By Stan Henkeman

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there” – Rumi

Reconciliation in South Africa, both as a concept and experience, has become problematic in many respects.  Some people still hold it up as the most viable option for the country while others write it off as something that was doomed to fail since its inception.  I believe that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

How is it, that 23 years after the advent of democracy the divisions and fault lines seem starker and more pronounced? Why is it that South Africa, despite the heralded peaceful transition, is the most unequal country in the world?  Is it because of ‘too much’ reconciliation, or ‘too little’?  The answers to these questions are not straightforward. If we accept that reconciliation is the product at the end of a process rather than an event then it calls for an interrogation of the processes up till now.

There are two key elements that are critical for any process wanting to effect progress from one state of being to another.  In the case of South Africa, it is the progression from an exclusive to an inclusive society.  The first phase being the process of deconstruction, while the second is reconstruction.  Reconstruction cannot happen if we do not take the need for deconstruction seriously.

While it seemed that Nelson Mandela’s agenda for reconciliation resonated with most people in South Africa, it was doomed from the start and for a number of reasons.  For one, there was not enough pressure on the beneficiaries of the Apartheid era to consider and accept the disruptions and dismantling that needed to be invoked.  At no point was there a multi-stakeholder engagement about what needed to be disrupted or discontinued for the people who benefitted from the policies of the past.  At no point was there a meaningful national dialogue about reparations and restitution.  At no point was there any national discussion about the horrors of the past and how to correct it.  What did, however, happen was the political deconstruction of Apartheid without any interruption to the way people lived their lives.  We should, therefore, not be surprised that very little has changed in the material well-being of Black South Africans.  The truth is that South Africans had failed themselves and future generations by neglecting to meaningfully deconstruct the system that was identified by the United Nations as a “crime against humanity.”

In the absence of effective deconstruction, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to reconstruct a better future.  Apartheid needed to be deconstructed on a number of fronts.  The political deconstruction of Apartheid, while critically important, was not enough to undo the horrors of Colonialism and Apartheid.  The lack of economic and social deconstruction meant that reconciliation was doomed to fail in the long run.  The gloomy reality is that present-day inequality has become an accepted norm in South Africa.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) asserts that while the situation looks grave, there are opportunities that can be explored to avert a catastrophic outcome for South Africa.  The IJR operates in the space of possibility where reconciliation is still the envisaged outcome.  In order for the outcome to be achieved, South Africa needs to be much more intentional about the pursuit of justice. And not an intellectual type of justice that can be argued for or against but rather a type of justice that centralises the voices of the marginalised, to change how oppressed people see, feel, and experience and live.  A means to shift their realities from nonbeing to something filled with hope and opportunity.

For that to happen, we need to create a different space from the predictable ones we operate in.  We need a new paradigm founded on an open field; a space less crowded and free of the typical debates around what brought us to this state of impasse.

The IJR is ready to explore this open field of justice. And we hope to do so with the rest of South Africa. This open field might just help us get a little closer to the type of reconciliation that makes sense to all of us.


Stan Henkeman is the Executive Director at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation