4 min read
16 Dec

… 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     

In earlier discussions we looked at some of the 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 reconciled.  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. 

But what would such reconciliation look like, is it necessary, is it even moral to advocate for such a process? Before we then, in a future article, look at the content of what reconciliation for South Africans may look like, we need to assess whether we should be comfortable with the goal, the hope of reconciliation in the first place. 

Reconciliation as a concept often has a very good reception in the popular mind. Years of conflict, suffering and hardship can be resolved, nearly redeemed by way of national reconciliation. Or so the story goes. 

Work done by people like Prof. Rudolf Schussler and others have however shown how morally problematic reconciliation hopes and dreams can be in practice. Let us look at a few of these areas that will require honest reflection and consideration of the morality involved in any such reconciliation process. Does reconciliation require forgiveness? FW de Klerk, as an example. often regarded forgiveness as a precondition for reconciliation. For some, the intense emotions that led up to the need for reconciliation seem to require forgiveness. Forgiveness, in this context, need not be seen as a theological concept, as politicians and academics also use it fruitfully. Is forgiveness really a virtue? The difficult line between the real or perceived coldness and callousness of the unforgiving heart and the real or perceived weakness of the all-forgiving heart is easily understood and dealt with extensively in philosophy and religious materials. For our purposes here we need not determine whether forgiveness is indeed a virtue, and we can simply deal with it as being beneficial or harmful to reconciliation. 

These questions have in recent times led to the revival of the so-called “appropriate resentment” concept in reconciliation debates. While there is, in my personal view, much to be said for the benefits of forgiveness for the forgiver herself, we find in all case studies and post-conflict societies individuals and groups who refuse to forgive, and who resent efforts at persuading them to do so. 

These case studies show that, from a rights based perspective, these people are quite within their rights to refuse such forgiveness, and from a virtue ethics perspective the unforgiving is no less virtuous than the forgiving. So forgiveness in a secular reconciliation process can never be a demand or precondition, it has to be, at best, a gift freely given or withheld. 

What are the moral implications of reconciliation when it focuses on the requirement of rebuilding trust during such a process? Here again case studies show that distrust cannot be exchanged for the real or perceived benefits of reconciliation. Here we however have some evidence for the robust solution that trust is not really necessary for economic and welfare gains during reconciliation processes. Distrust on the side of political victims may even prove to be an asset in such reconciliation, especially in commercial terms. 

How moral is it to require of victims to feel and live a common bond of citizenship, in our case of extending that feeling towards all South Africans? Here examples of governmental or societal pressure or programs of such enforced “oneness” have very little positive results to show for itself. This oneness, this “usness” can really only be developed over time, at the pace of the most reluctant in a society. 

The moral dilemmas inherent (if not always immediately visible) in reconciliation include the difficulties experienced with the dynamics between seeking retribution from the actual perpetrators against holding a specific group liable, which leads to so-called public rituals of remorse, so-called free-riding of funds and benefits by bystanders and efforts by some to use the reconciliation process as a shield to evade accountability and / or to entrench and protect their privilege and unfairly gotten gains. 

These moral considerations clearly show some of the moral intricacies involved in reconciliation processes such as we would consider implementing here in South Africa, at least as far as the perpetrator – victim axis is concerned. We see from these examples how moral compromises may often be necessary or desirable in order to make sense of such reconciliation efforts. 

To what extent should we be required to make such moral compromises? Modern conflict resolution, negotiation and strategy research all point to the often harmful effects of compromises when we believe that we are giving away something that we would have preferred to hang on to, how such compromises cause lingering resentment and ultimately lead the parties to a place where they cannot transcend their conflicts. 

At this juncture we again see the crucial importance of a structured, all-inclusive process of reconciliation negotiations being established in South Africa. People can, and do, compromise on their moral beliefs if they are included in a process that is seen as one of integrity and where workable, beneficial trade-offs are shown to be realities. But that is a fragile process, and it needs to be dealt with using great skill and timing. Here our social and political trust deficits will make a difficult process even harder. Research shows how, using such a guided reconciliation process, these morals concerns are not so much given up or lost, as bracketed and seen in a framework that is acceptable to the participants, and where ethically acceptable creative solutions and alternatives are arrived at through a joint problem solving process. In this way justice related claims can be carefully managed, and perceptions of contempt and disrespect can be avoided or minimized. 

Perpetrator-victim reconciliation can therefore be negotiated, and in a morally acceptable manner and with morally acceptable results. There are however other reconciliation models that we can briefly look at with some benefit. One of these models base reconciliation efforts at healing on a social, community and even personal level, with the philosophy being that from personal reconciliation will follow societal and even economic reconciliation and repair. A very different model has the more modest point of departure that simply seeks a modus vivendi achieved between the parties. With this latter model reconciliation aims at the minimum in order to live together in a functional manner where everyone can thrive, and of course such a model would require even less moral compromises. 

Can reconciliation in our national context be achieved in morally acceptable terms? The above framework makes that possible, if sufficient knowledge, care and respect is brought to the negotiating table. The price for reconciliation, if wisely managed, can be an acceptable one.

(References, footnotes and citation authorities available on request)

Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za or via Twitter at @vlok_andre 

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