Year-end thoughts from Jan Hofmeyr: Acting executive director

By Published On: 17th December 2020

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation is committed to the building of fair, democratic and inclusive societies. Due to its roots in South Africa’s transition of the early 1990s, the organisation has over the past two decades concentrated its pursuit of this vision on post-conflict societies in the midst of transitional justice processes across Africa. In recent years it has increasingly been called upon to share this experience in similar contexts further abroad.

This pursuit is, therefore, not informed by narrow ideological attachment, but by first-hand evidence. Because we have been on the front-lines of complex peace processes, because we have explored the psychosocial consequences of skewed power relations, and because we have gathered qualitative and quantitative primary data to understand the dynamics of the societies that we work in, we know that transitions to peace only persist when people feel a sense of psychological, political, and economic agency to shape their future. It is when public institutions prove themselves to be impartial in matters that involve the adjudication of competing interests; when decisions represent the interests and inputs of all stakeholders; and when active steps are taken to reshape skewed patterns of access and distribution, that transitional arrangements set societies on the course to substantive peace and social cohesion.

We have committed to support and sustain the processes that are conceived in contexts that are often fraught with human fragility and asymmetric power relations. To do so fairness, democracy, and inclusivity need to be emphasised in equal measure. Because some transitions have over time revealed themselves to be more cosmetic than substantive, the IJR has been consistent in countering historically distorted or newly distorted economic power relations that dilute the potential political agency of the democratic vote. It has done so amid growing evidence of democracy’s legitimacy crisis in the rich North, where the material failures of democratic states have jeopardised the legitimacy of democratic processes. These events, along with the concurrent rise of authoritarian regimes, do not obviate the merit of democratic processes. Neither does they mean that the removal of political pluralism will create economic agency. It should compel us to recognise that the building of just and reconciled societies  relies on citizen agency in the broadest sense of the word.

Following what in many respects must have been one most disruptive years in living memory, this truth remains more relevant than ever before. COVID-19 has had a profoundly disempowering impact on the psychological, economic, and political resilience of societies around the world, but particularly so on poor nations of Africa that lack robust social security nets. If the notion of agency is central to the organisation’s pursuit of just and reconciled societies, then the pandemic presents profound challenges to the execution of this vision. Increased material vulnerability on a continent with a decidedly youthful population, along with the growing impact that climate change has had on population movements across national borders, make for more fragile societies. In the absence of citizen agency within a democratic governance framework, the confluence of these circumstances raises the spectre of heightened levels of radicalisation. Over the past decade this trend has been evident in the Sahel region, and recent events in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region, which coincided with a rapid decline in Southern Africa’s regional economic fortunes, suggest that the rest of the continent may not be exempt from this threat. This, in turn, could elicit an authoritarian response from governments that prioritise stability over liberty. Amid the emergence of new, sophisticated artificial intelligence technologies, some of which have been adopted unquestioningly for the purpose of contact tracing during the pandemic, the lines between democratic and authoritarian governance are becoming increasingly blurred.

While IJR’s vision therefore remains sound two decades into its existence, the notion of social distancing, which accompanied the response to COVID-19, has inevitably altered our assumptions about concepts like “society” and “community.”  Alongside their reinterpretation we have had to consider their implications of horizontal trust in institutions and vertical trust among citizens. It also compelled the organisation to incorporate such thinking into its planning in ways that systemically link economic well-being, psychosocial health, and the imperative to counter violent extremism. Amid the fluid nature of the pandemic, we will experiment with some of these ideas in 2021.

2020 has provided IJR and its civil society peers with a steep learning curve. We accept that, if anything, change and uncertainty will for the time being constitute the clichéd “new normal”. As we, therefore, approach 2021, we do so with greater humility, but also with greater resilience. The pandemic has disrupted the way in which IJR approaches its content, and in many instances we have had to return to the drawing board. But it has also fast-tracked the adoption of practices that have enhanced the efficiency with which the Institute will conduct its affairs in future. An evolving digital ecosystem has resulted in more agile administrative, planning, and budgeting process, and will in future also allow the Institute to scale up its activities in relation to the stakeholder groups it serves. This, combined, with a staff that remains as committed as ever to pursue a vision of fair, democratic and inclusive societies, albeit in a distinctly more challenging context, gives us hope for 2021.

Jan Hofmeyr is acting Executive Director of IJR

Image Source: Unsplash

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