Reconciliation as a Continuing and Differentiated ProcessSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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How do societies move forward after experiencing wide-scale atrocity and mass violence? When participants from a dozen countries and a variety of fields and professions met this August in Manila as part of the "Interrogating Reconciliation" conference to address this issue, many more questions were asked than answered. The diversity of views and experiences produced both insight and impasse in our collective effort to establish a core of concrete, shared beliefs about reconciliation. For me, the moments of impasse were by far the most educational.
Why was it so difficult for us to create consensus? On the most general level, the concept of reconciliation itself is often a significant obstacle to the very sense of agreement, unity and progress that it seeks to attain. In its abstraction, "reconciliation" can seem like either a utopian dream or empty rhetoric when it fails to confront the specific, shifting and complex needs of the parties involved, and the limited resources available for determining and meeting those needs. According to several participants, insincere "reconciliations of convenience" frustrate recovery efforts across the globe. When so-called perpetrators and beneficiaries invoke reconciliation in a self-serving and unengaged way as a means of effacing past abuses, destructive roles and mentalities are not easily confronted.
Embedded within the term "reconciliation" are clusters of meanings, values and assumptions that are ethically problematic and lacking universal appeal or relevance. For example, symbolic expressions of forgiveness and healing have been privileged as the work of reconciliation over punishment and reparations. Who bears the burden of reconciliation when it is equated with or signaled by forgiveness? It is those who have already suffered the most. As many have noted, the very structure of the word "reconciliation" encodes a false sense of the past because it assumes a previous period of "conciliation" that was often never in place to begin with.
Just as powerful as the embedded associations within the concept of reconciliation are the marked exclusions of particular sentiments. Although anger and cynicism are common responses to mass violence, they are typically seen as being outside of or opposed to the process of reconciliation. What are the consequences of this conceptualization when we consider that anger is sometimes the only thing a survivor has left? Among those victimized by violence, anger can have tremendous power to mobilize people for change. The possibilities for incorporating such emotions into a larger healing process have not been sufficiently explored.
Also missing from the idea of reconciliation as it was discussed in Manila are the sentiments of guilt and shame. In the contemporary South African context, discussion of a "shame tax" on the beneficiaries of apartheid seems to have reached an impasse, but other alternatives exist. In the United States we have several examples of businesses being pressured into acknowledging and addressing their roles in past violence, exploitation and oppression. Exxon launched a public environmental awareness campaign after the Valdez oil spill and funded a widescale environmental clean-up campaign. Other companies have been forced to make reparations after being publicly exposed and pressured for everything from supporting or benefiting from the Holocaust to discriminating against their employees, exploiting their workers, and marketing destructive products such as tobacco products unethically. How might the sentiments of anger, guilt and shame and their expression create spaces for productive action?
In South Africa in 1995, the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as part of the political compromise that resulted in a transition from an apartheid state to a democracy. The mandate invoked reconciliation as a project that was to unite the nation and reconstruct South African society as a means of transcending the divisions and conflict of the past. Although the Commission's work has almost drawn to a close, the struggle over how to understand the past and how to address its manifestations in the present continues. Playing a particularly important role in these processes, the TRC offered its dream for a solution in the concept of reconciliation premised on "truth." Initially portrayed as something of a panacea for apartheid's ills, celebrationist responses have now made way for a wave of more critical analyses.
Since the highly publicized hearings in South Africa, truth commissions have become the preferred mechanism for confronting systematic human rights abuses, and the TRC has emerged in many ways as a viable international model. But even within the local context in which it took place, the TRC's model of reconciliation through truth made several big assumptions about the link between truth and healing. The TRC held open hearings that were broadcast and disseminated through the media, positing and even marketing a belief in the curative properties of talk. As several participants in Manila observed, this particular value is more common in Western countries and is not always effective in places where reticence about suffering is more of the cultural norm.
The TRC, like much of the recent work on reconciliation, assumed that truth facilitates recovery. A focus on the idealistic benefits of a simple one-to-one correlation of healing through truth often failed to account for the renewed pain and suffering that truth commissions can cause for those who participate in them, however. In the wake of the noble experiment of the TRC, we may now begin to investigate some of the risks and negative consequences of knowing, to ask, "What does truth do?"
One of the most damaging realizations about the limits of the TRC surfaced in regard to dissatisfaction about much of the "truth-telling" in amnesty cases. Despite institutionalized attempts to ensure full disclosure, many of those who applied for amnesty in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation are believed to have lied or refrained from telling "the whole truth" in their testimonies. Further exacerbating this disappointment was the equation of truth-telling for victims with catharsis and healing. Clearly, despite the best intentions and hard work of Commission employees, the TRC could not always be a safe, supportive and protective environment for all of the survivors who testified. Other alternatives must be further investigated to address the needs of survivors who did not participate in the TRC, including those who are not interested in reconciling or speaking about their experiences in public.
If reconciliation does not always happen in a clear and defining moment, how can it be recognized? The discussions in Manila revealed the limitations of our concepts and language to encompass the complexity of reconciliation as a contradictory, inconsistent and shifting process marked by feelings of ambivalence, vacillation and the need for contextualization.
Embedded within the reconciliation discourse are foundational categories that do not always accommodate the complex experiences and circumstances of mass violence. For instance, reconciliation is often conceived of as a process involving two types of actors: "victims" and "perpetrators." This vocabulary was firmly entrenched in TRC practice and theory, and as a result, little attention was paid to more complicated degrees of complicity such as that found among "bystanders" or "beneficiaries." In South Africa in particular, the reified victim/perpetrator binary does not take into account the many shades of coercion, force, desperation and miscommunication that defined many peoples' experiences during the apartheid era. The complex, contradictory, and dynamic nature of these identity categories raises serious questions about the accessibility, relevance and capability of formal mechanisms such as truth commissions for people who have been affected by mass violence.
A close examination of young people's involvement in apartheid South African violence reveals many of the limitations of the operative terms and concepts utilized in the TRC and much of the work on reconciliation around the world. The experiences of violence of young people in particular have called into question the Commission's adherence to the distinctions between "perpetrator" and "victim" and political and apolitical crimes. With varying degrees of intentionality, many young people provided information or clues that ultimately led to the targeting of people they cared about by the South African military, police and members of opposing political groups. Children were deeply affected by not only the violence they experienced directly, but also the violence they felt responsible for inflicting on others. Another pressure on young activists was the danger that they put their family members in as a result of their political involvement. State agents frequently harassed and abused the family members of their specific targets. In addition, vigilantism forced many young people to flee their home areas, particularly in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal during the 1990s.
Typical places of safety and refuge for children such as schools, churches and most importantly, the home could not provide protection from agents of the apartheid state or other political parties. Under these circumstances, the lines between "right and wrong," "political and apolitical," and "perpetrator and victim" were not always clear-cut or self-determined. The displacement of many young people from family homes and communities strained and eroded kin and social networks, and contributed to children's involvement in violent activities. Particularly after 1987, vigilante groups of male elders resorted to violence and intimidation to maintain their social and political power and control. The term "intergenerational conflict" has been used to describe the tensions that at times resulted in violence within and across communities. What are the limits of victimhood and politics in the context described above? How useful is the concept of reconciliation when it is premised on reified categories that cannot always accommodate the complex circumstances of the past?
Those who seek and work for reconciliation do so with a variety of goals. For some, reconciliation simply means peaceful coexistence and an end to violence. Others insist that there must be a change in how formerly opposed groups and individuals regard their former enemies. For them, reconciliation is signaled by a shift in attitude and the absence or lessening of feelings of hostility. There are still others who demand socioeconomic change through redistribution of resources as part of the reconciliation process. Focusing on the symbolic and emotional relations among people, the TRC has thus far neglected the more concrete need for radical economic redistribution to address apartheid's legacy of injustice.
Rather than thinking in terms of reconciliation, perhaps we should pose a new question that can better merge the symbolic and the socioeconomic: How can we get the historically advantaged to own the problems of the historically disadvantaged? It is a question that we should be facing here in the United States as well, for the unequal distribution of resources is a global phenomenon. To consider the historical dimension of inequity is not to suggest that these advantages are located only in the past, however, for they have a tendency to continue long after authoritarian governments have been toppled. Thinking historically and in terms of advantages rather than the extremes of gross violations of human rights, for instance, leads to a more nuanced view of complicity and innocence than the problematic binary of "perpetrator" and "victim."
Rather than viewing the TRC in terms of its shortcomings and lamenting the lost opportunities to have achieved more, we must conceive of its work as part of a larger and ongoing process within the dynamic nature of social recovery. Although the human rights violations and amnesty hearings are over, the interaction between participants, observers and analysts continues. The failures and the disappointments of the TRC should be the inspiration for the next initiatives, laws, programs and non-governmental organizations. There are many examples of opportunities and attempts by NGOs, the government, the media, arts, education and most importantly survivors to devise viable strategies for maintaining an integrated approach that constitutes an ongoing engagement with the past rather than isolated moments of attempted restoration. New approaches are particularly necessary in considering the role of bystanders and beneficiaries in the violations of the past, and their responsibility for becoming involved in the process of reconciliation on both symbolic and socioeconomic levels.
Perhaps reaching consensus is an untenable goal for those concerned with reconciliation. In many cases the perceived need for agreement on how to define reconciliation and what it should consist of has stalled efforts toward that goal.
Reconciliation is a process, but it must be a highly differentiated process. Localized and context-specific attempts must reflect the particular needs and resources of specific communities. Instead of looking for "the best" form of reconciliation possible, we should look for as many forms of reconciliation as possible, with attention to both immediate and long-term possibilities, practical and idealistic goals.
Monica Patterson is a graduate student in the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History. She has conducted research in Zimbabwe and South Africa and is currently exploring how adults integrate their childhood experiences of violence into their understanding of themselves, their pasts and the transition to democracy in South Africa by focusing on the last decade of apartheid rule (1984-1994).