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Exporting reconciliation or reality TV

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 17 March 2006

For South Africans, tuning into the BBC recently was like turning on a time machine as viewers across the UK were exposed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu facilitating dialogue between victims and those that harmed them. This time, however, the focus was on the Northern Ireland conflict, and not South Africa, and it made for riveting television as victims came face to face with those that had killed. The series, entitled Facing the Truth, has received mixed reactions. The meetings were a bold move and they may have been helpful for individual victims. They provide some hope for the future. But we have to ask what other messages the programmes convey.

The programmes are not a truth commission but a dialogue, although the central idea leans heavily on the South African experience. It draws on the idea of publicly airing grievances as a way of addressing the past as championed by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). There are differences, however. The South African TRC’s primary focus was on outlining the causes, nature and extent of the conflict. It was not about victims meeting perpetrators, although this happened on occasion. Such meetings and the TRC were part of a more extensive political process. This has left me wondering: Is Northern Ireland trying to walk before it can crawl, or are high-profile encounters needed to move the process forward? Currently, the peace process in Northern Ireland is stalled. Given this context, the programmes might get people talking and re-engaged with resolving the conflict. The courage shown by participants in the programme can demonstrate what is possible, despite the dense fog of political dilly-dallying.

However, focusing on the victims can also inadvertently suggest that it is the responsibility of victims to reconcile, rather than wider society, as the first step to change, thus burdening victims with another liability. Some victims could feel pressured to forgive or perpetrators feel coerced into expressing remorse they don’t really feel. Airing the programmes in a political vacuum has other problems. The programmes’ focus is the stories of those directly affected or acting in the conflict. There is no context provided or debate about the causes of the conflict. Emotive television of this type also invariably draws one to the plight of the victims. This is important, but conflict resolution is not only about feeling the hurt of victims and sympathising with them. It demands that everyone across society recognise their own capacity for wrongdoing at the same time. Some in South Africa and Northern Ireland still feel self-righteous because they never acted violently. But political conflict is caused not merely by gunmen, but by political contexts that foster this behaviour. This does not exonerate indivi-dual responsibility or mean that all are equally responsible, but it demands that we ask how we supported the situation including tacit acceptance of violence, turning a blind eye to the pain of the other or through continuing to vote along ethnic, religious or racial lines. No one is uninvolved or neutral in protracted political conflict. Resolving conflict requires a public debate on levels of complicity and guilt, not only recognition of the hurt caused or confessions from direct actors. In South Africa we are still grappling with this.The media can foster this complicated debate, but this demands something more subtle than eerie music and darkly lit forums where victims and perpetrators meet. Let’s hope these programmes are a first step in this direction, or has Tutu’s noble desire to bring out the humanity of even hardened perpetrators intersected with TV producers’ ideas for lurid television leaving the international audience with a one-dimensional view of South Africa. The limited reconciliation achieved in South Africa was not a miracle nor was it only the cumulative product of important individual gestures. It was mainly the result of hard work and political compromise – a less attractive but important lesson worth exporting.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see

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