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March 5, 2001

Villa-Vicencio outlines
So. Africa's future


By Eric Rangus


Reconciliation, an idea that has dominated Emory’s consciousness this year, is a concept made prominent during South Africa’s quest for healing after the elimination of apartheid in the late 1990s.
So it was highly appropriate that Charles Villa-Vicencio, a leading South African theologian and professor, deliver the Law and Religion Program’s annual Currie Lecture, Feb. 27 in Tull Auditorium.

Villa-Vicencio spoke for 45 minutes on “Church, State and Restorative Justice: Did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Succeed in South Africa?”

The answer? Sort of.

The commission did what it could when faced with an almost impossible task—deconstruct more than 30 years of apartheid, heal the deep wounds left in its wake, and set the stage for a new, harmonious South Africa.

It has been said, Villa-Vicencio noted, “that perhaps the TRC did not fail South Africa, but South Africa failed the TRC. Those who benefited from apartheid are not exactly leaping out of their chairs to contribute to the reconciliation process.”

Villa-Vicencio, who was the commission’s research director, said the commission’s final success will be judged on how South Africa’s individual communities, churches, schools and other organizations deal with reconciliation.

While the commission could not solve all of South Africa’s post-apartheid problems, it did succeed on several fronts. Villa-Vicencio, now executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, said it created a victim-friendly environment where survivors could tell their stories, broadened public understanding and perception of the past, identified victims and perpetrators, and—while it did not offer retribution—it created the possibility of restorative justice.

It is that restorative justice, with its focus on amnesty, truth-telling and building a future, that will serve as the country’s 21st century blueprint.

The list of what the commission couldn’t accomplish, though, is at least as long as its successes, Villa-Vicencio said. It could not confer on victims anything more than a moral or symbolic satisfaction; it couldn’t punish or generate remorse in perpetrators; it couldn’t ensure victims would feel closure; it couldn’t ensure perpetrators would mend their ways; it couldn’t eliminate the wide gap between the country’s rich and poor.

“In short,” Villa-Vicencio said, “it can never reconcile the whole nation.”

When Villa-Vicencio got down to specifics, his words touched on two primary points: What are South Africa’s most pressing concerns in a post-apartheid world? And where does reconciliation go from here?

He further broke down his discussion on South Africa’s unfinished business into two issues. The first was the prosecution of people who committed human rights violations, and the second was reparations payments for victims.

He said South Africa must walk a fine line that offers neither too much justice nor too little. This won’t be easy. When Nelson Mandela was elected president, he granted amnesty to many people who had committed human rights violations—provided they said what they did. Several perpetrators, however, did not ask for amnesty, and still others were denied it. What to do with these open cases is a problem.

“The nation cannot spend the next 50 years hunting down criminals,” he said. “The issue of prosecutions is a matter that has not yet been fully addressed. It will continue to challenge the nation politically, legally and morally for the foreseeable future.”

Villa-Vicencio said there would not be systematic prosecutions, but there would be no general amnesty, either. Basically, some cases would be brought to trial and some

The issue of reparations is thorny one as well, and one to which the government, Villa-Vicencio said, has yet responded.

“These are pertinent questions to which there is no immediate answer, but an answer must be found,” he said.

Villa-Vicencio was joined on the stage by Elizabeth Bounds, associate professor of Christian ethics, who responded to his remarks, and John Witte, director of the Law and Religion Program, who served as moderator. Witte called Villa-Vicencio “one of the great intellectuals in South Africa” and one of that nation’s leaders in the reconciliation movement.



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