At the Service of Reconciliation in Africa

Director of Peace Institute Reflects on Brokering Justice and Peace on the Continent

Pretoria, South Africa, (Zenit.org) Giovanni Patriarca | 863 hits

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute in Pretoria has for many years been at the forefront of peace and reconciliation initiatives in Africa. In this interview for ZENIT, Fr. Sean O’Leary M.Afr, director of the DHPI, explains some of the institute's history, reflects on the current conflict situation in parts of Africa, and discusses the impact of Africae Munus, Pope Benedict XVI's 2011 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the continent. 

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute in Pretoria is a point of reference in a geographic area characterized by misunderstanding and contraposition. Can you briefly outline the history and origins of such a remarkable institution?

Since the democratic transition in 1994, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) has received numerous requests for assistance in the area of conflict management from the Catholic Church across the African continent. South Africa owes a huge debt to its African neighbours for the support they gave to the country during the dark days of Apartheid. The Bishops felt the need to repay that debt by responding as best they could to the requests they received. The lot fell on the Justice and Peace Department of the SACBC to actually go to those countries and support them in whichever way they could.

The outcome was that the Justice and Peace Department was spending much of its time out of the country and that the Justice and Peace work in the country was suffering! Therefore, the Bishops decided to establish a Peace Institute, which would have the specific mandate to respond to the call of Africa. Bishop Kevin Dowling, working with the then Coordinator of the Justice and Peace Department, Mr. Neville Gabriel, were mandated to propose how this Peace Institute would come into being.

Numerous consultations took place across a wide section of South African society and indeed beyond the borders and the final result was the establishment of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute in 2004. Archbishop Denis Hurley, a legend in the struggle against Apartheid had passed away that year and so it made every sense to call the new Peace Institute after him.

It is important to state clearly that the work being carried out by the Denis Hurley Peace Institute (DHPI) is the work of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference, as DHPI is an Associate Body of the SACBC. In all eight countries listed below Bishops from the SACBC have made numerous solidarity visits to these countries that have been hugely appreciated in particular by the local church and in general by the local population

During your experience at the Institute you faced many delicate situations trying to find a solution in name of solidarity and mutual respect.  Where are the new risks and challenges in the so-called after Apartheid-era?

Ethiopia: The latest request is for workshops to be held with diocesan priests and clergy (religious) on the issue of ethnical conflict in dioceses. Ethnicity is a major problem. The Archdiocese of Addis Ababa is done now DHP has a request from three more dioceses. DHPI may do a workshop at the level of the Bishops Conference on ethnicity as well.

South Sudan: The war with Sudan continues over the outstanding and non-implemented protocols of the Global Peace Agreement (GPA) such as where the border between the two countries is, a referendum in South Kodafan and consultations in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile about where they want to live and the oil exportation issue. Negotiations are taking place in Addis Ababa. Conflict is also a continuous menace in South Sudan among rival armed factions. DHPI is involved in the constitutional writing process engaging as we do with civil society. 

Swaziland: The September 20th selection, one cannot call it an election, seriously divided the opposition as two parties contested and two boycotted and in the process created a situation where they refuse to meet with each other. IN 2014, DHPI intends to change strategy and engage with the monarchy, while attempting to reconcile the opposition.

Zimbabwe: In 2014, DHPI will embark on a new program over a three year period bringing Chapter 4 of the new constitution, the Bill of Rights, to the people in the Archdiocese of Bulawayo and the Dioceses of Hwange and Gokwe. DHPI will also tackle common law issues affecting local communities such as marriage issues around inheritance, wills, labour law, property rights etc.

Sudan: DHPI will continue the solidarity visits to Khartoum and have already lobbied the AU for intervention concerning the plight of South Sudanese living in Sudan, especially those living in informal transit camps. The next visit will be at the end of November 2013.

DRC:  The wars rage on! Not least the war against the M23. No one is taking the recently declared ceasefire seriously. SA has 1,300 troops deployed in the Kivu Provinces. DHPI is assisting the Kivu dioceses to identify, train, cloth and deploy local monitors for the first ever local elections in 2014. DHPI is also in association with the local Church planning a workshop on the Militarisation of the Kivu Provinces to take place mid-2014.

Burundi: DHPI is in contact with the Burundi Church and assisting them to set up an Institute for Reconciliation and Healing in Bujumbura. 

Madagascar: DHPI has been invited in 2014 to become involved in the Madagascar conflict by interacting with the Catholic Church which is perceived to be more part of the problem than the solution.

In the light of the Catholic Social Teaching, the Institute´s goals are to enhance capacity of faith-based leadership in peacemaking and to increase successful advocacy for an end to violent conflict. How can these points be achieved in a context of so many social, ethnic and economic variables?

Each situation has its own unique context so all initiatives begin with a contextual and situational analysis. This has to be the starting point as one can only work with what one finds on the ground and not with what would like to find on the ground. Experience has shown that working for ‘peace’ is far harder than working for ‘justice’. In many cases (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Kenya to name but a few) the price of genuine lasting peace is often justice and truth. You pay a price for peace and usually justice and truth are that price. The principles of CST are often found wanting.

Contrary to what many think, what we have learnt from experience in trying to build peace in Africa is not that there needs to be a trade-off between peace and justice but rather a trade-off between different forms of justice. “The political leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle prioritized political justice over criminal justice. The rationale was simple: where there was no victor, one would need the cooperation of the very leaders who would otherwise be charged with war crimes to end the fighting and initiate political reform. The essence can be summed up in a single phrase: forgive but do not forget. Forgive all past crimes – in plain words, immunity from prosecution – provided that both sides agree to change the rules to assure political justice for the living.”

The South African lesson has guided African practice in other difficult situations. In Mozambique, Renamo sits in Parliament instead of jail or in the dock! In South Sudan, too, there would have been neither peace nor a reform of the political system without an agreement not to pursue criminal justice. Burundi is the latest example, as it finally steps out of the wreckage of decades of civil war realizing that the only peaceful way forward is to try and live together.

At a recent conference I attended in Burundi, the thorny issue of accessing the truth and trying to agree on a common definition of reconciliation dominated proceedings. Many felt Burundi was not ready for reconciliation. This is a price too high to demand at this present juncture in time. The memories remain too vivid, the wounds too open to seriously ask people to reconcile. In fact, there was a general agreement that for Burundi at this moment the word reconciliation means ‘the minimum it takes to live together as a people without killing each other’. This may seem odd in a European setting, but for me it is the first teetering step forward in a long road that please God will lead to national unity and lasting peace and stability.

And so Africa is redefining ancient understandings of words we often take for granted, words like ‘truth’ ‘peace’ ‘reconciliation’ and ‘justice’. Let us examine ‘justice’ with an African understanding. Retributive justice gives way to restorative justice and often the guilty do not acknowledge their responsibility for the violence they have caused, individually, institutionally nor even symbolically. Economic and socio-political amends or restitution is rarely made to those who had suffered loss of persons, property or human dignity.

In most western countries the dominant justice paradigm is retributive justice.  This aims to determine who committed a crime and to punish the perpetrators. The key actor is the state.  But restorative justice aims to heal broken relationships, to repair the damage done by the crime, and to bring harmony as widely as possible. The key actors are the victims and the perpetrators. Africa in particular of late has chosen the restorative justice model:

•             That the perpetrators of so much horror were allowed to walk free was the price that the majority of people in South Africa paid for peace. Here amnesty was traded for peace irrespective of how the victims and survivors felt.

•             That the opposition did not gain the presidency in Kenya despite the fact Raila Odinga defeated Mwai Kibaki is another example of justice being sacrificed for something more important – the end of violence and the prospect of peace for the people of Kenya.

•             Zimbabwe is another case in point where Mugabe retained power despite losing the March 2008 elections and the only way out of a violent impasse was for Morgan Tsvangirai to settle for the second best option; Prime Minister under a Mugabe presidency.

•             Northern Ireland chose a similar path!

Indeed ‘restorative justice’ is at the very heart of Catholic Social Teaching.

In certain instances, Africa chooses to reject ‘the winner-take-all’  ‘competitive democracy’  model of the West in favour of a ‘consensual democracy’, where the overall will of the people for peace and stable governance is honoured more than mathematical calculations of who won absolute power. Democracy is a fine principle, but so is peace and sometimes the people will accept a solution which puts peace above a literal interpretation of democracy.

The post-synodal apostolic exortation Africae Munus (2011) framed clearly the Church as a source of reconciliation, justice and peace.  Which strategic approach can be fruitful to establish effective organizational, educational and administrative support structures for the benefit of the humanity?

Justice and Peace ministry since its inception 50 years ago has never enjoyed a pivotal role in the mainstream Catholic Church. It is by and large viewed with suspicion by many and to a great extent marginalized much like an embarrassing sick family member. Africae Munus has changed all that and for once has put Justice and Peace ministry at the very heart of the Church’s mission and in particular in Africa. It accords a new refreshing window of opportunity that simply was not there in the past. And in many parts of the Church in Africa that moment is being seized and the outcome of the Synod implemented in very basic but effect programs precisely for the benefit of humanity.

The support structures are there within the Church and beyond. They simply need to be acknowledged and supported.