A glimpse into the quest for social unity.

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  • A picture from 1998 of guerrilla fighters in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia(L) and Archibishop Desmond Tutu hands over TRC report to President Mandela (R).

    A picture from 1998 of guerrilla fighters in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia(L) and Archibishop Desmond Tutu hands over TRC report to President Mandela (R). | Photo: Reuters

Published 24 September 2016

A glimpse into the quest for social unity.

The road to reconciliation is often paved with grave difficulty. Colombia is a prime example when after more than 50 years of civil war; the nation is finally making its way into the embrace of peace.

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Conflict has plagued the country for more than half a century; the peak of La Violencia between 1948 and 1958, a period of intense violence between Liberal and Conservative parties, spilled over political institutions permeating society and manifesting the most in rural areas. The Revolutionary Armed Forces, FARC by its Spanish acronym, was formed in 1964 as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party to combat the paramilitary-deploying conservative government. The left-wing military group, in combination with the National Liberation Army (ELN), initially sought to fight for the representation and acknowledgement of the people against the privileging of the social elite. The root of their ideology stemmed from addressing social inequities, political exclusion, land reform and an unequal capitalist economic structure. Its detractors accuse the group of narco-trafficking to finance its procurement of arms.

Peace talks have long been underway in the Cuban capital, Havana, but nothing has been concrete until now. Although this crucial step towards peace between the two sides is supported not only by the United Nations but also Colombian citizens, there are some who remain skeptical of how justice can be served when people whom they perceive as criminals may receive leniency as opposed to them being judged accordingly for their actions. To place this same sckepticism in a different context, one can take a look at South Africa, or Azania by its historico-political name, concentrating on how the nation conducted its reconciliation process which started with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and how this affected the socio-economic developments in the country that have unfolded since then.

In 1995, one year after the historic national elections that led millions of South African citizens regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or religion to the polls to vote for the political party whom they felt would take the country forward, the newly elected parliament passed a law to hold a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the wounds of a traumatic apartheid regime. The idea behind the TRC was to advocate forgiveness and reconciliation through complete disclosure of truth of the crimes committed. The Commission had three main aims: to determine the causes and nature of human rights violations in the country from 1960 to 1994; identify victims and pay reparations; and allow amnesty for perpetrators having participated in politically motivated human rights violations. The TRC saw 22,000 victims and witnesses submit their statements, it granted amnesty to 849 but refused 5,392 people out of 7,112 applicants, and sought to provide long-term reparations for victims, as well as short-term relief payments. Sadly, many have yet to benefit from these long-term reparations as the structural violence brought about by the former regime such as residential segregation, racial classification and forced removals have yet to be thoroughly investigated.

The TRC was founded on the notion of creating peace among South Africans who were still healing from a painful history, however like in Colombia, many felt and still feel that the Commission served only to redeem criminals working for the apartheid regime as opposed to effectively transforming the nation in a manner that would not be to the perpetual detriment to those who had been oppressed for centuries. One of the accused, late Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife, Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, had given the following statement at the TRC held in Cape Town in 1997: “When the commission treats me like a leper and its chairperson hugs our former oppressors, then I worry about what type of reconciliation we are fostering”. Madikizela-Mandela’s words resonated with many South Africans who felt that reconciling with those who had forced them into physical, mental, cultural, linguistic, institutional and educational oppression would be betraying not only themselves but those who had fought so hard for the country’s liberation. The controversy of the TRC was that the people were encouraged to “forget” the past in an attempt to move forward; taking for granted that the profound effects of apartheid from institutional to personal levels were still prevalent.

The South African government had implemented numerous laws promoting national unity to cultivate harmony to breach the divides within the nation. Criticism of such a stance was that emphasising peace without adequately rectifying inequalities relating to access to quality education, land redistribution, decent housing, for example, meant that this reconciliation they sought could not be truly realised.

Today, the South African youth are continuing the fight for the freedom promised in 1994 that has since proven to be limited or conditional. From the movement that commenced at Pretoria Girls High School against the racist policies still enforced against black female pupils to the #FeesMustFall Movement at various universities, students all over the country are resisting the shadow of apartheid that strove to drive blackness into obscurity. It would be unrealistic to say that genuine reconciliation has been achieved in the South African society when the socio-economic hierarchy on a large scale is reminiscent of the former white supremacist regime; when the unemployment rate largely hovers over the people mostly affected by apartheid and the cost of education is higher than what a great portion of the population can afford.

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In addition, peace and reconciliation can only exist when the South African people reach the point where they have agency in the spaces they occupy, whether educational; public; private; political or personal, without being denied or dominated by unnatural financial or social hierarchical forces. When women are not at risk of being targets of harassment or assault, when queer women living in disadvantaged areas will no longer be subject to corrective rape, when the black family structure will no longer be severed but rather whole and preserved and when the land stolen from the black population will be restored to the rightful owners.

South Africa (Azania) has indeed come a long way since 1994 and to ignore its progress would be unjust. It is also important to regard the development of the country from an unromanticised or one-sided view that avoids giving the false impression that harmony reigns supreme among and within all groups, across all socio-economic spheres. The reconciliation that South Africa needs will be realised once all structures of the apartheid regime that ensure that social inequity persists have been dismantled and its people enjoy the liberation for which they fought.

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