Ten years of working for justice and reconciliation

Archbishop Emeritus DESMOND TUTU reflects on the continuing need for justice and reconciliation in post-conflict societies, and the impact of a decade of work by the IJR.

It seems like yesterday that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) handed its recommendations to the South African government, and closed its doors. One can scarcely believe that the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), founded one year after the TRC’s conclusion, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

This organisation, amongst others, has helped to ensure that reconciliation remains part of both national and continental dialogue since the TRC. Today the IJR works with scores of partners throughout Africa, and has gained international recognition in doing so.

In 2008, the Institute was awarded Unesco’s Prize for Peace Education – a prestigious international award previously given to the likes of Paulo Freire and Mother Teresa. We never envisaged that such impact could be attained so early on.

Collaboration between African countries on the issues of justice and reconciliation has become increasingly important over the past decade, with a view to creating a community that supports the building of fair, democratic and inclusive societies. It is heartening to see the extent to which such collaboration continues to grow, not only through regional organisations such as the African Union and the SADC, but also between like-minded civil society organisations.

As Africans we need to keep talking about reconciliation, not to cover up the sins of the past but to bring together divided nations and foster dialogue. Many African countries seek to foster this type of dialogue – the kind that enabled South Africans to negotiate a constitution and conduct a TRC, faults notwithstanding – as a basis for moving ahead.

South Africans too need to keep talking about reconciliation so that our journey towards a rainbow nation can continue. Much remains to be done, both in terms of implementing the recommendations of the TRC and more broadly in building an inclusive, tolerant and peaceful country.

I am saddened that after 12 years we await an appropriate conclusion to the TRC process. Government’s lacklustre response to many aspects of the Commission’s recommendations remains a source of deep disappointment. Beneficiaries of apartheid have also failed to adequately acknowledge the generosity of their victims’ forgiveness.

On both counts it is the victims, those brave men and women who came forward to tell their stories, who have lost out. What would it take for the justice department to genuinely consult with citizens on how to handle the backlog of apartheid-era criminal cases, or unlock the as-yet untouched billion rand President’s Fund earmarked for reparations?

The state needs to come up with solutions to TRC cases in which perpetrators chose not to participate, or failed to receive amnesty. We cannot simply let this go: it demeans the amnesty granted to those perpetrators who did participate. However, we must also avoid becoming mired in apartheid court cases for decades to come. We need clear, workable and morally sound strategies, in line with TRC principles, to clear the backlog of cases and pay outstanding reparations.

For this reason, it was entirely right that a coalition of likeminded NGOs, including the IJR and Khulumani amongst others, recently opposed the Special Dispensation for Presidential Pardons – and won. Though it is unfortunate that a court case was required to bring government to the table, I am proud that our Constitutional Court found in their favour and heartened by evidence of more concrete collaboration between civil society and government on this crucial issue. I sincerely hope that government will now take civil society into its confidence in producing and implementing these strategies.

More broadly, South Africans need to work more concertedly towards unity. Perhaps we have begun to take reconciliation for granted. Yet, major socio-economic and racial fault lines persist as the IJR’s Reconciliation Barometer and Transformation Audits continue to show each year. Nobody believed that the rainbow nation would be built overnight. Yet cynics are keen to point to our lack of progress as proof that, yet again, an African nation will fail.

I continue to believe that South Africa will succeed, but we cannot afford to ignore the challenges before us. Addressing inequality, HIV/Aids, violent crime, corruption and quality education for all, are amongst the most pressing needs. We also need to become far more respectful of ourselves, of one another and of the environment. We need leaders with vision and moral integrity to show the way, not only by what they say but by how they deliver.

Perhaps the biggest source of disillusionment in South Africa today is the quality of life on our streets. We need to ask what happened to our ideals at the onset of democracy. In many ways, our society is more violent, greedier and more divided than ever before. This is not to deny the many gains, but the last few years have not been good ones.

Last year the IJR worked with leaders from more than eighty marginalised communities, across several countries, to strengthen cohesion, self-reliance and organisation in the way that developmental challenges are tackled. This arduous, bottom-up reconciliation work is so necessary if we are to realise our bigger dreams. While few are prepared to do this, there are no shortcuts on the road to reconciliation.

Despite many setbacks, we must not forget that we continue to defy the odds. Our country is on a firm trajectory towards future success, and has gained the respect of many on the continent and in the international community. A wonderful example of this is our hosting of the first soccer World Cup on African soil. We must not lose our way now. The World Cup is an opportunity to emphasise that reconciliation means far more than building a South African nation: it is a project we share with all our African brothers and sisters and indeed with all of humanity.

The struggle for justice and reconciliation must continue, and the Institute has proved its value in this regard over the past decade. I have no doubt that it will continue to do so during the next decade. I believed at the conclusion of the TRC that an organisation like the IJR was needed. Today, it is clear that this belief has been well-founded. It is good to know that there are organisations who continue to work steadily towards justice and reconciliation – in good times and bad.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the Patron of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. A version of this article appeared in the Cape Times.

Image © Clara Tilve

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