After the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the groups that were previously opposed to each other had to find a way to deal with the past. For this, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, led by Desmond Tutu. There had been so many human rights violations that it was impossible to build criminal prosecution cases against all perpetrators. In order to still find out the truth, the commission offered amnesty if someone would tell honestly what they had done. This was often in front of (family of) the victims. In this way, there was recognition of the crime, and perpetrators asked for forgiveness. Between 1996 and 2000, the Commission heard thousands of victims and perpetrators (an example is the story of the murder of four men from Cradock).
Desmond Tutu writes:
Genuine reconciliation is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penance, repentance, grief about what you’ve done.
By just saying “what has been, has been,” you do not come to terms with what happened, you cannot leave the past behind like that. How can you forgive if you do not know who and what you need to forgive?
The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an example of restorative justice instead of retributive justice. It is aims to restore rather than to punish. This resonates with an old penal system in the African ubuntu philosophy, where relations between people were the key. The amnesty that was offered was not an end in itself but a means to restore relationships.
It so happens that I will probably personally gain experience in this area. A few weeks ago my bike was stolen at the station in Gillingham. Because the police caught the thief in the act, I had my bike back on the same evening. So congratulations to Kent Police, and even more so because they want to apply Restorative Justice in this case. Over the next month I will be invited for that. I’m curious!
This Lent I am writing about breaking down walls of hostility; partly on the basis of a book by Belousek. Many, probably all, people feel that restorative justice conflicts with an instinctive cry for retribution. Belousek sees this as a human characteristic that is ’tamed’ God in the Torah to a proportional exchange: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. But Jesus makes it clear that God does not ask for retribution. You should treat others, not as they have treated you, but as you would have them treat you. In that way we can break the vicious circle of retaliation.
- Desmond Tutu, 2004. God has a dream, A vision of hope for our time
- Darrin W. Snyder Belousek, 2011, Atonement, Justice and Peace