ones as we go along. For example, when, in what way, and by whom, should the past at some stage be relinquished, if at all? How important is our economy to all of this? How many of these complex conflict considerations would remain if we had low single digit unemployment figures, if we had a booming, stable economy? Without economic stability and sufficient growth, how should reconciliation efforts be adapted? As this essay shows so clearly, there are so many remaining questions. 

Maybe we are so bereft of answers because we have not been asking the right questions. For those of us, amongst whom I count myself, who keenly believe in the need for and eventual success of reconciliation, it feels as if we have wasted so much time, that we have so very little to show for the last three decades. In its own strange way, I believe that the way that we debate the question of reconciliation will in itself have consequences and an impact on any future negotiations. If this is correct, what damage is being done by efforts to secede parts of the country? Anstey clearly sees reconciliation as a form of preventive negotiation. As the current debate around reconciliation shows us vividly, reconciliation needs to adequately respond to a wide spectrum of involved parties, far wider than just those conventionally found around the negotiating table. 

Wrapped up in the question of reconciliation lies buried so many other emotions, concerns, aspirations. This serves to confirm the clear conflict resolution principles involved in the entire process. Conflict resolution, mediation, peacebuilding and other related disciplines have crucial contributions to bring to what lies ahead. Henry David Thoreau asked us whether we can think of a greater miracle than seeing the world through each other’s eyes, even if for an instant. Maybe that is all the reconciliation that we are capable of at this stage, maybe that is the best place to start. Maybe that miracle is all we need to get us going.  


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