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Truth and Reconciliation

It was only a few years ago that I first heard of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commision. This government body was formed in 1995 in the aftermath of apartheid, as a response from the justice system to the enormous volume of atrocities commited by individuals in the white community against huge numbers of the black community over the 46 years of apartheid prior to 1994 (when it ended). You can read more about the details here. What followed was a formalised process which attempted to identify the reality of the atrocities, vindicate the harmed through the truthful telling of events, and expose the perpetrators to the extent of the damage they had caused. This complex process honoured the injured, required the perpetrator to experience the consequences of their actions, and if both parties were fully engaged in the process, it created fertile ground for restoration of the relationship, and healing of psychological and relational wounds in each party which the crime(s) had caused. Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu was a strong leader of this process. Perpetrators who formally and publically admitted to their crimes, and offered genuine apology were given the opportunity to recieve amnesty (though not all achieved this). The victims were given an arena to share the horrors of their story. People were changed, relationships were healed. I find the idea of this example of restorative justice happening on a national scale staggering. 90% of the population of South Africa were brutalised, victimized, persecuted etc by 10% (or thereabouts) for 2 generations, yet somehow after all of that grace and generosity remained to create this commision and action it... Boggling. I found this interview with a black South Africa woman who worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commision for 9 years. So many of her words have stirred me:

The Archbishop Desmond Tutu was also the Chairperson, he saw it more as a catharsis for the nation so that post-1994, you have this cleansing process for the nation. But the whole process of the Truth Commission was developed as part of the Reconciliation and National Unity Act to redress the atrocities of the past, including violations of human rights, and more importantly, to restore a level of dignity to the majority of South Africans who lived under the draconian laws of apartheid. I believe it was the first of its kind in the world.

I reflect on the lack of concerted acknowledgement and consequent redressing of the harm that happened to many children and adolescents at Centrepoint. To me the horrors of Centrepoint have always felt a bit inconvenient for the general New Zealand public to hold in their heads. Some remarkably brave individuals have spoken their stories publicly over the last two decades (at huge personal cost I suspect), and each time I hear of another person who has popped their head up into the public domain to tell their story I wonder if it is all being tied together now, whether something concerted might happen to shift the guilt and shame and secrecy surrounding it all. Perhaps the truth will out? Perhaps now there will be a tide of stories large enough to come together first into a trickle, then a stream, then a river, then a flood of voices speaking the truth about their experiences at Centrepoint. And the other end of this process of reconciliation - which takes two engaged and active parties - will be addressed; the responsibility and obligation of those that acted to harm children in their care, or didn't act enough to protect them. Perhaps the lies which have served to protect will be uncovered and some guilt and remorse might bubble up from down deep where it has been covered up for decades.

What was it that convinced the perpetrators to be present in a process that could likely turn against them?...I think there is something about one’s conscience, which eats at you and they want to come clean and “give themselves up” as the expression goes... It is almost that the TRC had to happen and I think that period must have given those individuals a way to come clean, regardless what would happen at the end.... There are many critics, South African critics of the process, but I would say even though I have my own criticisms, I would say at least something was done. And I think South Africa needs to be recognized for taking that step....

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The Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa was a Government initiative and therefore had the authority to grant immunity to many of the perpetrators. Clearly Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were extraordinary, courageous and inspirational human beings motivated to create healing out of depravity and to prevent a bloodbath of rage and revenge. Such a Government initiated process offering immunity from prosecution is not likely to happen in NZ over Centrepoint. However there is a Restorative Justice structure available in NZ which could possibly be deployed to help achieve a healing goal: An apology is certainly a starting point, but genuine remorse requires more than words. It requires restorative action.

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