Reconciliation Day: We must focus on peacebuilding if we are to reconcile – Chris Jones

Reconciliation Day: We must focus on peacebuilding if we are to reconcile – Chris Jones..  Chris Jones writes that we don’t appear to be making significant progress in respect of reconciliation as there is still a lot of racial tension, conflict, and violence in South Africa? He says we should perhaps focus a little bit more on peacebuilding to achieve reconciliation.

Reconciliation Day: We must focus on peacebuilding if we are to reconcile - Chris Jones
Reconciliation Day: We must focus on peacebuilding if we are to reconcile – Chris Jones—–

Reconciliation Day is held annually on 16 December to celebrate the end of apartheid and to foster reconciliation among South Africans. The day came into effect after our new democracy was born in 1994.

According to SA government, Reconciliation Day “aims to promote national unity, social cohesion, constitutional democracy, human rights and equality by highlighting and advancing the constitutional values and principles that bind together all South Africans”.

Given our country’s history, these are essential goals. But why are we apparently not making significant progress in these respects? I admit, not everything is doom and gloom, but why is there still so much racial tension, conflict, and violence in South Africa?

Of course, there are no easy answers to these quite complex questions.

Peace building 

I think a decisive starting point would be to push the idea of reconciliation a little bit to the background and rather focus on and unpack the process of peacebuilding. The word peace is of great importance because it is the basis on which people of different beliefs can enter into dialogue with each other and which can ultimately lead to sustainable relationships of peace and reconciliation.

I agree with Ilina Singh, Professor of Neuroscience & Society at the University of Oxford, and others, that it is the brain that pulls the trigger. But let me immediately say, not only is the human brain the source of violence, but fortunately also of peace. However, in the brain, one decides to harm, hate, or kill someone, which seriously threatens the possibility of peace and eventually reconciliation.

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This begs, among others, the following questions: what then is wrong with the human brain? How can state-, physical-, structural- and protest violence be prevented? And if so, how can it be mediated and reversed?

Whether organised violence is due to human nature, or to cultural and environmental circumstances, or to a combination of both, it is of great research importance to try to understand the phenomena of violence and conflict.

According to Stellenbosch philosopher, Professor Willie Esterhuyse, conflict analysis is currently focused sharply on the issue not only of concluding peace, but also of building and maintaining it.

Esterhuyse makes the important point that concluding peace is merely an important event, a starting point, while the building and maintaining parts are a long and arduous process – the latter closely linked to the crucial notion of ??sustainable development.

It is increasingly accepted today that the dream of sustainable peace in violence-stricken countries and communities, such as South Africa, is not being fulfilled through promises, populist (political) rhetoric and reconciliation rituals.

Projects that enable sustainable development are key. That is why, as implied above, it is essential to start with the conclusion of a peace agreement because it creates the platform and thinking space for projects that make peace processes a visible reality.

This is sometimes also referred to as positive peace, as opposed to negative peace, which is only a form of law and order without inclusive, sustainable development.

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What can be accepted is that human beings are both tyrants and peacemakers, natural and cultural beings. We are relentlessly strapped to a dialectic between the extremes of violence and order, cruelty and humanity, justice and injustice.

It is this human condition that compels us to ask the questions: what must be done to “domesticate” human beings? What kind of institutions and processes are needed to promote local and global security and peace? Are there institutionally and morally more imaginative ways of speaking to the “other”, (the “enemy”), in such a way that a practical achievable and sustainable peace can be negotiated for human beings and for the good of nature?

Fortunately, we have made progress in this regard, as Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker rightly argues in his book The Better Angels of our Nature (2011). He eloquently writes about “the long peace” which is an indication that the intense and widespread brutality of state and religiously sanctioned wars has declined markedly during human history, and up to the present.

Many institutions, such as the United Nations, have indeed defined their roles better and even differently.

What is needed?

However, we still have a long way to go. Even though science has accomplished much, it failed to ensure lasting peace. We still lack a radical peace-oriented moral imagination that can help us find acceptable creative alternatives to violence and conflict. Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of doing it.

What is needed more precisely according to John Paul Lederlach, American Professor of International Peacebuilding, is:

  • To imagine and to be able to live in the possibility that you are part of a web of relationships that includes all people, especially those who are hostile to you and others. In other words, we all are part of the proverbial problem. It’s not a matter of “them” and “us”.
  • To build trust between interlocutors and to strengthen the integrity of the process. Be aware of the spoilers. Moral imagination is the capacity that, amid enmity and violence, can still build personal trusting relationships between public “enemies”.
  • To always, as a conversation partner, maintain a paradoxical curiosity in the conversation process and not become despondent, despite all the complexities.
  • To be willing to take risks and not to fear the unknown.
  • To never doubt the possibility of creative input, especially from writers, poets, sculptors and so many ordinary citizens. Read stories that reputed writers and philosophers have passed down to us from ancient times. Those who do not understand the past cannot understand what “peace on earth” is all about.
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Because human beings are caught between the extremes of cruelty and humanity as (also) depicted in English novelist Anthony Horowitz’s Mindgame, exuberant fingerprints of our creative moral imagination are needed.

The latter, which has fortunately evolved over years, is according to Esterhuyse the dance between nature and culture – a dance that can create sustainable development projects which in turn becomes the underpinning of peace, freedom and eventually reconciled spaces.

– Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.




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