Faith & Reason: Must justice come before reconciliation?

In South Africa the families of those murdered by apartheid have begun to challenge the notion of amnesty for the torturers. Ian Linden believes they are wrong to do so.

Truth is not a word much used in politics today. It has a religious ring to it. It crops up most in speeches by people like Vaclav Havel and others who have suffered repeated doses of official untruth. That is why to Western ears the notion of a "truth commission" sounds so alien. It is alien, too, to many of the people of South Africa. There in recent days leading figures among the families of the thousands murdered under apartheid are beginning to oppose applications for amnesty by their relatives' killers and torturers. They are demanding justice, not reconciliation.

Truth commissions are not a new idea. They have already been used in Latin America as a way of dealing with gross human rights violations after a civil conflict has ended. Such bodies are empowered to grant an amnesty to criminals who confess fully to their actions and can prove that they were politically motivated. Mercy and reconciliation being at the forefront of their philosophy, truth commissions have proved attractive to many church leaders; Archbishop Desmond Tutu chairs the South African commission.

But justice is a gospel imperative too. What happens when the two seem to clash? By allowing murderers and torturers to walk free, truth commissions raise fundamental questions about what is meant by justice. This has become of more than academic interest in Britain over the past two decades, when the word "justice" was increasingly narrowed to mean punishment of the criminal. The populist response to the James Bulger and Myra Hindley cases can give the impression that the severity of punishment should not be the prerogative of an independent criminal justice system but a direct reflection of the popular will. At its worst such populism is catching and results in a desire for "justice" becoming synonymous with a desire for vengeance.

But truth commissions are not institutions of a criminal justice system. Nor are they expressions of the popular will. Indeed the amnesty granted by truth commissions to the perpetrators of serious crimes can be deeply hurtful to victims or victims' families. This is clearly the case in South Africa where this week, despite opposition from the dead man's family, an amnesty was granted to three members of a former South African police hit-squad, led by Dirk Coetzee, who confessed to the murder of the anti-apartheid lawyer Griffiths Mxenge in 1981.

Yet the families of victims are not asked to forego all individual satisfaction in the interests of a broader public good of social reconciliation. Some satisfaction is intended to come from the proceedings. The full disclosure of the truth about what happened to loved ones makes it possible to draw a line under the past; disclosure is needed for a closure of mourning and grief. In the same way as the individual is restored to well-being, it is hoped that society is returned to health. People can begin to make their own histories again instead of being shackled by the past.

The idea of restorative justice is an ancient and biblical one. An "eye for an eye" was not a vengeful prescription but a formula for avoiding two eyes for one, a continuing spiral of violence. Moreover the Jubilee theme of Leviticus holds up the ideal of freeing slaves, forgiving debts and redistributing land, as a cyclical restoration of God's just order.

From a Christian perspective, therefore, apartheid as a crime against humanity cannot simply be dealt with at the level of individual plaintiffs who have suffered crimes against the person. Land was stolen. Millions of forced removals took place into abject housing. Workers were exploited cruelly. Education was grossly discriminatory. What chance genuine reconciliation if such wrongs are not righted? The risk is that what is created is an ersatz form of reconciliation - and that church leaders merely give legitimacy to a process which falls far short of the Christian ideal.

Yet the radical nature of the Christian idea of reconciliation always confronts the realities of political and economic power. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is achieving probably the best that can be achieved in the present South African political context without provoking a violent backlash from the white Right. Britain should learn from South Africa's experience. It will have its own demons to exorcise when, and if, peace comes to the north of Ireland.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015