Windows across Time and the Search for What Really Matters: A Meditation on Transtemporal Transitional Justice
Dr Undine Whande
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Cape Town, South Africa
I want to start with a quotation from Ben Okri that speaks to the title of my speech:
We live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in our- selves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.1
With your permission, I will take the liberty to invite a contemplative moment, a moment of looking at transitional justice through the lens of personal memory, and from the perspective of windows across time.
In Western thought, time is mostly conceived of as linear. It leads from the present into the future, picturing the past as lying behind us. In this case, tran- sitional justice is perhaps like taking a look at the past through a window in time, looking backwards. In ancient and indigenous cultures around the world, how- ever, time is most often seen as cyclic. It moves from the present to the past- as-future. How so? The thinking is that the future re-joins the past in a loop: As I walk my life journey, I move towards becoming first an elder and then an ancestor. I walk backwards into the future, the past in front of me and visible, the future at the back. The future is, at the same time, the realm of the past because it is also the realm where I join my ancestors and from whence those not yet born come, too. Cyclic time emerges from the notion of infinity, from which life emerges and to where it returns.
In the Western sense of time, the present, then, is a moment that is perpetually gone. It is now and it is past instantly. In the cyclic understanding of time, the present is expansive: it spans across generations and even signifies a kind of eternity, a never-ending now, and now, and now. I invite you to contemplate this now by looking at a picture of the hands of Checker. Checker is in her late eighties and she lives in a small village just south of the Limpopo river. She is a weaver and, with her nimble fingers, she weaves mats and baskets to this day. Take a moment and look at your own hands, appreciate your hands, the work they have done for you, the tender touches, perhaps, that they have given.
1 Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free (London: Phoenix House, 1997).
Contemplating this picture, I want to invite you to reflect on the oldest person whose hands you have held with your own hands in your life. Who is this person? What is their date of birth? Perhaps it was your grandfather or grandmother, or an elder in your community? Perhaps he or she was born in the late 1800s, or the early 1900s? Hold the image of that person in your mind’s eye for a moment – who were they? What were their life experiences? What shaped them and what did they teach you that perhaps shaped you?
Now take a moment and think of the youngest person whose hands you have held? Most likely these were the hands of a baby recently, perhaps your own child or grandchild? Do you have a mental picture? Think about this child’s life. If he or she lives a full life – to eighty, ninety or a hundred years – what year will we have? The year 2100 perhaps?
Please take a moment and share with neighbour for two or three minutes about these two people – the oldest and the youngest person whose hands you have held. [The room comes alive with conversation, laughter, sharing.]
Just consider for a moment how you feel right now. Speaking about positive memories really enlivens us. This is an important consideration for transitional justice because, alongside memories of harm and pain, we all have memories of joy and moments that were meaningful. We connect through memory to people that gave and continue to give us energy in the now, emanating from encounters made perhaps as long as half a century before the now.
I want to ask you to calculate the time between the birth date of the oldest person whose hands you have held and the final year of youngest person if he or she lives a full life. Recently, some thinkers in the peace-building field have suggested that this time span is what we need to consider as the present – our 200-year present.2
In fact, this time span between the two ages is your 200-year present, a present made up of living memory, by people whose hands you have touched. This present spans three or four generations and is determined by the direct memory and experience of those actual people. Having touched those hands, you are the connecting point within these 200 years. You are like a unique relational crossroads in time. Let me expand on what this means for transitional justice by drawing on another example of personal memory and meaning-making.
This is a picture of my daughter Tawana. She is five years old. She has at least three different roots. She is Zimbabwean, South African and German.
Who is Tawana, what is her ancestry?
She has a great-grandfather who wore the Nazi uniform. Though all family was always at pain to emphasize that he was ‘not really a Nazi’, he did wear the insignia of institutionalized racism, the swastika of National Socialism. He fought in the war that turned from murderous to genocide. He was a surgeon at the front who received honours for saving lives. He was also known for playing the violin. A man who was more interested in giving concerts than holding a gun and yet who was part of it all. At the ending of the war he was captured as a prisoner of war and sent to Siberia. He experienced the Russian Gulag, from where he returned several years after the war. Building up a life in East Germany after his release, he soon recognized that the communist system he was now living under resembled the autocratic traces of the past Nazi era, resembled that which he felt, in hindsight, was a betrayal of the culture and ethos he had wanted to stand for. When he spoke out about this, saying ‘these methods are like Hitler’s’, he was persecuted by the East German intelligence forces, the so-called Stasi. When he got word one day that he would be arrested that night, he rounded up his family and fled the country for West Germany that very night.
2 See John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Tawana also has a great-grandmother. As far as we know, she did not stand up and protest when her Jewish neighbours began to disappear. She was a person who read the philosophers. She never studied but knew so much. She would stay up late at night with her grandchildren to discuss the meaning of life. She brought up her own children during war times. She was raped by a Russian soldier when the front lines broke and Germany was conquered by the Red Army. She contracted syphilis from the rape, which she survived, but she carried the scars and passed them on to her children. When she died in 2002 she had lived through five different political dispensations, the monarchy and Kaiserreich, the feeble Weimar Republic, the Nazi-era Third Reich, the communist regime of East Germany, and finally West German democracy.
Who were these great-grandparents, in the transitional justice sense? Perpetrators, bystanders, beneficiaries, collaborators – products of their time – and perhaps also victims. Their children, my parents, were war-children, deeply psychologically damaged for life. In our generation – the grandchildren of the Holocaust – the trauma manifested itself in various further psychopathological patterns such as anorexia and depression. Even while our parents tried to prevent a trans-generational transfer of memory through silence, exactly this happened – they passed on the emotional matrix of those painful memories, for their children to make sense of.
What does it look like on the African side of Tawana’s ancestry?
Her Zimbabwean grandfather was born in the early 1900s. He was a self- made man who in his youth cycled to South Africa, bringing back cattle and goods. Based on his own wit and guts, he became a successful rural trader. He experienced oppression and indignity at the hands of the colonial powers. As a young man, he was abused in his working situation inside the family that employed him, experienced things he could not speak about for fear of being killed in retribution, as well as cultural taboos. He later supported the liberation war and has since passed on, so we do not know what would have been his stance in the current dispensation.
Tawana’s grandmother fled the bombings of the Rhodesian warplanes with a baby on her back and another at her hand. I recall vividly our two mothers sharing stories on being bombed during our wedding dinner. They instantly got along so well, despite the geographical and social distances between them, sharing their stories of the experiences of war.
So Tawana’s mother is a Nazi granddaughter and also a Zimbabwean muroora who is working on transitional justice issues, a person who was obsessing with the memories of the Holocaust since a young age, who lived through an intense close engagement with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and now stands in front of you to ask questions about transitional justice in Zimbabwe.
Now you have an idea where I am speaking from, and why a white German woman would stand in front of a Zimbabwean gathering at this moment in time speaking of such issues.
In the work of transitional justice, it is important to locate your voice at all times, for who can speak about what is a truly sensitive matter? So, speaking from the place I have sketched through personal memory, I am asking: What kind of future can we build for Tawana? What kind of future will allows the reconciliation of these multiple ancestral lines that are perhaps asking to be redeemed and healed? What kind of future for Zimbabwe?
I have entered transitional justice through the back door now, via the personal register, using the anthropological lens and the emotive lens of personal memory. You may ask yourself: How does this soft, fuzzy, emotive, memory-infused dimension relate to the ‘hard’ politics of the day that we usually consider primary when we talk of transitional justice? How does this psychological reality of four generations from two continents relate to the ‘business’ of transitional justice – if we accept the reductionist interpretation of transitional justice as creating state- led mechanisms for publicly engaging (and somehow pacifying) violent pasts?
Like others, I, too, wonder at times why transitional justice has gained such prominence, why has it become so fashionable. I suspect it is because it poses a central question, linked to an age-old and ever-new dream of humanity: Can we as human beings facilitate our own evolution beyond never-ending cycles of violence and atrocity?
Last week I was in Cambodia at a gathering on memory and memorialization. I walked the killing fields in a country of seven million people, where two million were brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime about thirty years ago. This was done in the name of ideological re-education, in the name of a better human and a better humanity – but this ‘perfect human’ was, once more, as in the times of the Nazis, fashioned in blood.
There is a second generation now in Cambodia, coming alive with trying to make sense of this, to make meaning, to shape its own identity and sense of purpose. They are asking their parents: What happened? They meet. First silence, then stories of victimhood, perhaps traces of harm in their families, harm done and harm received, and also some perpetrator heroism and bravado. This new generation is asking new questions, and they are bringing the past onto the community stage, if not yet the political stage. Founding history-oriented organizations and projects, they ignite the conversation about the past through trans-generational dialogues at village level, in universities, at memorial sites, bringing their questions into society in new ways.
This is to say that dealing with the past always happens. People always remember. Perhaps they always also suppress, perhaps forget. Then they re- remember and, in spite of repression and silences, memories resurface as a new generation comes of age and asks new questions.
There is speech and silence according to the context and time. Transitional justice needs from us the skill to ‘read’ the phases of life that people who were violated are living through, not just freeze them into the moment of the violation. Life goes on, other things happen, everyday chores need attention. Victims of violation tend to have a heightened sense of memory as they approach their passing from this life. Those who violated usually also consider themselves to be victims, just from another time or place.
As one generation prepares to pass on, the conversation about the past often suddenly regains traction and detail. Untold truths surface. This does not always seep into the public sphere, though. The political environment of the day matters, the levels of fear, denial and the risk of public telling. Often, the stories that are told in private, in families, are different from those that dominate in communities, which may yet again be different from those that dominate at societal level.
Transitional justice in that sense is about creating a public moment in a collective for telling the story afresh of who this collective is and aspires to be. Transitional justice takes Ben Okri quite literally in its assumption that (truth)- telling is transformative: ‘We live by stories, we also live in them. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.’
There is a paradox here. While transitional justice is meant to mark an incision in time, a new beginning, a different era, it can at the same time be considered an effort at repairing and re-stor(y)ing ruptures across time. So possibly, the very rupture created by a radical change-over is another one that must then be attended to and mended later.
Through violent conflict the connections in the web of life are interrupted, damaged, severed. Which connections? Relations among the living are damaged.
Relations between the living and the dead have been unhinged, are out of order. Relations with those yet to be born are at stake – the contract with future generations is unclear, needs to be renegotiated perhaps.
I look at transitional justice as a window in time. Transitional justice is a particular, momentary window in the trans-generational, ever-continuous process of dealing with the past. It is an intentional, conscious and societal effort at dealing with the past. If, however, transitional justice becomes a matter of Dealing With The Past (in capital letters), to rewrite certain personal experiences into History (with a capital H), then it may merely lend itself to setting up and establishing the next exclusive and undemocratic dispensation. If the past is to be dealt with ‘once and for all’, it is likely to celebrate the virtues of some to the exclusion of others. Then transitional justice becomes about Vlamik Volkan’s ‘chosen traumas’ and ‘chosen glories’, not transformative at the core but, rather, built on claims to a victimhood that justify violence against others.3
Yet transitional justice also has the potential inherent in seeking to restore the relations between the living, the dead and unborn future generations. If we consider the past to be a living story, then violence is a disruption of this story. The past is a generative energy that seeks to find and engage where the narrative cycle has been broken and start the repairs as well as invent new futures. Hugo von Hofmannsthal referred to collective memory in 1902, which he spoke of as ‘the damned up force of our mysterious ancestors within us’.4
Dealing with the past is the ongoing effort to restore and create anew a coherent narrative of who we are in the here and now. This happens with and without transitional justice. After disruption, war and violence, people embark on a search for meaning. They repair damage in the everyday. They search for and recreate aliveness.
Transitional justice in the 1990s, as I experienced it in South Africa, was a staged moment for retrospection and prospection – it was meant as ‘looking back in order to look forward’, based on the core assumption that indeed looking backward enables going forward.
At the same time, transitional justice as a political project and projection was inevitably tied up with the processes of nation-building, which are by default exclusive. As we focus on creating the kind of post-colonial citizenship that would be based on rights realized, we turn a blind eye to the phenomenon of migration and people’s movements across borders on the continent. While many are victims of displacement due to violence, there are also age-old circular migration routes for purposes of trade. The nation-state does not provide the kind of protection that would be needed for women who cross borders regularly and often illegally to fend for their families. The South African nation has become one of xenophobia and exclusion, as truth, reconciliation and rights apply to citizens or those deemed worthy of being part of the formal system, where one has access to make those rights real in any form.
3 See <https://www.vamikvolkan.com/Chosen-Trauma,-the-Political-Ideology-of-Entitlement- and-Violence.php>.
4 Jeffrey K. Olick and Joyce Robbins, ‘Social memory studies: From “collective memory” to the historical sociology of mnemonic practices’, Annual Review of Sociology (1998), 24: 106.
In South Africa there was hope that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be a kind of ‘silver bullet’, a once-and-for-all, fix-all cure to neatly bag 350 years of brutal colonial conquest and to heal the consequences of nearly fifty years of an institutionalized crime against humanity called apartheid. We thought somehow that we could put it in the bag in the name of humanity, in the name of Steve Biko’s quest for a more human face, in the name of Madiba’s twenty-seven years in prison and Tutu’s extraordinary kindness and compassion.
It was no magic bullet. We thought the pain would go away. It has not. We are divided, hurt, angry, furious, shameful, guilt-ridden, and as violent, not least to ourselves. Our institutions are fragile because they can only be as resilient as our people are healed and at peace in their own hearts and from there with each other. We are not at peace in South Africa. When 500 young men die every six months in an area called Nyanga Crossroads in Cape Town, what kind of peace is that? Those are more deaths than counted in Afghanistan over such a period. We are at war and in denial.
Graça Machel was calling for a second TRC this week. She asked that South Africa consider that the need for an ongoing national dialogue has not ended, and that such a dialogue is intimately interwoven with the processes of the ongoing engagement with the multiple truths and perceptions of the past.
Why would we need a second TRC? What can a national conversation about what happened achieve when structures remain unchanged? Is it really time for talking in the wake of disasters such as Lonmin? But perhaps the brutal killing of the thirty-four mine workers was exactly not that, not a disaster but a trajectory coming full circle. What is happening? How do we make sense? Suddenly every- body is speaking of the collective trauma and the denial we are in. What do we need to do now? We may be at war and in denial but South Africans are also
14 International Conference on Transitional Justice, Zimbabwe
innovative and vibrant, joyful and funny. How will we use that ability to relate across enormous social distances now that served the transition so well in the mid-1990s?
Does that mean we are transitioning forever, that transition has no end? In the cyclic view time, that is the determining look at reality. There are just gener- ational changeovers, not really endings and beginnings. Transitional justice is a marking of time, no more. Looking at what transitional justice set out to do in the 1990s – pointing out collectively that an autocratic regime had ended – and what is projected into it now – healing, repairing and transforming fragile states and situations of protracted conflict – it is evident that we set ourselves up to fail if we think that transitional justice is a remedy for all social and political ills. We have seen the limits to transformation the minute we seek finite endings and certainty of change.
Instead, what the TRC did enables, and what future processes at best can facilitate is moments of introspection (looking inwards) and of transpection (looking across time) – moments of recognizing both continuities and shifts, of becoming better observers of what is actually happening around us, less emotionally entangled in our own projections.
What was the TRC then? It was such a moment to mark time, to say that we have now chosen to live a different story. There is now a different South Africa, a plea to the world to see us in our striving and in our failures. The state sought to reinvent itself, only to find old patterns and forms resurfacing. Apartheid former security operatives now running businesses are caught dumping school textbooks in fields, former honourable comrades are found with their hands in the cookie jar. Cynicism reigns supreme among many that the TRC was all mercy and no justice, all talk and no repair, that golden handshakes were given while people’s suffering continues unmitigated and structural injustice prevails. Which is true.
Travelling eighteen years into independence, we have not yet fully embraced our interdependence, or made amends, or sufficiently begun to repair the devas- tated lives of survivors. In this region we can learn a lot from Kenya, Uganda, from colleagues in West Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia, who have been travelling the post-independence road for longer, through several cycles.
We know we need to learn to live in contestation non-violently, to value conflict as a teacher and a change-maker, if we heed the signs. We need to pass on the ability to stay in dialogue with the next generation, not to sell a rainbow story that appears an empty dream for many or to give promises of a change that is always just out of reach.
But how do you do that when so many are hungry, tired, fearful, shameful, or feel helpless, guilty, threatened?
How do you heal when there is a void in the soul that makes people grab and grab and grab but when this void can never be filled with material things?
Just a word on corruption, which seems to dominate the South African head- lines so much. What does this have to do with transitional justice? Corrumpere, the Latin word at the root of the word corruption, means literally ‘tearing apart’. What is torn apart here? What is torn apart in the soul of the person who is trying to fill a void that covers a pain that is unseen?
We want transitional justice to ‘fix things’, to make right, to stand for noble causes. But in transitional justice expert gatherings we tend to want to forget about pain as well. We want survivors to speak, even cry, but within confined and pre-mediated registers that we set for them. We do not want them to go berserk on stage, to shout and scream and holler their pain onto the nation. We provide counsellors and escort out those who collapse. We do not have the means or energy to walk the journey of pain that often follows after having allowed the ‘raw recall’ of pain in front of media and public. Not without reason the survivors have accused us in the transitional justice world of orchestrating displays of suffering without remedies on offer. Who or what are these displays of suffering feeding? What do we need them for? What do they give to survivors and what is the cost?
At worst, in transitional justice, we may think we can sanitize a living process of memory of atrocity through some clever social engineering, if only we get it right. Are we out to sell the perfect package deal of tribunal, truth commission, repar- ations and institutional reform programme, with some touchy-feely reconciliation measures as the cherry on top to make what is quite a bitter dish palatable?
And yet … we can make witness, even if at the heart of violence and atrocity there remains something unspeakable and beyond our intellectual understanding. Even when the raw recall of pain has a cost that is too much to ask for. We can and need to stay with it. Because it means that we choose not to look away when we meet those damaged by war and violence, even when the encounter rattles us. We can choose to look inside and attend to our own healing, as most transitional justice experts come into the field with their own story to tell and in search of their own answers to questions perhaps posed by a distant ancestor of their own. We have the choice to show up differently when we meet our neighbour, every day.
What of Zimbabwe?
What story are you living in? What story are we living inside, here in the region? How do we want to live?
Transitional justice is not reducible to four or five pillars and a package deal of interventions flown in by experts and funders, who may advise that one cannot look back any further than 1980 or 1960 when the living-memory-times before clearly shape the now. Public state-led efforts at changing the mainstream narrative are to be handled with care, always. Transitional justice needs its mechanics and its time periods so that efforts at repair and restoration can be handled by legal and other state processes. At the same time, dealing with the past is not and need not stay limited within those bounds. Hence, the processes we create around official transitional justice and state measures are as critical as are those at the centre of attention.
Dealing with the past happens with or without the transitional justice experts, and not all stories can or should be told in a temporary, often symbolic, transitional justice process. Multiple spaces can be made where they are told. The African chance in being the central focus of transitional justice efforts worldwide is to innovate, to refuse the pre-packaged deal and to be inventive:
How de we enable acknowledgement and the concrete repair and betterment of lives for those who suffered?
How do we enable consciousness and transformation for those who inflicted harm, on grounds of their own unseen, unattended pains of the past?
This is not to romanticize traditions that badly need an overhaul but to use their deep cultural resourcefulness for dialogue, in a quest for justice and peace.
It is also not to vilify international criminal justice as a mere Western hegemonic invention set to neo-colonize Africa but to point out its contradictions, its limitations in the African context.
It is not to be naive about bringing the victims and perpetrators of particular deeds together, thinking that speaking and encounter is always beneficial.
There is a need to create spaces where Zimbabwe can have the conversation about itself – past, present and future – as it becomes possible, and especially across generations, with young people. There is a need to allow young people to make up their own minds, rather than lecturing them about experiences they have not had, that are not part of their reality.
There is a need to speak about how men and women have experienced the situation differently and what they need to recover, transform and heal.
I reiterate that the African chance is to innovate – to refuse the pre-packaged deal. Not to buy what the transitional justice experts, like myself, say, but to make your own, using your own vitality creativity and courage. Follow your hearts and invent the best possible conversation for this moment in time, be it national, or localized, or both. Chose carefully how you show up to the task every day, and be prepared to be in for the long haul.
I am hopeful about Zimbabwe. I have a sense that you lead us in the region in terms of post-independence politics and efforts at transformation. We walk behind you ‘down south’, with our seedling of democracy. You have at least a rooting of democracy in the agile and questioning minds of the Zimbabwean people, who have never stopped reading newspapers and questioning the information they find.
Let me end by asking: What will life look like in 2212? If we are looking at the 200-year present, then we are looking to start a conversation here that spans across four generations.
How will that conversation be part of creating that new age of peace and prosperity for the region and for this continent?