A Review of Reconciliation: Restoring Justice by John W. De Gruchy

[1] John W. De Gruchy’s book Reconciliation: Restoring Justice is an appealing exploration of the process of truth and reconciliation in South Africa. In the history of truth commissions throughout the world, South Africa was the first to combine notions of truth and reconciliation. This combination, I believe, was due to the commission’s Chairman, the Reverend Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former archbishop of Capetown and South Africa’s long “tradition” of Christianity.

[2] Essentially, Mr. De Gruchy believes and argues “reconciliation is about the restoration of justice whether that has to do with our justification by God, the renewal of interpersonal relations or the transformation of society” (2002:2). Defining restorative justice as “a form of justice that has to do with healing relationships whether they be personal or political,” de Gruchy demonstrates how reconciliation is inseparably connected with the restoration of justice (Ibid). The author explores these notions from a Christian perspective, acknowledging awareness that Christianity is made up of many strands (Ibid). While Mr. De Gruchy states that he does not mean to imply that other religious traditions outside of the Abrahamic household are not significant, a book of this kind would require a different format (2002:3).

[3] De Gruchy demonstrates sensitivity to the need of exploring issues concerning justice and reconciliation and recognizes the multicultural character of virtually all societies today and the dynamics of multi-faith relationships (2002: 2-3). As an anthropologist, I appreciated his acknowledgement of the worldwide multicultural character of societies and his overall awareness and recognition of history and context. The author understands that reconciliation occurs “within a particular context and with regard to a particular set of interpersonal or social relations” (2002: 153). I also appreciated Mr. De Gruchy’s acknowledgment of issues concerning gender and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2002: 157). Unfortunately, at the time of writing, Fiona Ross’ book Bearing Witness: Women and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was not released. She focuses on women’s testimonies before the commission and examines the roles of women during the anti-apartheid struggle put forth before the commission.

[4] In reference to the quest for reconciliation in South Africa, while I agree there is a need for restorative justice versus justice that is retributive, I raise four objections with his use of the Christian Church “as an instrument in enabling and embodying reconciliation in the world” (Ibid). First I argue using the human rights cultural critique, which views human rights in the same domain as social ethics. The moral authority of human rights is conditional on the nature of acceptable ethics (Sen 1999: 228). The assumption is that these ethics are universal. Questions concerning ethics, justice and human rights all encompass and utilize a set of moral principles and values to delineate the differences between right and wrong, justice and injustice. These moral principles are often based on notions of universality. Human rights demands universality but some critics claim that there is no such concept as universal values. Universality is a western notion just as the “Christian tradition” is a construction from the West.

[5] Why do we have a tendency to only utilize western “instruments” such as Christianity when attempting to find solutions to questions regarding reconciliation and justice within a society? In the case of South Africa, a country with eleven (11) official languages and a multi-cultural society, why can’t we look to other “traditions” or customs within the society for their notions of healing and justice? What are the concepts of reconciliation and justice within Zulu society, in Xhosa society? How are these questions resolved?

[6] Second, as an anthropologist, I am aware of the history of Christianity in non-western nations, particularly in South Africa. Absolom Vilakazi, in his book Zulu Transformations published in 1962, credited Christianity and Christian education for the changes in social structure and the demise of indigenous culture in Zulu society in South Africa. These changes in the social structure, according to Vilakazi, demonstrated that Christianity was more than simply a new religion but was a partner in the construction of the new economic system of capitalism whose purpose was to destroy the indigenous “savage” beliefs and values. Thirty years later Jean and John Comaroff, writing Volume One Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa, trace the processes by which the London Missionary Society, one of the earliest partners of British colonialism, sought to change the consciousness, the signs and the practices of the Southern Tswana (1991:xi). Christianity was founded in an environment whereby the construction of inequality was vital for its success. With this in mind, I stress the danger of utilizing Christianity as the only means of promoting reconciliation and healing. Why should Christianity with its long legacy as a partner to colonialism, capitalism, inequality and apartheid in the South African context become a collaborator in the quest for reconciliation and healing within the society?

[7] Third, I disagree with John De Gruchy’s assessment of the purpose in the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. According to the author, the intention was to create a space in which victims, perpetrators and benefactors could come together in order to establish “the truth” and for the sake of personal and national healing. In reality, the situation in South Africa became more complicated, for many perpetrators expressed that they were carrying out the will of the apartheid government in its effort to fight communism and the “communist” supported organization, the African National Congress (ANC), the party that came into power as a result of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. They believed in what they were doing. I contend that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was in reality a nation-building “project” predicated upon the creation of a culture of human rights in order to foster the transition from the repressive regime of apartheid to a liberal democracy (Wilson 2000:76). Truth commissions usually arise in transitional regimes as they change from authoritarian to democratic systems. Non-state actors, such as religious leaders, played a pivotal role in this “project” in South Africa in the making of a peaceful transition. Religious leaders employed human rights language in post-apartheid South Africa to create a “culture of human rights” (Wilson 2000: 76).

[8] Finally, I question the reality of reconciliation in a society plagued by a ubiquitous long violent past. After reading two fictional novels by South African writers, namely Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda and Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and having had my own personal experiences in South Africa, I wonder how one can consider the possibility of reconciliation in a society with such a long legacy of violence and a society with extreme economic inequality based on the stratification of race. How can we begin a conversation about reconciliation when notions of revenge remain persistent?

[9] In discussions with some of my white South African friends, I have heard them express fear of firing their black maids for poor job performance. One friend admitted that she feared “thakati,” a Zulu word for “witchcraft” or an evil spell if she were to fire her domestic worker. Another friend expressed fear of harm for the same reason. These articulations persist in post-apartheid South Africa. They speak to questions that go beyond issues concerning guilt or attempts to “right” the “wrongs” that were committed.

[10] Before South African society can hope to experience true reconciliation and healing in order to transform society, it must first confront economic inequality and its violent legacy of the past and the present. Until then and only then can talk of reconciliation begin and be taken seriously. Otherwise, talk of healing and reconciliation remains a utopian ideal and a performance for the world and the international community.