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The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was underpinned by the philosophy of ubuntu. The principles inculcated within this philosophy both shaped and guided the way in which the TRC interpreted its mandate and carried out the proceedings. One of the benefits for the TRC of using the ubuntu philosophy is that it provided a framework for a restorative approach to justice (as opposed to a retributive one). However, despite the transformative results that restorative justice can have in ending cycles of violence and building positive peace, I contend that the use of the ubuntu philosophy carried with it some detrimental, albeit unintended, consequences for the reconciliation process in South Africa.

One particular consequence is its impact on reparations. The reason for this, I would argue, is due to the way in which the TRC interpreted the language of 'victim' as depicted in the ubuntu philosophy and applied it to the reconciliation process. In this article I will seek to analyse and evaluate the effect this use of language has had on society almost 15 years after the closing of the commission. Following this, I will suggest how this problem could be resolved and discuss the implications for the use of language in reconciliation work.


Understanding uBuntu

Essentially, ubuntu is a philosophy about what it means to be human. Understanding the interconnectedness of life and humanity, it recognises that one's humanity and well-being is dependent on the humanity and well-being of others. This view of life is derived from an innate understanding that spiritual, emotional and material things in life cannot be compartmentalised and are thus connected to each other. Through this sense of interconnectedness with the world ubuntu seeks to ensure and encourage the wholeness of the community and the individuals in it. In this way, ubuntu transcends categorisations such as race, religion or class which often form the fault lines of society. Rather, it views the 'other' as part of the same community, which from a reconciliation perspective would be seen as integral to the new nation that South Africa needed to build.

Furthermore, ubuntu historically acted as a corrective mechanism through which social cohesion, as characterised by peace and stability, could be maintained. Underlying it is the recognition that when parties are in conflict with each other trust is broken and victims are dehumanised. When this happens, the fabric that maintains social cohesion begins to fall apart. Moreover, due to the sense of interconnectedness with the other, ubuntu recognises that it is not only the victims who are dehumanised but the perpetrators as well. So, by assisting conflicting parties to be reconciled, the humanity of the victim as well as the perpetrator can be restored. In this way, trust can be restored and social harmony maintained.


Analysing the TRC

Having briefly explained what is meant by ubuntu I will now look at its implications for the truth and reconciliation process. In doing so, I will focus specifically on the relationship between the use and understanding of the term 'victim' and its impact on reparations.

For peace to be restored and for there to be reconciliation between the peoples of South Africa, the interim government and the TRC commissioners recognised it was necessary for victims and perpetrators to have their humanity restored and to see each other as humans in relationship. To this end it was recognised that a new identity that transcended perpetrator-victim/them-and-us identities needed to be constructed. The ubuntu philosophy seemed to provide an excellent framework through which to achieve this.

As outlined above, ubuntu recognises that in conflict it is not just the victim who loses their humanity but the perpetrator as well. From this, it could be interpreted that in effect everybody becomes a victim in that both parties have lost their humanity (not just the victims). So, to achieve a new identity that would allow former enemies to see each other as humans in one community, the TRC applied the principles of ubuntu and created a common 'victim' identity through which the victims and perpetrators could be united.

However, despite the sincerity and arguably logical reasoning of this approach, identifying everyone as 'victim' has been strongly criticised. In terms of reparations, more widely understood is that it is the responsibility of the perpetrators to repay and do justice for their wrong-doing and for victims to act as the recipients of the reparative act. So, unless one understands and lives by the ubuntu principles, by labelling everybody a 'victim' one can argue that the commission effectively absolved perpetrators of their responsibility to redress the injustices of the past.

In fact, such an interpretation is a gross misunderstanding of ubuntu principles. Nonetheless, one can also argue that it distanced the responsibility for the past not just from the perpetrators, but from all those who benefitted from the system. [This distinction between perpetrators and beneficiaries is significant because although not all whites committed gross human rights violations certainly all those classified as 'white' benefitted from the system — such was the Apartheid machine.] This use of the term 'victim' has been detrimental. Effectively it permitted perpetrators and beneficiaries alike to abscond from engaging in the reparative process by using the 'victim' label as a screen for the crimes they had committed. In turn, this served to significantly discredit the work of the TRC. The sentiment that this produced at the time is well captured by South African political satirist, Zapiro, in the illustration below.

(Cartoon produced by Zaprio illustrating the impact of the 'victim' identity on reparations)

The result has been an impediment to the reconciliation of South Africans. For example, almost fifteen years since the closing of the commission the issue of land and land redistribution is nowhere near being resolved. If perpetrators had not been absolved of responsibility in this process, and if they understood the principles of ubuntu and its added-value nature, one could argue that there would have been stronger support for the land redistribution programme.

In South Africa today, the land issue contributes significantly to the high levels of crime and violence. These high levels are aggravated by the lack of wealth redistribution. Despite the emergence of a black elite, the majority of the country's' wealth has remained within the white minority. Indeed, recent strike action amongst mine workers emphasises the need for an economic transformation to take place in the country. Again, it could be argued that policies supporting wealth redistribution could have been more effective had perpetrators and beneficiaries been implicated and held responsible for their actions and their part in the conflict.

Moreover, the result of creating the common 'victim' identity has served to cheapen the value of reconciliation and further entrench distrust and disharmony in the nation. Today in South Africa, the mere mention of the word 'reconciliation' engenders much contention. On the one side are those who are fed up hearing it as their experience tells them it is an empty word; and on the other side are those who think that reconciliation is a witch-hunt against them. Thus significant questions are raised relating to the use of the term.


Towards resolution: lessons for language use in reconciliation

The above analysis of how the TRC used and applied the term 'victim' points to the importance of not only how language is used in conflict but also of how it is used in reconciliation. From this case study we can see how it contributed to the breakdown of the reconciliation process, whose impact is still felt today. Consequently, the question of how such an issue could be resolved is imperative.

First and foremost it must be recognised that reconciliation requires some kind of 'humanising' encounter in which the other is seen as an equal. However, the problem of using the language of 'victim' to achieve this is that it attaches innocence to the person (regardless of whether they have committed a crime or not) and implies that one is not responsible for one's actions and the world in which one lives. So, although the South African TRC is often held up as a model of reconciliation for other countries transitioning from war to peace, the first lesson to be learned is that it is important to employ terms with which people are familiar and in a manner which fits their common understanding. ubuntu was a foreign philosophy to a significant portion of the population and as such the term 'victim' could not be interpreted through the ubuntu lens to produce the intended result.

Secondly, understanding the intended purpose of the language 'everyone's a victim' was an attempt by the Commission to promote national unity, it might have been more beneficial if the language 'everyone's a South African' had been employed. By using the term 'South African', whilst serving the function as that of the term 'victim', could have avoided some its detrimental consequences. Today, the question of who is a 'real' South African is strongly contested and serves to entrench the lines of division. To this end, whilst understanding that all South Africans were victims of their social context, maintaining the distinction between victims and perpetrators, and including a 3rd category — that of beneficiary- is a second lesson to be learnt as we seek to develop the language of reconciliation.

Lastly, as we have seen from this case study, not only did the language of 'everyone's a victim' impede the reconciliation process through the abdication of responsibility but it also served to devalue and create confusion around the term 'reconciliation'. This in itself is a tragedy as it closes people's minds to the prospect of building harmonious relations and living in a peaceful society. Thus, in the context of South Africa a new phrase or term needs to be coined in place of the term reconciliation — one that does not conjure up such controversy before a discussion has even begun. However, such a term may not be so easy to find.

Ultimately, the lesson to be learnt is that language in reconciliation matters. It matters in that, if not chosen wisely and strategically, the terms we use can in fact entrench the divisions of the past that the reconciliation process is intended to bridge and, in doing so, steer a country away from a future of peace and stability.


Further Reading

Krog, Antjie. 2008. '"...If It Means He Gets His Humanity Back...': The Worldview Underpinning the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission." Journal of Multicultural Discourses 3 (3), 204-220.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 2000. "The Truth According to the TRC." In The Politics of Memory: Truth, Healing and Social Justice, ed. by Ifi Amadiume and Abdullahi An-Na'im, 177-190. London/New York: Zed Books.

Tutu, Desmond M. 1999 No Future without Forgiveness. London: Rider.

Valji, Nahla. 2004 "Race and Reconciliation in a Post-TRC South Africa." Paper presented at Ten Years of Democracy in Southern Africa, organised by the Southern African Research Centre, Queens University, Canada, May 2004. Available online.


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