Interview with Charles Villa-Vicencio

By Michel Notelid (27 September 2007)

Professor Charles Villa-Vicencio is the holder of the Claude Ake Visiting Chair 2007 at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University and the Nordic Africa Institute. During 1996-1998 he was the national research director in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In 2000 he initiated the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, of which he is the Executive Director.

Charles Villa-Vicencio.
It is now almost ten years since you handed the TRC report to President Mandela, in October 1998. Do you recall how you felt at that moment?
Relieved. Anxious. There were huge expectations as to what a TRC could do, and what the TRC in South Africa was going to do. Those of us who were engaged in the TRC process from the beginning knew we could never realize all the expectations. The anxiety was in relation to whether we had done enough to enable people to begin to say, we have got to deal with the past in a creative way and move forward. We were also mindful that there was a sense in which the success or the failure of the TRC was never in the hands of the TRC. It was always in the hands of government and the nation as a whole. All we could do was to kick-start a conversion, a reconciliation process, and it was up to the nation and to the government to take the process forward. One day when history looks back, it will either say “Yes, the TRC worked” or “No, it did not work”, on the basis of whether there is peaceful coexistence, democracy and a sense of inclusion in society. If it all works out, people will probably say “Hey, the TRC was a great thing!” If the country collapses and becomes a failed state, people will probably look back and say “Maybe we should have had a decent revolution in the beginning and we would not be facing the mess we now have to deal with”.

Did you have a clear mandate?
Yes, a very clear mandate from the government. We were required to act in terms of an Act of Parliament that gave us our mandate. It was a very narrow mandate, which a lot of people criticized. It stated that the TRC should investigate gross violation of human rights that it defined as “killings, abduction, torture and severe ill-treatment”. So we were not, for example, authorized or able to investigate the impact of Bantu education. We were not able to deal with forced removals. We were not able to deal with the major economic issues. Maybe the TRC should have stretched that mandate, but it didn’t. So, the mandate was clear, but it was narrow.

The South African nation today remains divided materially. Deep racial economic divisions remain and you and others agree that this presents the biggest challenge for peaceful transition and hopefully reconciliation in South Africa. Hypothetically, if a new TRC was to be launched today in South Africa, in the face of a reality which is a result of 300 years of history, would it differ from the one you have been involved in?
That’s a tough and a very good question. It would have been very interesting if there were a TRC or some sort of commission of inquiry appointed to look at the economic disparity in this country, to trace its roots, trying to identify the seeds that have been sown and to make recommendations to ensure that these seeds do not take root and grow into the future. That could be an interesting exercise. But, I think, in any post-conflict, peace building process, sequencing is very important. And there are times when I feel that maybe all we could have done in 1996 was to begin a conversation of a political kind as a first step in seeking to heal and transform ourselves.

Maybe that was all we could do at that point. But maybe we were too cautious. The political settlement was fragile and we were careful not to undermine the peace we had made with one another. Yet we also knew then, as we know now, that apartheid was a racism intertwined with economic privilege. The reality is that we did not go into that mix. Our settlement was made easier by not dealing with economic issues, but ultimately these issues have come back to challenge us. They have not gone away.

Do you think there would be another kind of ethics involved in a hypothetical TRC dealing with the economic development?
I don’t think one could have another TRC. That would be far too complicated. But I do think that this issue needs to be grappled with, and there is decidedly an ethic involved. There is spirituality at the centre of it all. If I say that you and I can live peacefully together while I have and you are excluded there is something wrong with my understanding of what it means to be a human being. This is the challenge that faces us today. All those who benefited from apartheid, plus the emerging middle class and the new elite need to face this reality. Privilege in South Africa is no longer the exclusive domain of whites. In fact, the political power is in the hands of a black majority government. The question is how to persuade those who have, both black and white, that it’s in their interest to distribute? I am not one of those people who predict some sort of dire revolution in South Africa. But there is going to be increasing social discontent among the poor and it is in the interest of those who rule and those who have to minimize this by ensuring that those who are excluded from the economic wealth of the country are able to share in it.

But do you think it’s time for new political settlements like the one in 1994, dealing with other issues?
The short answer is “yes”. Realistically however, this takes time to realize and needs to be done sequentially. When one looks at the state of democratic politics in South Africa, these are issues that are being dealt with. Of course there are racial issues that are still being faced – and they need to be faced. The political division in South Africa is however primarily to do with economic policy. This is the division that runs right through the ANC. It is central for the debate in trade unions, in business. It is a division between those who say “We have to ensure that this economic wealth is distributed” and those who say “The first task is to build economic muscle before you can distribute”. And that’s the tension, it’s an economic debate. It’s the old story between the free-market capitalists who say the wealth will all trickle down and the majority in South Africa saying “You know what! It hasn’t trickled down.” We have to do something to adjust this and to ensure that the poor have their basic needs met in a country for which they fought, for which some of their closest family members and friends died.

There is a need for some kind of a third-way politics?
There needs to be a ‘third-way’ economics option. We have tried both extremes and both have failed to produce positive results. Solve that one and you can win a Nobel prize. It’s a tough challenge. That’s what makes the South African struggle so difficult and so important. In the old days it was easier to single out the good guys and the bad guys, it was all very clear. Whereas today the divide is as much about class as about race. It used to be quite literally a case of black and white! Today the South African conflict looks very much like that of many other countries – in both the first and third worlds.

You have many times stressed that the way in which a nation addresses its problems is as important as the solutions it may come up with. Do you think South Africa today has reached a balance between dialogue and action in politics? Has the political compromise delivered?

In a sense it has. If I put myself in President Mbeki’s position I think I would keep talking. He has got to take the poorest of the poor seriously – those who are excluded, those who are very angry with him at the moment, as well as everybody. His rhetoric has got to reflect their needs. But he also knows that you cannot create the kind of economic well-being and stability that is desired overnight. But the ‘overnight’ has been extended to thirteen years. The ANC government should have done more. Business needs to do more. There is no fairy godmother’s wand to be waved. The challenge facing Mr. Mbeki, facing his successor and facing government is an economic one. The question is how to generate wealth and how to redistribute it. We need both. A priority need is however to ensure what we have got is used to create a better life for the poorest of the poor.

You have on occasions said that there is kind of a stagnant situation in the parliament, the government, pressured from lots of demands and hopes which perhaps have not been realized.
That’s true. I could take you into any township outside of Cape Town or Johannesburg or anywhere else, and in two minutes I’ll introduce you to all sorts of people who’ll tell you nothing’s changed, some will even say it’s even worse today than it was in the days of apartheid. They are wrong of course, they are fundamentally wrong. But I can understand why they say that. They continue to be excluded from the first economy and some are not even able to claw their way into the second economy. Their kids are still not going to a decent school and they don’t have a decent roof over their heads. But the government has also done incredible things, in terms of advancing not only the individual and political human rights of these people, but also the economic rights of these people. The problem is that you do not undo 300 years of colonialism and put it right in 13 years of democracy. So the poor are restless and they have every right to be restless. The government, on the other hand, has got to both pacify the poor and build an economy. And the world is not going to invest if there is no political stability. They also want to make a profit. Like it or not, economic policy needs to meet both demands.

The process of healing – is there an end-point to the subject? Will it ever end, or should we see it as an everyday subject?
It’s a bit like asking “When will the transition end?” Well, not in my lifetime, not in my kids’ lifetime are we going to have economic equality in South Africa. Mr. Mandela has said it’s a long walk. We built an economy over 350 years to service 4 million white people. Overnight this economy was obliged to service the needs of 45 million people. The President keeps telling us that there is a subjective and a material side to reconciliation and nation building. We need both. There are memories to be healed. Somebody once said it’s those who have not suffered who are able to forget, whereas those who have suffered most are cursed with a good memory.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation conducted a survey after the TCR asking people what they wanted most from the TRC. They said, acknowledgement and an apology. That’s what they asked for. We are in the process of learning how to live together with justice and in peace. It’s going to take time. The remarkable thing is, however, that race relations in South Africa are infinitely better than they were, especially at the middle-class level. We are learning to live together. The kids of middle-class homes are going to the same school; they play for the same football team. This builds social tissue.

I travel to a number of countries that are going through a political transition, in Eastern Europe and Latin America, in other parts of Africa and in South East Asia. And every time I come back home and I say “Thank God I live in South Africa!” We haven’t solved all our problems, but we are applying our minds in a rational, more or less democratic way to resolving those issues.

I was coming to that, what can the international community and for instance other African countries in transition learn from the experience of the TRC in South Africa?
I think no transitional model can be transported from one place to another. We can’t go to Sudan and say “Here’s the recipe”. But I do think that the one thing we can say is that we learned to talk to one another. There used to be a joke that went around in South Africa in the 80’s and 90’s. It suggested we have got two ways to solve this problem, a miraculous one and a realistic way. The realistic one is to ask God to intervene and solve the problem for us. The miraculous way is to sit down with your enemies and talk. We keep saying to our fellow Africans in other parts of Africa, “If we could talk, then Hutus and Tutsis can talk, North and South Sudan can talk, Shona and Ndebele in Zimbabwe can talk”. A willingness to sit under the same tree with your enemy and talk is the one thing that got us through, and this is the one message that we can share with the world.

What can we learn from the African notion of Ubuntu that you are referring to sometimes as a philosophy, a way to seek a new way forward?

I think sometimes the Ubuntu philosophy, like any philosophy I suppose, is romanticized. There are those who say “Africans have this instinctive desire to share their lives together”. That’s not true. But what Ubuntu does say to us, is that to the extent that you and I are estranged from one another I am an incomplete person and so are you. Ubuntu says you can’t say “To hell with everybody else, I’m happy”. The only way you can ultimately be happy, fulfilled, is really through relationships, and I think reconciliation and peace-building is about relationships. Both involve being prepared to sit down with your enemy – who you may intensely dislike – and begin to explore ways of learning to understand and respect one another. This doesn’t solve the problems we face, but it creates a relationship within which there is a possibility of dealing with these problems in a constructive way.

And perhaps the main contribution for the TRC in South Africa was the understanding of some kind of ethics and morality?
We were in what is sometimes called a ‘mutually hurting situation’. We were all suffering. White folk were living very comfortably, but isolated. Liberation movements and black folk were beginning to realize that, try as they may, they just did not have the military might to overthrow this government. This situation is captured in a meeting between Mr. Mandela, shortly after he was released from prison, and General Constand Viljoen, who was head of the South African armed forces. Mr. Mandela said to the General “We know we cannot defeat you militarily. You know you cannot kill all of us”. The two men shook hands and agreed the only option was for the two sides to talk. The ethics involved is that it is better to talk than to kill – and that certain levels of respect and human rights are required for people to live together in peace.

Constand Viljoen brought the Afrikaner right wing that had refused initially to participate in 1994 elections into the process and he took his place on the opposition benches of parliament. That was an important step in the reconciliation process for him and for South Africa.

The question is whether we are now able to build on the climate of democracy, which we have established, and address the fundamental issues that we face. Chief among these is economics, crime and HIV/AIDS. We cannot afford to lose these battles. What the Archbishop called the miracle was the 1994 elections. We now have to perform the next miracle.

Yes, and you said it was your task to construct this miracle. My final question concerns African identity, an identity-in-the-making some people say, an identity transcending race, culture and past identity. Do you see yourself as an African?
Undoubtedly! Yes I’m an African. What else can I possibly be? My family has been in South Africa for over 200 years, with my great-great-grand-father coming to South Africa after the Napoleonic wars, fleeing from Spain where he had opposed the king. So I’m a proud African and South African. I was born there and that’s where I shall die and be buried – hopefully in the shadow of Table Mountain.

Robert Sobukwe, who was head of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, once said that an African is whoever chooses to be an African. Not all blacks are African and not all Africans are black. Zakes Mda, a South African novelist, suggests that the idea of being an African is a modern and novel idea. Until fairly recently Africans defined themselves in terms of tribe, ethnic group, religion and region. Asked who is an African, he answered: “I don’t know what it is to be African. It’s too early to tell.” In brief, our continent is a cosmopolitan and mixed kind of place. And South Africa is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan as more and more folk from different parts of the continent add to our identity. So Africa and South Africa are still in the ‘making’ phase – as are all cultures and people in most places on earth.

The reason I asked was that I see a similarity between the hope for the future in South Africa, in this post-transition period, and the subject of identity, which nowadays seems to be more directed to the future then to the past. Identity is not so much about what I am, but perhaps more about what I could become.
To me identity is that open-ended journey. I don’t know what I’m becoming or what my grand-children will look like. We’re on an incredible journey. It’s going to be a rough journey from time to time and we would do well to fasten our seatbelts. But I think we are going to make it, I really do. And if South Africa doesn’t make it, God help the rest of Africa. We’ve got to make it! And I think the world knows that as well. I work extensively in other African countries and know that sometimes South Africans are seen as the Yankees of Africa. We need to be cautious in our engagement with other parts of Africa. We cannot on the other hand avoid engaging other Africans. Our identity and our future are inter-twined.

You are not afraid?
Anxious at times, but not afraid. Crime is a major issue in South Africa. We face an HIV/AIDS pandemic. There are political conflicts that could have grave implications for the country. We have got to deal with it. I just hope we can do so in terms of human rights and not with jackboots. We have got to make the fight against disease a national priority. The ANC and the nation as a whole have got to deal with the political crisis.

So yes, I’m nervous from time to time, but I honestly believe that we are on track. I think we are going to make it and I’m certainly not going to live anywhere else. What distinguishes the white population of South Africa from the white expatriate population in the Congo, Zimbabwe, Kenya and everywhere is that many of us have deep roots, planted over many generations. A lot of Brits, Belgians and others said “Well, I am going home”. South Africa is our home. I have no other passport. And I am just one of many, many white South Africans who claim their identity as Africans and native South Africans. A conservative white Afrikaner politician recently said: “The greatest contribution that I can make to this country and to this government, is to tell them I am not going anywhere. They can’t kick me out because I’m not going. We have got to work this thing out between us. They need to deal with me. There is no alternative.” He was right. I wish more of the liberal English-speaking South Africans who whimper and complain would say the same.
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