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To quote the late Dr Alex Boraine, ‘Reconciliation, as a process for seeking an often-elusive peace, must be understood through the lens of transitional justice. It is better understood if victims believe that their grievances are being heard and addressed, that the silence is being broken. Reconciliation can begin when perpetrators are held accountable when the truth is sought openly and fearlessly, when institutional reform commences and when the need for reparation is acknowledged and acted upon.’

Transitional Justice itself involves the process in which countries that emerge from years of conflict take serious corrective actions to ensure the conflicts are not repeated.

It may be fair to say that the origins of South Africa’s social and political conflicts are to be found in the history of our economic relations. In the work of the Institute in one key sector of the economy, one observes that centuries later, there are still low levels of trust between employers and workers which often lead to high levels of tension and dialogue fatigue between government, workers as well as business. Apart from the trust deficit between key economic stakeholders, there is fragmentation within each stakeholder community. The relationship between and coordination of approaches to solving problems between different levels of government is challenging.

Over the past five years, IJR has contributed an approach of promoting dialogue as the most sustainable way of ensuring there is deeper trust between stakeholders while economic circumstances force them to work more effectively together. The key features of its approach include increasing the quality of dialogue by shifting it to reach the local or community level to ensure reconnection with the most marginalized. The approach also suggests shifting to ad hoc dialogue interventions, where it is needed the most and for a set period. There is also the deeply felt need to strengthen the voice of workers in solution-seeking dialogues, where business and government are naturally the more powerful actors.

Key lessons from the approach have included that although the issues that need to be addressed between stakeholders need solutions urgently, it is also very important to build trust between the stakeholders. Among the techniques used to build this trust is the strategy of training the stakeholders to develop a shared understanding of conflict and how to analyze and address it. This increases the possibility of a shared analysis and approach to each specific conflict issue that they address in the future, even if the individuals in the team that facilitates the process to resolve a conflict are very diverse, with very diverse perspectives.

What does this mean for reconciliation in South Africa in 2021?

With the economy broadly reported to be negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic for almost two years resulting in dire effects on its citizens. It is also commonly understood by now that citizens’ sense of well-being has a positive correlation to the desire for reconciliation. 2021 has also been a year in which our society’s economic, political, and racial fault-lines reminded all of the unfinished business of addressing our past. Cases in point include the aftermath of the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma and the reaction of many to the passing of former Apartheid president and Post-Apartheid Government of National Unity Deputy-President Mr FW de Klerk.

What the above shows us is that our reconciliation agenda remains a very challenging one. Useful lessons from our work suggest a need to address economic relations between citizens, to address the lack of access more speedily to material resources for the economically marginalized who constitute the majority of the victims of our inhumane past. This remains very challenging work but a failure to attend to it earnestly does indeed weaken our reconciliation agenda.

Reconciliation Day is crucial for us to celebrate our successes but also to take note of in our reconciliation process as well as earnestly attend to the fault-lines that are felt most by the economically marginalized. That way, as a nation, we would be able to develop more useful lessons for future generations.

Kenneth Lukuko, Senior Project leader for the Building an Inclusive Society Programme’s Community Healing Project