Sunday, November 29, 2009


I was introduced to the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in a class I took last year, and one of the themes I remember discussing at length is that of ubuntu as it was discussed by Desmond Tutu in his book No Future Without Forgiveness (1999). We have not discussed ubuntu much, and only the Elizabeth Kiss essay mentioned the concept. However, I feel that it is a useful concept to understand when evaluating the impact of the TRC on South African society.

In the book, Tutu defined a person with ubuntu as “open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Ubuntu is not just a local ideology in South Africa; it is a pan-African ideology emphasizing both individual humaneness and the interconnectedness of humanity. Ubuntu is not a rigid set of moral codes but a collectively understood philosophy by which to live. Though it was endorsed and encouraged by Tutu, it is not a Christian or otherwise religiously-derived concept, which legitimates its promotion by the TRC for those who claim the committee was biased toward Judeo-Christian notions of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Public testimony, interactions between victims and perpetrators, and amnesty as opposed to judicial punishment are all tools for achieving ubuntu. By sharing testimony with the world, allowing people to confront (and, if desired, make amends with) those who had wronged them, and not isolating but instead reintegrating offenders into society, the TRC facilitated the perpetuation of the African ideal of peace, togetherness, and mutual respect. Instead of ostracizing members of the apartheid regime, they sought to rehabilitate them into society, because, according to ubuntu, everyone’s humanity suffers. Due to the nature of their crimes the perpetrators were less than human, and confessing was a step towards restoring their own, and therefore society’s, humanity.

Elizabeth Kiss endows the concept of restorative justice with three objectives: “(1) to affirm and restore the dignity of those whose human rights have been violated; (2) to hold perpetrators accountable, emphasizing the harm that they have done to individual human beings; and (3) to create social conditions in which human rights will be respected” (79). All of these aims are compatible with ubuntu. Considering that ubuntu is a commonly shared African ideology that transcends cultural and language barriers, restorative justice seems like a much more beneficial and favorable option than retributive justice for post-apartheid South Africa to pursue.

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