The purpose of this empirical study is to explore the meaning(s) of reconciliation in the aftermath of the South-African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work. Based on informants’ accounts, the aim was to achieve an understanding of the ‘phenomenon’ of reconciliation in context, without excluding the possibility that these experiences also might contribute to our understanding of survivors’ experiences and understandings of the meaning of reconciliation, in similar situations but different contexts. I will explore and describe the survivors’ feelings, thoughts and views of reconciliation, both before and after their interaction with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC). Their feelings about and opinions on the relationship between reconciliation and issues such as truth, justice, amnesty, reparations and healing are described, analyzed and discussed.
Design and Method
The data, which form the backbone of this work, were obtained from interviews with fifteen survivors in the aftermath of atrocities and political violence committed under the apartheid government in South Africa. Data were collected using open and in-depth interviews with audio recordings and were subsequently transcribed. I used the principles of Grounded Theory as the methodological guide to structure my research. The survey is an independent research project, and I have personally conducted all aspects of the process. The study was approved by the Norwegian Ethical Research Committee.
The study shows that those who interacted with the SATRC held a large range of expectations; most expected, at the very least, that they would get some truth and justice about their case. Some had initial doubts about the reconciliation part, due to reasons such as not knowing what it meant or what it would entail from their part to achieve it. Many are currently left with a sense of resignation and feel disappointed by the SATRC process, despite its claimed successes at fostering national reconciliation. For many, the SATRC process came too early and stopped too soon. For many, it did not address the victims preferred and much needed forms of redress, such as reparation, apology and even punishment. For some, the experience itself became just another burden to carry, as many felt victimized, again. The individual healing as an outcome of the SATRC work remains unaccounted for. The findings show then, that the relationship between the reconciliation process as carried out by the SATRC, the only mechanism to deal with past atrocities in South Africa, and healing is not clear. The commonly assumed linear relationship between truth, justice, healing and reconciliation is questionable. For survivors, truth does not automatically lead to reconciliation according to a linear process.
Reconciliation is a dynamic and non-linear process of endurance, suffering, readjustment and, only under some conditions, healing. It must be understood as a voluntary process. Acceptance is an important element, a starting point to retrieve a sense of perceived present control over life after traumatic events. It is necessary to arrange a space/time where deep emotions are integrated. An adequate reparations’ context must be provided to meet the very diverse needs of survivors. An integrated understanding of the reconciliation process will enable psychologists to plan and provide an effective professional help for survivors, for meaningful recovery from the cognitive and emotional effects of trauma.