University of Aberdeen
Many times in the past few years the news media, political commentators, and politicians have described South Africa – unemployed youth in particular – as ‘a ticking time bomb’. I refer to South Africa because it’s the context I’m most familiar with, but the causes of unrest in the most deprived areas of society are similar in many postconflict situations: lasting unemployment, inadequate service delivery, disenchantment with politicians who repeatedly break their promises, a lack of hope in long-deferred structural changes to society. What’s more, the people living their lives in degrading and dispiriting environments, the people politicians fear hold the match to the fuse, these are very often the same people who made considerable compromises during peacebuilding processes and the transition to democratic rule for an equal-rights society. People inevitably ask the question: ‘How long do we have to wait before we see the change we hoped for?’
I recently attended a fascinating lecture (a launch event for the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice) by the Canadian academic-author-politician Michael Ignatieff, in which he described the democratic project in divided societies as different to peaceful ones. It is not enough for politicians to show good faith and a democratic ethic, they have to transform relationships previously based on fear, to ones based on trust. He described democracy as a work in progress in which political opponents continuously have to take risks to push for change. The depiction fits well with his earlier comments that democracy is ‘timeless’, ‘interminable’, ‘grinding’. At the time and reflecting on his words later on, I thought he was probably correct – democracy is all those things. But there is an overwhelming sense that for citizens in postconflict societies who opted for peace and the hope for something better, time marches relentlessly onwards. They feel the grind of democracy more acutely than others, as a gristmill, perhaps, that somehow never seems to turn the grain into flour.
In a manner of speaking, victims of conflict shook hands with adversaries years ago and were willing to be moral beacons of change, but politics and politicians have failed to follow their lead. There is no doubt that there is a difference between a ‘timeless’ democracy that delivers benefits to citizens and an ‘interminable’ system run by parliamentarians unwilling to form and transform relationships with those on the other side. Professor Ignatieff described politics in its purest form as ‘a vocation’ – ‘a
calling’ to which individuals respond in the service of voters. It’s clear that politics does not resemble this ideal in South Africa. John Brewer posed this question in an earlier post [http://blogs.qub.ac.uk/compromiseafterconflict/2013/06/07/what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-moral-beacon/]: ‘So do we take our lead from the victims, the very moral beacons we claim to be supporting, or do we let their spokespeople set the agenda?’ In postconflict representative democracies, parliamentarians are meant to support and speak for victims. To do this properly they need now to listen to what victims – and their families – are saying. Furthermore, since relationships and identities change continually in postconflict societies, sometimes for the worse, politicians would do well to take a retrospective look at victims’ hopes at the time of transition. The guiding light many of them provided at the time may have grown faint in the intervening years. But if politicians can discern it, they will hopefully realign and invigorate their political goals. It’s surely the only way people who continue to suffer from the injustices of the past could begin to see democracy as a long process of change and not an interminable stalemate.