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AJCR | 2011/3

Walk with us and listen: Political reconciliation in Africa

Book Review

Reviewed By  19 Aug 2011

In Walk with us and listen, Charles Villa-Vicencio addresses in 225 pages one of the most significant current issues in the field of Conflict Resolution: examining how to achieve a balance between reconciliation and punitive justice in post-conflict environments. Charles Villa-Vicencio was born in South Africa in 1948 and was raised to believe in the superiority of whites. In time, however, he developed a deep sense of the injustice of such an ideology, and subsequently became increasingly involved in the political struggle against apartheid. He has also participated in peace initiatives in several other African countries. Villa-Vicencio draws on these experiences in his book, which makes the book well-grounded in practice.

According to Villa-Vicencio, there has been a shift in recent years from blanket amnesty as standard prescription for overcoming armed conflict to an approach in which all those bearing responsibility for crimes against humanity are prosecuted. As a response to this shift, Villa-Vicencio argues that a balance needs to be found between justice and reconciliation. This means in practice that the international community does not necessarily have to refrain from prosecutions, but it does have to become more involved in post-conflict reconciliation. As Villa-Vicencio puts it, ‘An imposed form of justice that fails to enjoy local ownership and that fails to build positive and constructive relationships between former enemies as basis for redressing past wrongs is unlikely to stand the test of time. By the same token, reconciliation is not possible where the rights of individuals are not protected and those responsible for their suffering are able to prosper in their impunity’. Although this may seem like a truism, Villa-Vicencio illustrates in his book that the realities on the ground in many post-conflict environments often belie this fundamental truth.

The book is comprised of eight chapters that follow each other in a logical and structured manner. After a brief introduction and a theoretical prologue on justice and reconciliation, the first chapter discusses the context in which addressing injustices and reconciliation take place on the African continent. One of the issues raised in this chapter is how Africa’s colonial history has shaped African perceptions towards Western intervention on the continent. Besides considering the colonial past, many other issues relating to how African countries seek political fulfilment are addressed, which sets the stage for the rest of the book. Next, in chapter 2, the complexities surrounding peacemaking in Africa are considered. By drawing on many studies concerning peace mediation, the author illustrates that the insights of this vast body of literature are often in line with African peace endeavours. He argues, for instance, that South Africa’s experience with regard to transitional justice highlights that without qualified amnesty, political change would not have been possible. Both by drawing on state of the art mediation theory and telling examples on the African continent, Villa-Vicencio illustrates the complexities surrounding peacemaking and concludes that peacemaking processes need to be cumulative and inclusive in their focus and multileveled in their scope, that everybody needs to profit from the peace, and that peace needs to be shared.

Chapter 3 addresses the issues raised in the previous chapter in a more specified way by focusing on how for peace to prevail, the war ultimately needs to be fought in words across a table between parties who recognise each other. What makes this chapter exceptionally rich is that Villa-Vicencio draws on many African ideas to explain how essential active talking and listening are to the peacemaking process. For example, when discussing the importance of recognising one another in peace talks, Villa-Vicencio reminds us that the Zulu greeting sawubona is more than a greeting; rather it means ‘I see you’. With regard to the importance of talking for peacemaking, he mentions the Dinka term Nginy e we, which loosely means ‘knowing the words’. Nginy e we implies that words can be used both for fighting and restoring harmony.

While the first three chapters focus on negotiation and peacebuilding practices on the continent, the final five chapters address issues pertaining to political reconciliation in a more specific way, focusing particularly on transitional justice. In chapter 4, a case study of the transitional justice process in South Africa is put forward. However, South Africa’s journey toward political reconciliation is not examined for the purpose of acting as a blueprint for other countries, rather it is used as a means to explore options with regard to transitional justice. This illustrates Villa-Vicencio´s sensitivity to the many different contexts in which transitional justice takes place. Central to chapter 4 is what the author calls ‘The South African Dialogue’, which the author, interestingly, uses to explain both the success of the initial peace process and the current problems in South Africa. While the dialogue initiated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) broke the silence of the past in a restorative way, the different parties in South Africa have failed to engage in meaningful dialogue after the TRC report was concluded. According to Villa-Vicencio, this unfinished conversation makes it problematic to go beyond past divisions. In order to overcome the divisions between white and black and rich and poor, a renewed sense of truth telling is necessary that reflects more rigorously the origins of the gross human rights violations during the Apartheid era. This focus on dialogue makes chapter 4 refreshing in the sense that its author, unlike many other observers, does not focus predominantly on the amnesty part of the South African peace process, but also on the issues of truth and reconciliation. Additionally, it considers reconciliation in South Africa as an open-ended process.

Building on the author’s argument in chapter 4 on how honest dialogue can contribute to durable peace, chapter 5 addresses the idea that is at the heart of this argument: Ubuntu. The essence of Ubuntu is that we are who we are in relation to those around us. Hence, Ubuntu presupposes a sense of belonging within which people in conflict can interact with honesty despite their different interests. The way the author discusses Ubuntu is a telling example of how Villa-Vicencio critically analyses the issues raised in his book. Villa-Vicencio argues that Ubuntu is not the romantic notion that it is often thought to be, but one that challenges the individualism of many post-conflict societies. The fact that Ubuntu formed the underlying ethos of the South African transition highlights the possibility that the idea of Ubuntu can greatly contribute to a shared peace which is more sustainable.

The discrepancy between the notion of Ubuntu and international law leads Villa-Vicencio to wonder whether international law is, indeed, international at all. Chapter 6 delves deeper into this question by examining how traditional mechanisms of justice and reconciliation in Africa fit into the established forms of international justice. By moving the discussion from Ubuntu in South Africa to Ubuntu in Africa, this chapter adds significantly to the relevance of this study for Africa and indeed beyond the continent. Particularly Western-trained human rights workers can therefore benefit from the complementary or sometimes even alternative transitional justice methods discussed in this chapter. The take-home lesson is that linking justice and reconciliation can be highly advantageous since it will hold particular individuals responsible for specific acts, as well as address the need for all citizens to take responsibility for the creation of a peaceful society.

On the basis of the previous chapters, it is argued in chapter 7 that political reconciliation is at the heart of any viable political transition. Villa-Vicencio starts this chapter by stressing that his concept of political reconciliation is not the same as forgiveness, hence the adjective ‘political’. While, according to the author, forgiving implies the healing of the psychological and spiritual scars of past suffering, political reconciliation only involves a minimum level of political harmony and cooperation between former enemies as a basis for pursing holistic justice. It is thereafter argued that if former warring parties fail to engage in a meaningful discussion, the prospects for durable peace will be bleak. Indeed, dialogue enables former enemies to explore joint solutions to the cause of their conflicts. True reconciliation cannot be based on silence.

Chapter 8 concludes, but goes beyond merely summing up the main points of the book. It provides several valuable suggestions as to a possible consensus between international law and traditional African notions of reconciliation and justice. These suggestions offer much insight in how to find a point at which justice and reconciliation sustain one another.

In Walk with us and listen, Villa-Vicencio goes beyond the peace versus justice debate. It is neither argued that there is an obligation to prosecute those allegedly guilty of violations of international humanitarian law, nor is it argued that blanket amnesty and complete forgiveness are necessary to make peace. Instead, the author argues that the need for prosecutions needs to be balanced against the need for political stability. Villa-Vicencio also goes beyond the peace versus justice debate by addressing justice in a holistic manner. He argues that justice should be linked to reconciliation since durable peace can only emerge when it is negotiated by those who have to live with its consequences. In this sense, reconciliation is the essence of an inclusive sense of justice. The political transition of a post-war country is more likely to succeed if the former enemies engage in a political dialogue which allows them to tackle the underlying issues of the conflict. This is why linking traditional African reconciliation practices to international law practices can have the advantage of linking the individual responsibility for violations of international humanitarian law to the collective responsibility of a society to build peace. In sum, Villa-Vicencio manages to bridge the gap between the field of transitional justice and peacebuilding, as well as the gap between traditional approaches and modern forms of transitional justice methods.

Villa-Vicencio writes in the introduction of this book that throughout his career, he has sought for the link between theory and practice, which he never quite found. By putting forward this holistic notion of political reconciliation he may very well have found the perfect fit for which he was looking so long. Hence, this book is highly recommendable to both scholars and practitioners working on issues pertaining to transnational justice and peacebuilding.

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