National reconciliation without accountability rings hollow

By R. Drew Smith, Sojourners, October 21, 2019

Twenty-five years ago, Nelson Mandela was elected South African president after serving 27 years in prison for leading resistance against racially-oppressive apartheid rule. During that same moment in April of 1994, a horrible tragedy was unfolding further north on the African continent as longstanding ethnic grievances within Rwanda irrupted into a spate of genocidal violence that took the lives of approximately one million Rwandans.

With 1994 signaling new beginnings within South Africa and social catastrophe within Rwanda, it certainly seemed at the time that South Africa was on better footing than Rwanda to address deep-seated conflict within its context.

But 25 years later, Rwanda has far outpaced South Africa in its progress toward social healing and unity, due in no small part to the breadth of the Rwandan people’s commitment to accounting for the atrocities of 1994.

Rwanda’s several months of massive violence were quickly followed by the November 1994 creation of an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), established through a United Nations Security Council resolution. By the time ICTR closed its work in December 2015, it had prosecuted 93 persons and sentenced 61, including the former prime minister, Defense Ministry chief of staff, and Army chief of staff.

Nonetheless, the ICTR was widely criticized, especially for prosecuting so few people at such a high operating cost (more than $2 billion), and for its bureaucracy, elongated trials, and lack of attention to reparations.

With hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects imprisoned and awaiting trial, and with ICTR jurisprudence supplemented mainly by conventional Rwandan courts that had tried only 1,292 genocide suspects by 1998, the Rwandan government turned to a traditional system of community-based courts with deep roots in Rwandan culture. Historically, these traditional courts, known as gacaca, utilized local elders in resolving minor civil disputes related mainly to matters pertaining to property, inheritance, and marital relations.

By 2005, the Rwandan government established a network of more than 12,000 of these gacaca courts that presided over almost two million genocide-related cases through 2012, with 65 percent resulting in conviction. Sentences ranged from extended jail time with hard labor to release back into communities to assist with the rebuilding process. Critics have pointed out however that gacaca courts fell “well short of international legal standards,” particularly with respect to the training and impartiality of judges and access by defendants to legal representation. Nevertheless, details derived from court testimonies provided many Rwandans, individually and collectively, with information about the genocide that proved critical to closure and moving forward.

South Africa also initiated a national truth-telling process with the 1995 launching of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC, established by an Act of Parliament and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, centered upon detailing apartheid-era human rights violations through public testimony from victims and perpetrators. Testimonies received in these often-televised hearings were to provide a basis for charges against perpetrators, amnesty for the perpetrators who fully disclosed their crimes, and reparations and rehabilitation for victims.

By the time TRC concluded its work in 2002, more than 2,000 persons had testified before the Commission and more than 7,000 persons had petitioned for amnesty. Although only 849 persons succeeded in their amnesty petitions, the vast majority of those denied amnesty were never tried for their offences.

The TRC was roundly criticized for permitting so few grievances to be heard and for facilitating a national process where apologies from perpetrators — aimed at eliciting forgiveness from victims — seemingly served as substitutes for accountability.

Insistence on accountability for wrongdoing was responded to through varying degrees of commitment by the Rwandan and South African governments to reparations for victims. In South Africa, President Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, authorized a one-off $4,000 payment to 18,000 persons who had applied for reparations. In Rwanda, the post-genocide government established a Genocide Survivors Assistance Fund in 1996 to which it committed a six percent allocation from the annual national budget while also requiring a one percent contribution of gross annual salary from every public sector and private sector employee through 2008.

For all the good accomplished in the two countries’ efforts to account for the past, there were obvious limitations within each national approach, and noticeable differences between the two countries in the extent of testimony-gathering, punishment for crimes, and reparations to victims.

Not surprisingly, the wider scale and scope of Rwanda’s efforts compared to South Africa’s fueled greater confidence among Rwandans than South Africans in their nation’s ability to overcome its past.

According to a Reconciliation Barometer survey administered in South Africa in 2017, and in Rwanda in 2015, there was quite a contrast between the two countries in how citizens viewed reconciliation efforts. Ninety-six percent of Rwandans but only 56 percent of South Africans indicated their nation had made good progress toward reconciliation. Eighty-five percent of Rwandans but only 47 percent of South Africans reported they or persons close to them had personally experienced reconciliation.

Specific to economic metrics, 88 percent of Rwandans felt property looted or destroyed during the genocide had been compensated, while 70 percent of South Africans viewed black poverty and landlessness alongside white wealth as enduring effects of apartheid, Also, 62 percent of South Africans felt reconciliation to be “impossible as long as people disadvantaged under apartheid continue to be poor.”

Although achievement of unity and common cause relies on many factors, it is important to note 95 percent of Rwandans as compared to 78 percent of South Africans said their national identity was an important part of how they see themselves. Moreover, 94 percent of Rwandan respondents agreed with the statement, “Rwandans are now committed to fight … against anything that may cause again divisions and genocide,” compared to 68 percent of South Africans who believed it possible “to create one united South African nation” out of all its different groups.

Rwanda and South Africa have overcome much since 1994. Nevertheless, the variances between the two in accounting for wrongdoing and in facilitating social healing seem instructive to anyone concerned with peace.

R. Drew Smith, Ph.D. is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. He can be followed on Twitter @RDrewSmith1

A visit to the Hekima university college chapel during the TRRR conference

By: Faith Ondeng | faith.ondeng@hekima.ac.ke

TRRR delegates in front of Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Reliations

The 8th Transatlantic Round table Conference on Religion and Race (TRRR) was convened in Nairobi, Kenya, at Hekima Institute of peace studies and International Relations (HIPSIR). Hekima is a Christian and Jesuit Institution that offers MA in peace studies and international relations, and BA in theology. In addition, the college has a center for research, training and publications. The T triple R conference is a community of discourse on religious responses to issues of race and brings together religious leaders, scholars, civil society organizations and governmental leaders in round table discussions.

Coincidentally, the 2019 theme of the TRRR conference, ‘old divisions new social formations: Africa and the diaspora’, fits with the symbolism of the painting in the Hekima chapel. They are not only thought provoking but also presents an urgency for action.

As you step in the university, the Hekima University College chapel is eye catching. It’s central location within the compound, the beautiful garden plants and the stained-glass doors welcomes you to a place of worship and adoration. As delegates get seated, one could easily notice a steady and intent look in admiration of the paintings and other art behind the center alter of the chapel. Dr. Elias Omondi, director of HIPSIR and a Jesuit priest, took the stage to brief the delegates and students on the triptych at the alter which was designed by an African Jesuit artist and scholar from Cameroon, Fr. Engelbert Mveng. The beautiful image at the center depicts an elevated Christ with a lustrous bright yellow color at the background, he said. At his feet are two figures, one with arms stretched out to him and the other pointing at ‘the city’. This magnificent image is sandwiched by scenes from the bible; on the right, is the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and on the left is the miracle of Cana.

Strategically located at the bottom center of the middle panel is ‘the city of Nairobi’. In an article published in 2012, Fr. Kpanie Addy, points out to the symbolism and ambivalence of the city through 3 lenses; First the biblical perspectives. Enoch as the first city of the bible, which originated as a place of refuge and protection for Cain and but also a birthplace for civilization and invention. Furthermore, the bible notes the emergence of several other cities, some representing evil like Sodom and Gomorrah while some others are outstanding like Jerusalem. The second perspective is within the African context. In this context, the city is representated in a clear dichotomy of the rural and urban, one that can be viewed as a deliberate establishment by the colonial masters of a social structure that restricts black people’s access to the urban cities. Thus, a place of alienation, exclusion and exploitation but also a place of acculturation and survival especially in the contemporary society. The third perspective is that of the artists. A lens that encapsulates the first two perspectives. According to the Fr. Mveng, the city represents the church in its inherent ambiguity. Whereby racism among other evils proceed Christ’s mission even among the missionaries on one hand and on the other, is the active role played by the church in advocating for social justice and peace in conflict situations.

400th Year Remembrances of Slavery Should Prompt Renewed Attention to U.S.-Africa Policies

By R. Drew Smith
Professor, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Co-Convener, Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race

With 2019 regarded by many as marking 400 years since the beginnings of African enslavement on the North American continent, the costs and consequences of that historic atrocity and the case for reparations for descendants of slavery have been receiving considerable attention. It is crucial there be a serious accounting of slavery, including a financial accounting of slavery’s impact on economic disparities along race lines, and this year’s quadricentennial commemorative activities have served as an occasion for some of the most far-reaching political and even theological discussions of these matters to date within the U.S.

But as mobilizations around reparations proceed, there should also be a focus on repairing severed cultural, religious, political, and economic ties between African-descended persons throughout the Americas and African peoples on the continent.

This was the thinking behind the designation of 2019 as an Africa diaspora Year of Return to Africa, with that return taking place symbolically through visits to Ghana and the castles on its coast from which many Africans began their journey into enslavement in the Americas. Scheduled to coincide with the August 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, persons from across the Americas have been assembling for remembrance ceremonies in Ghana this month, including a U.S. congressional delegation comprised of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 13 members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Nonetheless, 2019 also serves as a sad reminder of historically fraught political and economic relations between the U.S. and Africa—and of how little critical attention U.S. missteps in its governmental relations with Africa have received from American faith leaders.

After years of social neglect and economic abuse, U.S. governmental policies began showing improvements during Bill Clinton’s administration, especially with the signing into law in 2000 of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. This was a preferential trade agreement that increased sub-Saharan African exports to the U.S. from roughly $25 billion in 2000 to a high point of $86 billion in 2008 before declining to $50 billion in 2012 and then to $20 billion by 2016.1 George W. Bush’s administration produced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which allocated $15 billion for AIDS relief initiatives between 2003 and 2008 and authorized another $48 billion in 2008. Twelve of the 15 countries targeted by the program were located in Africa.2 Several key Africa initiatives emerged during Barack Obama’s administration, including the Power Africa Initiative (which pledged $7 billion in governmental aid and generated $14 billion in matching private sector funds) and the Young African Leaders Initiative (which produced a network of more than 250,000 young African leaders).3

Donald Trump’s Africa policy has been remarkable more for its inactivity, lack of focus, and pejorative tone. As Trump was preparing to assume the presidency in 2016, he tweeted: “Every penny of the $7 billion going to Africa as per Obama will be stolen — corruption is rampant!”4 In case that didn’t make clear how negatively Trump viewed Africa, his January 2019 disparagements of African and several other global south nations as “shithole countries” made his low regard for Africa abundantly clear.

Trump’s attitude toward Africa has been deeply problematic, but even where there were laudable developments in U.S.-Africa policy from the Clinton administration forward, the real legacy has remained largely one of ongoing neglect.

Meanwhile, many of the Africa advocacy organizations within the U.S. that had established discernible footing and voice during the 1970s and 1980s had lost momentum by the 1990s. This was an Africa advocacy infrastructure in which faith leaders and their religious constituencies played a strategic role—and African American clergy were a very prominent part of this Africa advocacy work. A cadre of African American civil rights movement clergy championed African decolonization and nation-building during the 1950s and 1960s, post-independence African development during the 1970s, and were on the front lines of U.S. anti-apartheid activism during the 1980s and early-1990s.

By the time South African apartheid officially ended in 1994 however, Africa advocacy organizations in the U.S. were struggling with their directional footing and with maintaining funding and support, including from the activist faith-based networks that had been primary partners in their advocacy work.

So when the U.S. government did little to respond as a million Rwandan lives were lost to genocide in 1994, and as more than 11,000 lives were lost between late-2013 and 2015 to an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and as protracted violent conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo led to millions of deaths over the past two decades, Africa advocacy organizations within the U.S. could not apply the same level of pressure for action they did during their 1980s anti-apartheid activism.

The inability of these organizations to assert political pressure and the lack of a systematically mobilized U.S. faith sector around African urgencies from 1994 forward were closely interrelated.

Systematic and substantive responses to social urgencies are necessary, but Africa is also a context experiencing some of the greatest economic growth, technological expansion, educational vitality, and cultural and religious vibrancy of any place in the world.

U.S. policy approaches to Africa should be guided by a concern for social need but also by a commitment to allying with vital developmental initiatives taking place within Africa.

A strong Africa advocacy sector in the U.S. is essential to carrying out those objectives. As in the past, this ongoing work will require strong support from the faith community, and a new generation of African American faith leaders should be leading the charge to bolster the hard work being done by a diligent but institutionally diminished Africa advocacy sector.


  1. John Campbell, “What is the African Growth and Opportunity Act?” Council on Foreign Relations, February 17, 2017, https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-african-growth-and-opportunity-act
  2. R. Drew Smith, “Balancing Faith-Based Strategies in U.S.-Africa Policy,” Review of Faith & International Affairs, September 2008
  3. Danielle Kwateng-Clark, “The Obama legacy in Africa,” NewsOne, December 1, 2016, https://newsone.com/3605160/the-obama-legacy-in-africa/
  4. BBC, “Barack Obama: How will Africa remember him?” BBC News, January 18, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38649362

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