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.
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
TRCs 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
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 dont 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. Lets hope these programmes
are a first step in this direction, or has Tutus 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.
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 http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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