The meeting began with an unlikely handshake between the two South Africans, Tsidiso and Paul, black teenager and white policeman, orphan and murderer. Nearly a decade before, during the dark days of apartheid, Paul had killed Tsidiso’s parents in their house. Tsidiso, five at the time, was there when it happened. His grandmother found him the next morning, lying on his mother’s body.
By 1997, when the two met again in a Johannesburg office, apartheid had been abolished and the South African government had created a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to address the country’s history of institutionalized racism and violence. Before the commission itself, victims and perpetrators of violence had opportunity to give public testimony about how they’d experienced – or caused – suffering.
The TRC eventually referred some cases, including Tsidiso’s and Paul’s, to a victim-offender mediation process run by a separate group of peacebuilding organizations. Among those involved was Carl Stauffer, now co-director of CJP’s Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, then working as a peacebuilder in South Africa with Mennonite Central Committee.
Stauffer was in the room beside Tsidiso during the wrenching meeting with Paul. There was the handshake, then questions and answers about what happened, and a pause for Tsidiso to collect his ragged emotions. After Paul offered an unqualified, direct apology, the discussion turned to ways that Paul could begin mitigating the harm he’d caused: money for Tsidiso’s school fees, for the proper funeral his parents had never had, for a proper tombstone to mark their grave. They agreed to meet again to finalize their plans.
“I really believe that Paul realized for the first time that he is his brother’s keeper,” recalls Stauffer, who uses the experience as a case study in some of his classes. “It was a fascinating metaphor for South Africa.”
Kellogg Foundation initiates long-term project
When Stauffer came to EMU to teach in 2010, the idea that a similar truth and reconciliation process should happen in the United States seemed unlikely. Then came the racially charged violence, unrest and renewed national soul-searching of the past few years. In response, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) announced an ambitious, nationwide project called the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation initiative (TRHT). CJP, which has worked closely with WKKF over the past decade, is one of dozens of “implementing partners.”
“It’s actually quite refreshing and surprising in some ways for me to be involved in a national conversation around this,” said Stauffer.
The sprawling initiative, launched in January, is still in early development and specifics of EMU’s involvement are being explored, Stauffer said. Generally speaking, the years-long process is designed to uncover, understand and undo the legacy of centuries of structural racism in numerous facets of American life. According to a WKKF release, the process will model itself on similar ones in South Africa and elsewhere.
“By uncovering human rights violations and tragedies, and engaging populations in a healing process, [truth and reconciliation commissions] have historically restored dignity and respect on many occasions, paving the way for transforming of societies – a prevailing objective of the U.S. effort,” the release continues.
Because of the initiative’s broad scope and the country’s history of racism, Stauffer said individual groups and participants will need to pick specific, smaller starting points. A timely issue that CJP had become involved with prior to joining the TRHT initiative (and which will proceed in collaboration with it) is the problem of police violence in communities of color.
That conversation developed out of CJP’s relationship with Fania Davis, a California-based civil rights lawyer and founder of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), an organization that has pioneered the use of restorative justice in schools and has also signed onto the TRHT initiative. In March 2016, Davis led a Zehr Institute webinar on the possibilities for a truth and reconciliation process in response to violence against African-Americans, and in June, she and Stauffer co-taught a Summer Peacebuilding Institute course on the subject.
“We need to think about justice in a completely different way,” said Davis during the webinar, linking current violence against African-Americans to the historical trauma of slavery. “How do we transform these harms so that the killings can stop? … How do we hold systems accountable?”
One of the hopes that Davis and Stauffer share about the building momentum behind a truth and reconciliation process in the United States is that it will reflect the values of restorative justice by being widely inclusive, with input, participation and leadership from individual communities.
“I’m hoping that in this country … [the truth and reconciliation process] will not simply be a commission of experts who have been appointed to hear the evidence, to review the documents and come up with findings of fact and recommendations telling us what to do,” Davis said in the webinar.
In the context of the larger TRHT initiative, a first step in addressing that police violence might include understanding and publicly discussing the history that lives behind the disturbing present. But, Stauffer said, understanding and discussion alone are not enough.
“We have to use that as a springboard for the present and the future, for what we’re going to do to rebuild relationships in our society,” he said.\
Back in South Africa, the promising work that Tsidiso and Paul had begun went off-track. Although they’d planned a follow-up meeting, Paul’s attorney hindered attempts to arrange it and later said that Paul had simply vanished. The restitution payments for school fees and tombstone were never made. And while the fairy-tale conclusion that Stauffer and his colleagues had hoped for never came to be, he looks back on the experience as a success.
“A lot of folks come at this whole field with a zero-sum mentality,” he said. “We have to hold on to these incremental successes to understand that we’re building peace. We can’t just create it out of a good idea. It’s something we have to build, sometimes brick by brick. We count every transformational encounter as part of that success, even if it doesn’t have the full ramifications that we might want.”
As the TRHT process, modeled after the South African experience and others, is beginning in the United States, Stauffer said this idea of incremental success will be an important one to carry forward. In the coming years, he hopes to see the process culminate in a serious, sustained national discussion on the legacy of structural racism; the development of model case studies of change and healing; and, most importantly, positive change in the country’s structures, institutions and legislation: Even if scattered, if incomplete, if imperfect, they will represent progress, he said.