Academic journal article International Journal of Communication Research

Mis-/Communication: The Question of Reconciliation in South Africa

Academic journal article International Journal of Communication Research

Mis-/Communication: The Question of Reconciliation in South Africa

Article excerpt


"The past, it has been said, is another country. The way its stories are told and the way they are heard change as the years go by. The spotlight gyrates, exposing old lies and illuminating new truths. As a fuller picture emerges, a new piece of the jigsaw puzzle of our past settles into place (. . .) and we have tried to weave into this truth about our past some essential lessons for the future of the people of this country. Because the future, too, is another country. And we can do no more than lay at its feet the small wisdoms we have been able to garner out of our present experience" [1].

Throughout the final decades of the twentieth century, countries in nearly every corner of the world were affected by the experience of genocide, spoliation, systemic human rights abuses, severe repression, and/ or intense social and political problems that amplified internal social divisions and in some cases led to collective violence. Internal conflicts, massacres, and oppression by one group over another shattered the social stability of countries such as South Africa, Cambodia, Sierra Leone or El Salvador, deepening the antagonisms and leaving behind deaths, injuries, broken lives, and trauma. So it is not at all surprising that the twentieth century is mostly remembered for its legacy of "gross human rights violations and mass atrocities" [2].

Nevertheless, as the century came to an end, the wind of political change began to be felt in several of these countries. The results took the shape of different treaties, some internationally financed, which have at least temporarily put a stop to some of the most destructive civil conflicts. This created the premises for new forms of government - some elected and some appointed - to appear and replace the older repressive and authoritarian regimes. Today, these new born administrations have to confront the multiple challenges of coming to terms with their violent past, rebuilding fractured institutions and social relationships, and healing their societies [3].

It is against this background that the need for reconciliation has become a matter of great interest - we are witnessing a globalization of the debate - and South Africa proves to be one of the fittest examples through which to consider and evaluate these problems. As a country that is still trying to deal with the cataclysmic events of the past, South Africa is very much aware of the fact that it is undergoing a period of transition "between the past of a deeply divided society characterized by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice" [4] - which is known today as the apartheid regime - "and a future founded on recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence" [4], that can only be achieved through reconciliation.

But what is reconciliation and how can societies implement it to make a transition from a violent, totalitarian past towards a more democratic future based on respect and mutual understanding? Can the oppressors be held responsible without undermining prospects for reconciliation? Is it a good thing to re-explore the past, or would it be better to look towards the future? These are not just simple academic questions and providing the right answers to them gives us the necessary means to help build a brighter future for a large number of countries.

Reconciliation is a post-colonial phenomenon that should bring people together, a contemporary problem-solver. It usually appears in the case of societies that are passing through a period of transition from extended conflict and oppressive rule towards the beginning of democracy mainly because such societies are frequently faced with the realization that the systematic prosecution of those guilty of violations of human rights could plunge the country back into war. However, reconciliation is also an exercise in power, in supremacy; in different countries (in South Africa as well) the whites are very much in control, they are still the elites, and therefore, we are dealing with reconciliation between not equal powers: it is proposed by the whites who are on a position of strength. …

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