South Africa’s reconciliation process has become a model for countries recovering from violent conflicts across the globe. Often called South Africa’s miracle, the transition from a country divided by Apartheid to ‘the rainbow nation’ has been the most written and talked about in world history. As we move further away from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was held in the late 1990s, and near the end of the Mandela era, more and more criticisms and doubts about the process are emerging but the South African story remains influential in the realm of reconciliation.
Reconciliation in South Africa started well before the official end of Apartheid in 1994. Civil society and political organizations across the spectrum engaged in actions that brought about healing and dialogue across different races and ultimately change to the country.
On a national level, reconciliation began in the early 1990s with negotiations between political parties to envision the country beyond Apartheid. These negotiations led to the first democratic elections in April, 1994. Under the influence of the then president Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop of the Anglican church, Desmond Tutu, a reconciliation discourse emerged in the country that drew on the African concept of ubuntu and later also the Christian concept of forgiveness.
This discourse became a media campaign with slogans such as ‘unity in diversity’, images of children of different races playing together in television adverts and calls for people to reach out to one another in the spirit of ubuntu. The civil war many had feared during the transition didn’t happen and, skepticism and cynicism aside, the media campaign was sufficiently effective to facilitate a way for people from different races to interact with one another in public spaces. Major sport events at the time assisted in bringing about a euphoric atmosphere that contributed to a sense on national identity.
In the late 1990s, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, holding hearings in communities across the country. The TRC was influential in bringing to light the horrors that happened during Apartheid but, although publicised through national television, were criticised for not reaching the audience most needing to hear these stories, namely white South Africans. The TRC adopted a conditional amnesty process, offering amnesty to those who were prepared to tell the truth of what they did.
A major criticism of the reconciliation process in South Africa is that white South Africans were let off ‘too easily’ and were not made to take sufficient responsibility for what happened in the past. Economic inequality and structural injustices along racial lines remain a challenge and a hindrance to reconciliation. Another criticism is that the reconciliation process has been relatively superficial. The recent South African Reconciliation Barometers reveal that although South Africans interact in public spaces, there is still a resistance to more meaningful social interaction.
In terms of acting as a model for other countries recovering from violent conflict, many suggest caution as the context in South Africa is so unique that it would be difficult to replicate. Not only this, South Africa’s choice of amnesty has become an attractive option in situations where political elites who were involved in violent conflict don’t want to have to take responsibility for their actions. But this over-simplified adoption of South Africa’s amnesty process ignores its conditionality, and the stringent measures that were taken to ensure investigations were thorough and perpetrators held accountable, even if not through criminal prosecutions. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation has a report about the limitations of South Africa as a model for other countries here.
The South African experience did bring to the fore many issues that had not previously been interrogated such as what reconciliation on a national level really means and what the relationship between reconciliation and such things as truth (as the Zapiro cartoon alongside illustrates), justice, healing, democracy and development is.
What the South African experience perhaps illustrates most clearly is that reconciliation is always an unfinished project. Civil society organizations continue to facilitate interpersonal reconciliation through a multitude of forums. Growing out of the work of the TRC, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation is particularly noteworthy in this regard. Another project that attempts to continue the work of the TRC is the Apartheid Archive project which allows ordinary South African to tell their stories of the past.