A Theory of National Reconciliation: Some Insights from Africa

Chapter 9
A Theory of National Reconciliation: Some Insights from Africa

Thaddeus Metz

Unifying Judgments about Reconciliation

In this chapter, I consider how best to construe the essential nature of an attractive sort of national reconciliation. Supposing that national, or political, reconciliation is something to be sought consequent to a period of intense social conflict, what are its necessary and sufficient conditions, or at least its salient recurrent properties, and how do they account for a variety of widely and firmly held views about the subject? An answer to this question is a theory of national reconciliation, something I aim to articulate and defend here.

In advancing a theory of national reconciliation, I focus strictly on that concept, considering related ideals such as restorative justice and transitional justice merely in passing. In addition, I am not out to capture just anything that might be fairly called “national reconciliation,” but rather a desirable instance of it, one that particularly merits pursuit. Still more, I am interested in what a good form of national reconciliation is, not what is likely to bring it about or how it can be done so permissibly; my question is strictly about what constitutes national reconciliation, though I will address other issues when necessary to answer it.

In seeking a theory of national reconciliation, I do not spend much time reflecting on imprecise definitions of it that one commonly finds in the literature. For instance, I pass over, or rather intend to surpass, not only vague, first-pass definitions, such as that national reconciliation is a matter of “rebuilding damaged relationships,” “establishing improved relationships,” or “achieving stable peace,” but also metaphorical characterizations about coming to “share the same symbolic and political space” (Moosa 2000: 119), to “build bridges” (de Gruchy 2002: 184), or to “renew damaged social capital” (Huyse 2008b: 188; Quinn 2009: 183). In addition, taking a theoretical approach to the topic means considering neither one or two examples of it in detail, which already pepper the literature, nor one or two piecemeal facets of it, say, insofar as it bears on forgiveness (Helmick and Petersen 2001), apology (Barkan and Karn 2006), or acknowledgment (Govier 2009b).

In contrast, my aim in this chapter is to be clear and comprehensive; I propose a basic principle capturing the “underlying structure” of an attractive sort of national reconciliation that entails and plausibly explains a wide array of disparate judgments about the subject. Such a theory would provide specific and systematic guidance about the myriad things that states, institutions and individuals should aim for when seeking to promote national reconciliation, and it would, one hopes, provide strong evidence that the category of reconciliation is a useful one for normative and descriptive analyses, and is not merely “little more than a buzzword, an amenable but loose framework for different contents, depending on the user … ” (Hermann 2004: 41).

There are extant theories of national reconciliation in the literature, most of are which informed by Kantian, liberal-democratic and similar perspectives (e.g., Gutman and Thompson 2000; Crocker 2002; Moellendorf 2007).1 In contrast to those accounts, I spell out one grounded on a comparatively underexplored sub-Saharan ethic. As I and others have been working to show recently (Bujo 2001; Ikuenobe 2006; Metz and Gaie 2010), there are communal approaches to morality prominent in sub-Saharan worldviews that should be taken no less seriously than Kantianism, utilitarianism, contractualism and the like. My foremost aim here is to demonstrate how African ideals about community, still largely unfamiliar to an international audience, do a promising job of providing a unified foundation for the roles of truth-telling, apology, forgiveness, compensation, amnesty, and related practices often associated with national reconciliation. A systematic comparison and defence of the Afro-communitarian principle with competitors must wait for another occasion.

I begin by spelling out what nearly all those who have reflected on national reconciliation would agree is inherent to it, my aim being to articulate an uncontested core that clarifies the subject of enquiry and debate as something distinct from, say, national unity. Next, I articulate a conception of community that lies at the heart of much African thought about morality and, in the following section, present an account of national reconciliation that is grounded on an Afro-communitarian moral ideal. I then apply the principle to several facets of national reconciliation, demonstrating its explanatory breadth and depth, often in the context of South Africa to illustrate. I conclude by suggesting that it would be worth critically comparing the theory of national reconciliation that I advance with rival theories in future work.

National Reconciliation: Some Uncontroversial Elements

My overarching aim in this chapter is to provide a theory of national reconciliation, and, so, to provide clarity about the subject of this theory, I start by differentiating it from related topics and point out some definitional facets of it that virtually all theorists would accept. I here bring out what competing theories of national reconciliation are about. Although I do not intend to be presenting anything particularly controversial in this section, it should be revealing to see what the uncontested facets of the concept include.

First off, national reconciliation, of the sort I theorize about in this chapter, is a kind of relationship between people. One group is thought to reconcile with another group, which differs from a kind of reconciliation that I do not address, one in which a group comes to terms with its past and seeks to “get on with life” (much of the focus in Dwyer 1999; Villa-Vincencio 2000; Hughes 2001; cf. Murphy 2013: 4451–3). The latter sort of reconciliation often does require relating to other people in a particular way in order to eventually “move forward.” However, it need not; imagine the culprits have all died, leaving the victims on their own to adjust and to accept. The key point is that being reconciled to the fact of one’s having been mistreated or harmed differs from being reconciled with other people who mistreated or harmed one, where I am interested strictly in the latter, essentially relational condition.

In addition, national reconciliation is an interpersonal relationship that, by definition, follows a period of serious societal conflict, characteristically one in which was there was grave injustice between at least two groups. This is one major respect in which the concept of national reconciliation differs from ones such as national cohesion (contra Quinn 2009: 183). Seeking the latter condition does not imply a prior condition of civil war, large-scale oppression, moral atrocity or the like.

Although the “re” in the word “reconciliation” might be thought to imply that there must have been an absence of conflict at some point in the past (Krog 1998: 109), few mean something so literal by the term. Instead, nearly all academics, activists and policy makers would agree, upon reflection, that it is conceivable for something they call “reconciliation” to emerge from groups that have always been deeply antagonistic toward each other (as per Dwyer 1999: 83; de Gruchy 2002: 14–15; Hamber and Kelly 2009: 294). Hence, “reunification” is also not an exact synonym of “reconciliation” (contra Hughes 2001: 130; Alie 2008: 133).

Another fairly uncontroversial element of national reconciliation is that it is not a socio-political ideal, in the sense of an unsurpassable condition, let alone the “Holy Grail” (as per Gerwel 2000). Achieving a state of national reconciliation hardly implies utopia, or even a somewhat lower standard such as, say, the absence of injustice. Instead, nearly all agree that reconciliation is a way station or a stepping stone toward an even more desirable condition for a nation.

Now, just because national reconciliation is not an ultimate end-state for a society does not mean that it is necessarily to be valued merely as a means. Some do emphasize the instrumental nature of reconciliation as a path toward a better socio-political condition, while others suggest that it is also something good for its own sake. Although I think that the sort of national reconciliation most worth pursuing is one the value of which is not merely instrumental, I doubt that this is part of the mere concept of national reconciliation or true by definition. For instance, I balk at the suggestion that reconciliation is analytically a matter of justice, whether distributive, transitional, restorative or something else. A desirable sort of reconciliation might well be a form of justice (à la de Gruchy 2002; Philpott 2009), but, if so, it is not the case by definition. It is an open question whether reconciliation is just (see, e.g., Dwyer 1999), and, indeed, some radicals in South Africa are currently calling for doing away with reconciliation as a hindrance to the realization of distributive justice (not the usual suspect of retributive justice).2 Hence, I simply point out that national reconciliation is by definition neither of merely instrumental worth, nor of inherently final value. It may or may not merit pursuit in itself to some degree, and, if it does, it may or may not be a matter of justice.

For yet another relatively uncontested idea, most would readily say that national reconciliation is the sort of thing reasonably expected to be promoted to some degree by a TRC (or some similarly named body) doing things such as making informed judgments of political wrongdoings, hearing out victims, assisting them with compensation for their losses, and facilitating ceremonies between them and their oppressors in which the latter express remorse or at least accept responsibility for what they have done. Almost no one believes that the workings of a TRC can be sufficient for national reconciliation, but most believe that the former can, under certain conditions, noticeably help to realize the latter.

Finally, national reconciliation is often captured with phrases such as “reestablishing broken relationships” and “healing deep wounds,” which are meant to convey something more richly interactive than merely a truce or peaceful coexistence. These characterizations are not inaccurate, but I maintain that it would be intellectually and practically useful not to rest content with them; it would be of interest to articulate a theory of national reconciliation, a principle that articulates the core of a desirable instance of reconciliation at the political level, and then to show how that core accounts for topics such as listening to victims, dealing with emotional trauma, accepting responsibility for misdeeds, offering amnesty, and many other, related practices. In the rest of this chapter, I provide such a theoretical account, one that is informed by characteristic sub-Saharan prizing of community.

An African Ethic

As is well known, pre-colonial sub-Saharan societies often resolved conflict with an eye toward neither deterrence nor retribution in the first instance, but rather reconciliation or harmony of some kind (Aja 1997; Ramose 2001). The aim when responding to wrongdoing was by and large to resolve conflict between the offender and his victims, or, more precisely, between his family and the families of those whom he had wronged. It has been no accident that reconciliation has figured prominently (even if with varying degrees of success) in responses to widespread conflict taken by countries such as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.

In the following, I appeal to salient values in the sub-Saharan tradition to articulate an ethic that is distinct from the dominant ones in the West and that grounds a promising conception of national reconciliation. In doing so, note that I am neither recounting traditional African ethics as they may have been understood in toto by a particular people, nor seeking to defend any specific reconciliatory practices that a given sub-Saharan society employed. My aims are instead constructive; I spell out a way of understanding African morality that is philosophically refined and will appeal to an analytical temperament, and then use that to spell out a novel theory of national reconciliation that is revealing. Although I draw on elements of traditional African culture, I am not seeking to describe or mirror the past, but rather to develop something out of it that will be of theoretical use now for sub-Saharan societies, although not only them.

According to one large swathe of sub-Saharan thought about morality, one’s basic goal in life should be to realize one’s humanness (“ubuntu,” as it is famously known among southern Africans), which one can do if and only if one enters into community with others. One should strive to live a genuinely human way of life, something that is largely, if not solely, a function of prizing communal relationships with other human persons.

As for what is meant by “community” or the relationships constitutive of it, consider the following statements from a variety of African thinkers. According to the Ghanaian Kwame Gyekye, the most influential African political philosopher of the past 25 years, “The fundamental meaning of community is the sharing of an overall way of life, inspired by the notion of the common good” (2004: 16); Pantaleon Iroegbu, a Nigerian theologian, remarks that “the purpose of our life is community-service and community-belongingness” (2005: 442); the Kenyan historian of African philosophy Dismas Masolo highlights what he calls the “communitarian values” of “living a life of mutual concern for the welfare of others, such as in a cooperative creation and distribution of wealth … Feeling integrated with as well as willing to integrate others into a web of relations free of friction and conflict” (2010: 240); and, finally, the South African public intellectual Muxe Nkondo notes that if you asked adherents to an African ethic what they live for, “(T)he answers would express commitment to the good of the community in which their identities were formed, and a need to experience their lives as bound up in that of their community” (2007: 91).

As I have spelled out in detail elsewhere (Metz 2011, 2013), implicit in these and other analyses of how to develop one’s humanness or what community consists of in the African tradition are two distinct relationships, what I call “identity” and “solidarity.” Identity is a matter of sharing a way of life, belonging, feeling integrated, and experiencing oneself as bound up with others, while solidarity consists of working for the common good, serving, expressing concern for people’s welfare, and being committed to the good of others.

More carefully, identifying with another is the combination of exhibiting certain psychological attitudes of “we-ness” and cooperative behavior. The psychological attitudes include a tendency to think of oneself as a member of a group with the other and to refer to oneself as a “we” (rather than an “I”), a disposition to feel pride or shame in what the other or one’s group does, and, at a higher level of intensity, an emotional appreciation of the other’s nature and value. The cooperative behaviors include being transparent about the terms of interaction, allowing others to make voluntary choices, acting on the basis of trust, adopting common goals, and, at the extreme end, choosing for the reason that “this is who we are.”

Exhibiting solidarity with another is also the combination of exhibiting certain psychological attitudes and engaging in helpful behavior. Here, the attitudes are ones positively oriented toward the other’s good and include a belief that the other merits aid for her own sake, an empathetic awareness of the other’s condition, and a sympathetic emotional reaction to the empathetic awareness. And the actions are not merely those likely to be beneficial, that is, to improve the other’s state, but also, in the ideal case, are ones done for that reason and for the sake of making the other a better person or for the sake of communal relationship itself.

Notice that community, understood as the combination of identity and solidarity, is more or less what English-speakers mean by the word “friendliness” or even a broad sense of “love.” To be friendly with another is pretty much a matter of identifying with him, engaging in joint activities, and acting for his sake, giving oneself and one’s resources. As Desmond Tutu has remarked of characteristically African approaches to morality:

We say, “a person is a person through other people.” It is not “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am human because I belong.” I participate, I share … Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods. Social harmony is for us the summum bonum—the greatest good. (1999: 35).

And perhaps at this point one can begin to see why I have argued in recent work that a prescription to prize community qua sharing a way of life and caring for others’ quality of life forms the basis of a promising ethic that differs from Kantianism, utilitarianism, contractualism, egoism, divine command theory, and the other moral theories which are at the forefront of Euro-American debate (e.g., Metz and Gaie 2010). From the present Afro-communitarian perspective, what makes a person bad or an action wrong is, roughly, that one is not being friendly or is being unloving, as opposed to that one causes harm in the long run, degrades autonomy, violates a social agreement, does what has been forbidden by God, and so on. Notice, too, that this African ethic differs from salient forms of Western communitarianism, which tend to be relativistic, defining wrongness as what flouts its norms and sensibilities (e.g., Walzer 1983; Sandel 1984). In contrast, the opposite of developing humanness from a characteristically sub-Saharan standpoint consists of honoring the contraries of identity and solidarity, viz., relationships of division and ill-will. To engage in crimes against humanity and other gross forms of injustice, that is, the sorts of wrongful behavior that call for national reconciliation, is basically to prize enmity.

It is not my concern in this chapter to defend a new moral theory, but instead a new theory of reconciliation. One readily sees how a concern for reconciliation consequent to conflict would be recurrent in societies that prize community understood as the combination of identity and solidarity or something akin to that. If what is of utmost importance is relating communally or prizing people’s capacity for friendly relationships, then one who acts in an unfriendly manner should be responded to in ways that are likely to counteract his unfriendliness and to foster friendliness between him and others. Imposing retribution in the manner of an eye for an eye, with no essential expectation of good to come from the imposition of harm, would be out of place.

A Theory of National Reconciliation as Partial Community

In this section, I appeal to elements of the African ideal of community to articulate the essentials of a desirable kind of national reconciliation.3 It is only in the following section that I apply it to a variety of topics, in order both to shed light on them and to illustrate and motivate the view.

Above I contended that national reconciliation, generally construed, is a relationship consequent to serious social conflict between people tighter than mere peaceful coexistence that is desirable but not an ideal and that is typically fostered to some degree by a TRC, a body which, for example, makes public characterizations of the conflict upon careful historical enquiry, pays special attention to victims, and facilitates encounters between them and those who wronged them in egregious ways. There are a variety of different ways that such a general idea could be realized in practice. My present aim is to proffer a particular version of reconciliation that is attractive, rich, and informed by the African ideal of community adumbrated in the previous section.

If one major proper aim of the state were to promote communal relationships in its territory, and if national reconciliation were a stepping stone toward such an end-state, then it would be sensible to think of national reconciliation as constituted by only some of the elements of community. Reconciliation should be seen as a substantial step on the path toward realizing a society that fully respects communal relationships, ones of identity and solidarity. Specifically, then, a promising conception of national reconciliation would be based primarily on the behavioral facets of a characteristically African conception of community, or at least not so much the attitudinal ones. As a first approximation, consider the view that to reconcile is for two parties to engage in cooperative behavior oriented toward mutual aid, and that it need not involve mental states such as thinking of oneself as a “we,” taking pride in others’ accomplishments, exhibiting sympathetic emotions, and the like.

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