Reconciliation Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Yvonne Malan Research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center

There is a telling fable on reconciliation:

Once there were two boys, Tom and Bernard. One day Tom stole Bernard's bicycle and every day Bernard saw Tom cycling to school on it. After a year, Tom went up to Bernard, stretched out his hand and said, 'Let us reconcile and put the past behind us.' Bernard looked at Tom's hand. 'And what about the bicycle?'

'No,' said Tom, 'I'm not talking about the bicycle -- I'm talking about reconciliation.'

In January 2008 a video found its way onto YouTube showing four white students from the Reitz student residence at the University of the Free State (South Africa) protesting against racial integration. On the video five black workers, four women and a man, were seen on their knees, being humiliated by the students. One of those women, Laukaziemma Koko, who had worked at the Reitz residence for more than 20 years, said 'they treated us like dogs'. It was not the first time members of the Reitz residence had been involved in acts of racism, but this time the scandal spread far beyond the campus and even made international headlines. The images of the four students feeding the workers dog food and making them take part in drinking contests shocked the world and confronted it with a South Africa that had yet to embrace non-racialism.

The general reaction was outrage against racism that smacked of the heyday of apartheid. Some sectors of the Afrikaner community defended the actions of the "Reitz Four" -- as they became known -- as misguided student fun. Others tried to excuse them as being the products of a racist upbringing. Overwhelming though, their 'student fun' was condemned for what it was: racism of the worst kind. Encouragingly, most whites seemed to be ashamed of the students. The University -- which has a troubled history regarding integration - took firm action. Two of the students were banned from the campus (the other two had finished their studies) and charges were laid against all four, by the university and the state.

In October 2009, however, the new vice-chancellor of the University announced that the charges against the four students would be dropped and that they would be welcomed back to the campus, all in the name of reconciliation. What Lauaziemma Koko, David Molete, Noom Phoro, Mitta Mlseng and Rebecca Adams thought of this was not mentioned. They were not consulted.

The reaction to Jansen's decision has been mixed. The four's defenders and the usual supporters of the rhetoric of reconciliation have welcomed the decision. Yet, judging by the comments on newspaper websites, a number of South Africans are less than impressed and understandably so -- since the beneficiaries of reconciliation are, once again, white South Africans, while the black victims are quietly shoved to the background.

Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, reconciliation has come to stand for more than 'Mandela magic' and the 'Rainbow Nation.' During the TRC process it became a useful way to defend the controversial amnesty given to those who committed human rights violations. Amnesty, coated in the language of reconciliation, was hugely beneficial to perpetrators of human rights violations. There were fewer than 2000 actual applications (most perpetrators did not bother to apply) and the vast majority received amnesty, even though it is debatable that they made a full disclosure, as required by the amnesty law. There has been no concerted effort to prosecute perpetrators who either failed to obtain amnesty or who did not apply. Reparations to victims of human rights violations have largely failed, mostly, it seems, due to a lack of interest on the part of the national government.

Reconciliation was invoked by former president FW de Klerk when he tried to wash his hands of responsibility for apartheid crimes. It has become an escape clause for politicians of all persuasions when trying to dodge difficult questions or when asked to take responsibility. Since the end of the TRC process, victims have become increasingly outspoken against the lack of reparations and the failure to prosecute perpetrators who failed to receive amnesty. In December 2008, in a case that challenged the national government's guidelines for prosecuting of apartheid-era perpetrators, a high court judge found that 'national reconciliation' was no excuse not to prosecute perpetrators and hold them accountable. In April this year a judge granted an interdict against presidential pardons for political crimes, in large part because victims were not consulted.

And yet Jansen and his supporters prefer a morality play over justice and responsibility. The world loved the Rainbow Nation success story and chose, along with many South Africans, to ignore that reconciliation can easily be used to justify impunity. Jansen's description of the Reitz Four, that they too are his children and that he cannot disown them, echoes the mythology of the TRC that perpetrators were sinners who strayed and need to be forgiven (and granted amnesty), not as individuals who broke the law and need to be held accountable. Any serious discussion about rights and responsibility is quickly marginalised, with dangerous implications for any attempts to foster a respect for human rights and a respect for the rule of law. The state's case again the four students may still continue but it does not absolve Jansen and his institution from responsibility, including respecting the rights of victims. Jansen's gesture is not magnanimous, but merely perpetuating impunity in the name of reconciliation.