Sustained Dialogues Transitional Justice: How We Contribute to Building Fair, Inclusive and Democratic Societies

By Published On: 2nd July 2021


Very often when speaking to people about the work that I do, I am met with blank stares and a rather bemused, confused look on the part of the person asking the question.  I have been asked if what I do is a full-time job (yes it is!), if I work for government (no I don’t), and what, if any impact the work makes.

What is transitional justice?

IJR works using a transitional justice lens, but what is transitional justice?

Transitional Justice arose out of the transitions to democracy from violent conflicts which occurred in the 20th century.  It was born out of a recognition that in order to establish just, stable, sustainable democracies that certain measures need to be in place for these things to occur.  The main tenants of transitional justice (TJ) are:

  • To acknowledge the wrongs and the hurts of the past: History has shown that were injustices are ignored and swept under the national carpet of collective memory, that communities cannot deal with the traumas that they suffered. As a result, patterns of trauma are exacerbated by unresolved injustice which can be transmitted inter-generationally.
  • Recognising the wrongs of the past is necessary but not sufficient to healing. Accountability is important.  This alludes not just to the wrong-doers but also to institutions themselves.  Repressive regimes are replete with examples of captured institutions which have systematically and systemically been involved in perpetrating human rights violations.  It is important that institutions of state are not only held to account, but that they are also transformed.  This is not only to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated, but that they also begin to act in a way that instills confidence in the populace so that they can re-instill confidence in the institutions themselves and become legitimate once more.
  • Groups that have been marginalised and oppressed need to be recognised and given the opportunity to take up their rightful place in society and to begin to advocate for their rights and their needs. This includes examining the roots of their marginalisation and taking steps to make institutions and systems more representative.

Some of the key pillars to transitional justice are:

  • Ensuring that there are criminal prosecutions of perpetrators and those responsible for making decisions;
  • Truth-seeking so that the full extent of the trauma and experiences of victims and survivors is known and acknowledged;
  • Reparations for both individuals and communities; and
  • Reform of state and other institutions of society that perpetuated and may continue to perpetuate oppression and human rights abuses through their structures, principles or practices.

While these are of vital importance, many of the solutions mentioned above focus on legal and structural changes that are in the realm of the political.  It can become a bureaucratic tick-box exercise.  Which is why it is important to ensure that the heart of TJ is not forgotten.

At the centre of TJ is a recognition that victims have suffered injustices and indignities.  Their human dignity and their human rights have been violated in traumatic and often brutalising ways.  The resulting physical, emotional and psychological damage makes victims, their families and their communities feel unsafe.  It is absolutely vital for healing that safe spaces are created.

Without the feeling of safety, trust cannot be built.  Without trust there can be no solidarity and no social cohesion.  Without social cohesion the democratic experiment is placed in a precarious position because instead of citizens feeling a sense of togetherness, they will always feel as if they are in conflict with one-another as well as the State.

Safety and trust are two of the hardest things to establish.  Given the levels of trauma that are experienced inter-generationally as well as the continuing trauma of violence, abuse and poverty, people have little reason to trust and certainly do not feel safe.

What does Sustained Dialogues do?

This is largely where the work of the Sustained Dialogues comes in.  We have a diverse team of talented staff who work in communities in 5 provinces in South Africa.  Most of the communities are in peri-urban or rural areas and have been chosen because these are often the communities that are not prioritised by government and urban-based NGOs.

At the source of what we do is the idea that every person matters.  Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a contribution to make.

The legacies of slavery, colonialism and apartheid run deep.

These pernicious systems were based on dehumanising and isolating people, breaking the bonds of family and community.  We move from the premise that safety and trust have to be created because in many instances they do not exist.  Our work is to build pockets of trust and circles of hope.  We allow people to regain the confidence to be themselves and to tell their stories.  In telling their stories they realise that they are not alone.  This sense of togetherness fosters relationships and solidarity with others which in turn allows them to take action and to speak for themselves.

But this is not a success only journey.  The prevailing social, political and economic forces in our country are often tearing people apart.  What we are doing is contrary to the strong forces of history and economic deprivation.  Trying to build relationships when people are starving and unemployed is hard.


We see, however, the glimmers of hope: youth finding confidence, woman advocating for their needs, men starting community clean-ups.  Each of these steps, small as they may seem, will one day overwhelm the world.

Felicity Harrison, Head of Sustained Dialogues Programme at the IJR

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