Reconciliation an important step in South Africa’s future

Charles Villa-Vicencio is executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town. He was the former national research director for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and is the author of several books.

Mott: Describe your background and initial association with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Charles Villa-VicencioCharles Villa-Vicencio (CV): I was professor of religion and society at the University of Cape Town. I taught for 25 years and then went into the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as the national director of research. I came out of that three years later and went back to the university. But after the TRC, some of us sat around and said, “Where does this country go now? What kind of small contribution can some of us make? What do we do about taking the recommendations of the commission forward?”

So, this commission — the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) — was born, quite intentionally, in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I was appointed executive director.

The differentiation between the TRC and the IJR is that the TRC had a specific mandate. It was born as a result of an act of Parliament. It heard testimony from a range of people, provided amnesty, recommended reparations, etc. Our task was to sit down and say, “Now listen, this very important moment in our history of transition is now behind us. Where do we go now?” That question needed to be addressed in terms of two emphases — justice and reconciliation. So the very title of this institute — the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation — is an attempt on our part to capture that mandate … and that sense of purpose to which we have committed ourselves. “Where does this country go now? What kind of small contribution can some of us make? What do we do about taking the recommendations of the commission forward?”

Mott: You have said that there needs to be a balance between justice and reconciliation. What do you mean?

CV: Justice without reconciliation or reconciliation without justice does not equal nation building. If the ultimate goal of justice is to produce a society that is governed by the rule of law, then that affirms a package of human rights in order for people to live and co-exist peacefully. Reconciliation, on the other hand, we would argue, is the building of relationships between people — former enemies and protagonists. It’s building relationships as a means of achieving those justice goals. So justice and reconciliation are in inherently linked as we see it.

Mott: How have perceptions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission changed now that people can stand back and look at it in hindsight?

CV: It was very, very difficult for anybody to be neutral about the TRC. In hindsight, … I think more and more people realize that it was a necessary intervention. It gave us time and space within which to deal with some of the issues that had brought this country to the brink. I think that it is also a sense that if we do not deal with those issues, we could find them returning to haunt us in a dreadful way in years to come.

In five or 10 years, if people look back and say, “OK, I have a better quality of life than I had then,” they will say the transition worked. But to the extent that nothing has changed, I think people will begin to say, “Hey, that soft transition that we had in South Africa — through negotiations, through the TRC — those sorts of compromises and those sorts of negotiations do not work.”

Perceptions of the TRC are that it did a wonderful thing for South Africa, but now it is time for the people of South Africa to deal with those very issues that the TRC was unable able to deal with. Primary among these is poverty.

“Reconciliation should not be reduced to monetary payment … To really come to grips of the fundamental haunting problem of poverty, we’ve got to address education and skill training.”

Charles Villa-Vicencio

Mott: How would you describe the state of race relations in the country?

CV: Black people in the middle class are growing faster — and their wealth is growing faster — than any other section of the middle class. That’s good news. Race relations in that section is actually doing quite well. We are learning to live together. Our kids are going to school together. We play in sports together. We’re going to theaters together. We’re sitting in restaurants together. I think it is happening slowly, but we are learning to live together. The animosity that was there in the late 1980s and early 1990s is largely beginning to disappear. The real gap now is between classes more than races. “Reconciliation should not be reduced to a monetary payment …. To really come to grips with the fundamental haunting problem of poverty, we’ve got to address education and skills training.”

Mott: Is there a place for reparations in South Africa?

CV: Reconciliation should not be reduced to a monetary payment to those who were victims. To really come to grips with the fundamental haunting problem of poverty, we’ve got to address education and skills training. The present government is saying, “The best way we can serve our constituency, which is largely a poor constituency, is to create those skills that enable people, or that teach people, how they can take care of themselves with dignity. That is what we’re after.”

On the other hand, what does one do about people who will never acquire those skills before they die? What does one do about a person who has lost a spouse and two children in an attack? What does one do when a breadwinner has been shot by the police, or tortured to the point where he or she is unable to participate in life anymore? Is there not a need to have some sort of symbolic, compassionate gift paid to that person? That’s the balance that we’re looking for, and it’s a difficult one because it polarizes us the moment we start talking about reparations.

Mott: What is the impact of HIV/AIDS in South Africa and how does it affect the nation’s progress?

CV: This is a huge and a haunting issue. We’ve got the resources in this country to address it. All we’ve got to do is persuade whites and others, we’ll include some blacks today [because they are now in positions of economic power], to come to the table. We’ve got to say to them, “In terms of self-interest, buddy-boy, this is the new challenge.” We’ve got to say to business, “You guys keep talking about risk-analysis. Let’s talk about risk-analysis. Here is the biggest risk facing your wealth and your material growth in the future.”

Mott: Almost everyone points to the difference between the haves and have-nots. Are there still people who have not benefited in the new South Africa?

CV: This government has done an incredible job in rebooting the economy. This economy today is in a stronger position than it’s been in years. What has not happened — with the wealth coming into the country, with the growth in the economy — is that none of this is benefiting the poorest of the poor. And that is partly, not exclusively but partly, a heritage of apartheid. We do not have trained, educated and skilled people to fill the jobs that are vacant. So that’s the challenge facing us. How do we meet the economic challenge, recognizing that we’re not going to do it overnight?

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