Remembrance and Reconciliation: Engaging with Contested History

Written by Tyler Jager

Introduction and Background

Many nation-states are guilty of an “original sin” of a sort: a case in which the state was complicit in, or more commonly, the perpetrator of, a genocide or system of oppression. In most cases, the generation that rebuilds a society fractured by this “sin,” which almost always includes primarily one-sided, horrific violence, is directly descended from the perpetrators of said violence. How is culpability determined? How is justice balanced with the need for reconciliation – the need to salvage a fully functioning society after the sin is committed? Finally, can the nation experience some semblance of recovery or healing?

In the United States, this dilemma is intertwined with its entire national identity and history; there can be no doubt that America’s original sin is slavery, an institution whose underlying ideology has lived on to the present, one hundred and fifty years after its de jure death. This failure to remember the past correctly is by no means endemic to America alone. In Russia, the tyranny of Stalinism is deemed a necessary evil; in China, the tyranny of Maoism is deemed nonexistent. The governments of Australia and Canada are both guilty of stealing entire generations of indigenous people from their native lands and societies. In addition, how to properly reconcile from more recent injuries remains an interest of nation states.

In March 2018, for example, the President of Kenya and the leader of his opposition met to discuss the election crisis of the preceding year, the “deterioration of relationships between communities”, and the disunity of Kenya (International Crisis Group 2018).  How can nations heal from wounds to national psyche in addition to more literal wounds levied upon a minority? This paper will attempt to answer that question by examining two case studies of nations that are coping with national crimes so traumatic, so momentous, that they shifted the entire nation’s centre of gravity. Rwanda is still recovering from a horrific hundred days of slaughter in 1994, and remains dependent on an overly intrusive, authoritarian government that manipulates healing as official policy. South Africa has embarked on an initially inspiring path from apartheid, but one that appears half-hearted in hindsight. This paper will judge the efforts of Rwanda and South Africa based on four essential components of meaningful confrontation with the past: commemoration, civic education, justice, and socio-economic development. The lessons learned from these two nations’ experiences are occasionally contradictory, but always revealing, and with luck, nations still contending with “Original Sins” can learn from their mistakes and emulate their successes.


The societal divides that eventually erupted in the Rwandan Genocide have roots in both colonialism and a native privileged elite. After the Berlin Conference in 1884, Germany acquired the lands of present-day Rwanda and Burundi. Germany’s power in the region lay with the Rwandan monarchy, a Tutsi clan existing since the 11th century. Rwandan kings, known as mwamis, labeled all conquered peoples “Hutus”, regardless of their ethnicity (Newbury 1988). Lineages that were wealthy in cattle and linked to powerful chiefs or warriors were deemed good enough to be Tutsi. These statuses were mobile; if a family’s fortunes changed, their Hutu status could advance to Tutsi, and vice versa. This change was so common that there is a word for it in Kinyarwanda: “kwihutura”, literally meaning “to shed Hutuness”. Until 1860, wealth, not race, provided the organising factor of society for the Kingdom of Rwanda, and social mobility was common (Pottier 2002). In many ways, the word Hutu was synonymous with a campesino-like peasant class.

However, these divides were amplified by a European presence in the region. Germany formed an alliance with the mwamis of Rwanda that, with added German military strength, allowed the king to exact greater wealth from Rwandan land. The monarchy sought to protect its status and that of the nobility, both of which were Tutsi by definition, and was heavily favored by Germany. This arrangement was still one of indirect rule; German policy was generally to defer to the Kingdom’s administration. Only when Belgium took control of Rwanda as a spoil of World War I did direct colonial rule come to Rwanda. From 1916 to 1962, the Belgian administration in Rwanda enacted “reforms” that disrupted the entire social fabric of Rwandan society, and erased most of the institutions that kept the three major social groups of Rwanda – Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa – interdependent. In 1926, the Belgians abolished the tripartite structure of land governance utilized by the mwamis, comprised of a land chief (always Hutu), a cattle chief (always Tutsi), and an army chief (Kagame 1972). Ironically, Belgian colonists intended to give Hutus more representation with this action; the result was just the opposite. In 1935, Belgium implemented an identity-card system by what they termed ethnicity. No longer was it possible for wealthy Hutus to ‘become’ Tutsi; any Rwandan born Hutu would die Hutu (Gourevitch 2000). During this period, Belgium also embarked on military campaigns to subjugate primarily Hutu regions north of Kigali; today this north-south divide still exists. Belgium supported the Tutsi monarchy up until Rwanda’s independence, when a Hutu popular revolution overthrew the king, established a republic, and expelled 336,000 Tutsis as refugees.

The events of the 1994 genocide are infamous for their sheer brutality and scale, and for the international community’s outstanding ability to do nothing to stop it. 800,000 Rwandans were murdered, mostly by their neighbors and fellow community members. Infrastructure, government, and healthcare grounded to a halt: buildings in ruins, workers disappeared enmasse, either having died or fled. UNAMIR, the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda headed by Romeo Dallaire, was famously useless. It took the efforts of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel movement started by Tutsi refugees, to stop the genocide. While UNAMIR attempted to negotiate a ceasefire, commander Paul Kagame refused to stop fighting until the killings ended. RPF captured Kigali on July 4. The genocide, from Kagame’s view, was over. The next year was one of chaos and continued violence (although not at the same level of the genocide). In April 1995, hundreds of Hutu civilians were massacred by the RPF (Clark 2017). Similar revenge killings occurred across Rwanda, committed by rogue RPF soldiers who arrived home to find “loved ones murdered and entire villages wiped out”.

Despite all the odds against it, Rwanda has not experienced mass violence since. Throughout the hills and valleys of the most densely populated country in Africa, genocide survivors live side by side with perpetrators, the vast majority of whom are successfully reintegrated into modern society. Certainly Rwanda’s recovery from utter catastrophe is impressive, beginning with its commemoration of the genocide. On the 7th of April in Rwanda this year, a hundred-day period of national mourning will commence for the one million victims of the Rwandan Genocide. President Paul Kagame will light the Flame of Remembrance at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi. This is where victims were brought, after their bodies, thrown into the streets and rivers and sewers of Kigali, were eventually recovered. They lie in graves of 100,000 each. The government, effectively synonymous with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party, will broadcast the official theme of this year’s commemoration. This theme will coincide with the RPF’s current policy priorities. In 2013, the theme was “self-reliance”; officials encouraged citizens to contribute to a national development fund to relieve the cost of lost foreign aid – lost due to Rwanda’s support for rebel groups in the eastern Congo. In 2015, the theme was “fighting genocide ideology” for the purpose of “promoting unity among Rwandans”. Hundreds of Rwandans are convicted every year for “genocide ideology”, and most are imprisoned for five years or more (Amnesty 2010). This commemoration ritual will happen in 2019, because it has happened every year for over two decades—for all twenty-four years that Kagame has been Rwanda’s leader.

Rwanda’s remembrance of the genocide is top-down: in every one of the four components examined here, the reach of the state is obvious. Perhaps most worrisome is its influence in the second component of recovery: civic education. Essentially every adult Rwandan has been through a state-run ingando education camp. The professed aim of such camps is to foster a sense of unity among Rwandans via Rwandanness (patriotism) and Rwandicity (the shared cultural aspects of being Rwandan), and dissuade Rwandans from approaching problems from a perspective of differing ethnicities. Rwandans learn about the main causes of the genocide, Rwanda’s abandonment by international community in 1994, and the song and dance rituals that are shared by both Tutsis and Hutus as cultural heritage, which are performed nightly. Finally, they learn about government policy and government priorities from a perspective of defending these policies. Ingando camps have a subtle, almost Orwellian effect beyond their seemingly innocent aims. According to interviews with camp coordinators, in ingando, “people sit together, sort differences, see things in the same way…students need ‘one way of looking at things, especially government policy” (Perdeková 2011). The narrative of coexistence and love among all Rwandans is undeniably noble, but much like most institutions in Rwanda, it is officially implemented and overseen by a group overwhelmingly constituted of the older generation of Tutsi refugees from Uganda. The strongest emphasis of ingando camps is consensus: in the words of an RPF communications adviser, one cannot build a nation without it. What exemplifies consensus more than a national leader who receives 99% of the popular vote in every election?

Most Rwandan adults have graduated from ingando camps, which will not be continued for the first generation of Rwandans born after the genocide. More and more often, Rwandans have simultaneously been participating in bottom-up, grassroots dialogue groups within villages and communities, usually facilitated by churches and private citizens. While the national narrative of the gacaca courts used to dominate discussion, today these groups place their focus on issues such as “improving food distribution, protecting communities’ security, containing disease, and family disputes” (Clark). While there is not a large body of evidence supporting the theory that this form of education is directly effective in national healing, their vast popularity suggests that Rwandans are searching for a safety valve to top-down healing, that ingando camps have not been enough to quell their need for recovery.

Rwanda’s third component of recovery, justice, is dominated by the gacaca court process. The gacaca courts were effectively the final response of the RPF to a UNSC-supported tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania. Relations between the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTR) for Rwanda and Rwanda itself were fraught from the beginning; the fact that the ICTR was not located in Rwanda complicated everything from suspect transportation to witness safety. The ICTR had no jury; the Rwandan Patriotic Front had no control over which suspects would be tried, or what penalties would given; Rwandans became “disillusioned with the process” when learning that the death penalty, as per international law, would not be an option for the perpetrators (Graybill 2004). Rwanda did not attempt Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) in the South African style, because most churches in Rwanda were complicit in the slaughter of Tutsis, and at the time, TRCs were viewed as inseparable from a religious authority. The government attempted to try all detained genocidaires via state courts, but this plan quickly collapsed due to the sheer scale of individuals being tried. 120,000 Hutu suspects of genocide were detained in 1995; practically, Rwanda could sustain the cost of holding that number of detainees, while at the same time making up for the lack of manpower in Rwanda’s agricultural industries. Instead, Rwanda invented its own version of justice: the gacaca courts.

Nearly every member of Rwandan society participated in the gacaca process, which had the ability to hand down sentences ranging from the death penalty to simply community service. 12,000 courts were assembled, their “juries” made up of 260,000 ordinary citizens. The principle of gacaca was that both public acknowledgment and punishment of crimes were essential aspects of Rwanda’s reconciliation. If perpetrators met the terms of gacaca – an honest confession to all their crimes, an apology directly to their victims, and a compensation to the victim, either in the form of money or community service – they received a far shorter prison sentence, or didn’t receive one at all. With these incentives and stipulations, the vast majority of the 400,000 prosecutions were sentenced with community service or a prison sentence under five years. Gacaca caused a “vital cross-ethnic dialogue about the causes and impact of the genocide and the successful reintegration of perpetrators who had served their sentences” (Clark). The process was far from perfect, however. While most Rwandans interviewed today agree that gacaca courts were a net positive for releasing anger and resentment, nearly all were exhausted by the ten-year process, which required one full day of every participant’s week. More seriously, the courts excluded crimes committed by RPF soldiers, such as the aforementioned massacre of Hutus in April 1995.

The last component of Rwanda’s recovery is socioeconomic development, and this is perhaps the most successful. Before the genocide, Hutus viewed Tutsis as unjustly wealthy because they were favored by Europeans; during the genocide genocidaires prioritized the capture of Tutsi land and livestock. Since the genocide, Rwanda has experienced its highest living standards in history, unprecedented economic growth (at one point, the highest in Africa), and momentous leaps in healthcare and poverty reduction. From 2000 to 2015, Rwanda cut its childcare mortality rate in half. This development has been, perhaps surprisingly, more or less equally shared by Rwanda’s people. Belgian and German colonizers left a legacy of vast economic divide between Tutsis and Hutus; that gap has almost disappeared. The bulk of credit for this social and economic growth belongs to the RPF, which emphasized development after the chaos of transitioning to peace was over. The government has focused on improvements in rural healthcare and education, and these improvements have cut across ethnic lines. Additionally, local Hutus and Tutsis have started economic cooperatives to pool resources such as fuel or seeds or co-operate whole businesses. These local cooperatives are motivated by a combination of economic necessity and an interest in mending community ties. The words of a widow belonging to a joint potters’ cooperative capture the best of the Rwandan recovery:

“Among our members, we have people whose relatives were genocidaires and people whose relatives are survivors. What we have in common is that during the genocide, we lost our husbands and everything we owned. That unites us and motivates us to share what we have.”

While these grassroots developments in Rwanda’s recovery are encouraging, much of Rwanda’s recovery and remembrance of the genocide is still facilitated by an authoritarian state.  The RPF does not suffer dissent; it has intimidated voters, harassed, imprisoned, and assassinated opposition leaders, and has occasionally prevented polls from opening in unfavorable areas of the country (Clark). Paul Kagame won the 2017 presidential election with 99% of the vote, and due to a national referendum to allow him to run for a third term (98% voted for), could remain in power until 2034. For all intents and purposes, Rwanda has known no other leader post-genocide. Rwandans greet Kagame and by proxy the whole RPF with a combination of admiration and fear. It’s likely that, even without the government’s aggressive suppression of dissent, the RPF would still win elections by a wide margin, since it is credited with so much of Rwanda’s economic development, and because people are afraid of what will come after Kagame is gone. For while it is very likely that the genocide would have proceeded if not for the RPF, it is also true that the RPF could not exist in its current state without the occurrence of genocide. The government monopolizes an official style of “healing”, of “consensus”, so that there is no room for multiple narratives – and as a result, the RPF stays in power.

South Africa

While the end of apartheid was a contemporary to the end of the Rwandan Genocide, the “reconciliation” period of South Africa’s history seems, at face value, much quicker. In April 1994, the first multi-race elections took place in South Africa since apartheid had been implemented as official policy in 1948 by the National Party. Nelson Mandela, the formerly imprisoned anti-apartheid activist and leader of the African National Congress party, was elected. The forty-six years in between were traumatic for those labeled “Africans”, “Coloureds” or “Indians”; apartheid included the forced removal of over 3 million black Africans from space designated for whites, segregation to the degree that it was dictated where black and white could live, travel, or be employed, and the creation of “homeland” complexes for Africans in remote verifiable deserts to delegitimize their South African citizenship. 18,000 people were killed for their politics. All this the National Party attempted to justify by using “separate but equal”-style doctrine, and an argument that white rule in Africa was the last line of defense against communism.

South Africa’s commemoration of apartheid is less visible than that of Germany, or even Rwanda, but what does exist is revealing. The South African Apartheid Museum is located off a stretch of highway linking Johannesburg and Soweto between a theme park and a casino. The design of the museum is based on the United States Holocaust Museum: a controlled environment designed to bring viewers along a linear narrative. But unlike the Holocaust Museum, where connections to the present are constantly being made for you, the Apartheid Museum has a singular narrative: apartheid is a thing of the past. At one point in the tour of the museum, visitors are assigned “white” and “nonwhite” identification cards and invited to enter a reconstructed prison cell with the access that those monikers would have provided, to imagine “what it must have been like” (Teeger 2007). The museum devotes all its coverage of the “present” to the famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, and so the present is easily identified as hopeful. Indeed, the museum expends far more of its time and space to explain the conflict between Afrikaners and British colonizers. According to the curators, the museum “is not meant to divide people”, “not meant to open wounds”, and not meant to make viewers “polarized about race”. The goal of this museum, similarly to that of ingando camps in Rwanda, is consensus and the discouragement of conflict.

The Apartheid Museum is indicative of a broader South African attitude towards apartheid. Apartheid has been solved, goes the narrative. The goal of South Africa today is to perfect its unique, “Rainbow-Nation” unity. This is especially visible in civic education. While learning about apartheid is mandatory in the 9th grade, the national South African curriculum regarding apartheid is so vague as to be essentially open-ended; less than 100 words long, it offers one sentence per decade of history. Teachers of apartheid are almost entirely on their own, and as a result, the history of apartheid as translated to South Africa’s next generation is completely distorted. Researcher Chana Teeger found in a study of two diverse public high schools in Johannesburg that when teaching apartheid, “all teachers, regardless of race, gender, first language, or age introduced the narrative of both sides of the story [emphasis added] into their teaching”. What is meant by “both sides of the story”? Rather than portraying blacks as victims and whites as perpetrators, teachers felt it was important to show students depictions of blacks as perpetrators and whites as victims of apartheid. Teachers in Teeger’s study performed this historical bit of gymnastics regardless of the races of students in the class. An interview with a black South African teacher, Ms. Mokoena, sheds light onto the thought process behind such a decision:

“What I noticed, particularly my first year of teaching apartheid, I noticed that the black kids made the others feel responsible for what happened…I had a lot of fights…A lot of kids started hating each other because, you know, the others are white and the others were black. And they started saying, ‘My mother is a domestic worker because she was never allowed an opportunity to get good education.’”

To introduce “unity” into her classroom, Ms. Mokoena decided to “show the involvement of all races in all the different sides” of apartheid.

The most famous aspect of the South African reconciliation process is, unequivocally, Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC was based on a combination Christian theology and redemption, and the Xhosa doctrine of ubuntu – the loss of one person’s humanity is the loss of everyone’s humanity. It offered perpetrators of grave human rights violations amnesty if they admitted to their crimes during the apartheid era. There is no doubt that the TRC hearings offered some degree of closure to South Africa in the short term. African, Indian and Coloured victims had the authority for the first time to question white perpetrators, individuals who previously held positions of power. While the immediate aim of the TRC was to get to the truth, the experience of watching the hearings, and delivering statements yourself, had the byproduct of delivering long-lost dignity to South Africa’s oppressed racial groups (Msimang 2018). In hindsight, however, the TRC seems shockingly shortsighted, considering it was the only national medium for reconciliation of South Africa. Nowhere in the TRC mandate were the structural effects of apartheid addressed. The TRC did not discuss segregated education, nor the exclusion of black Africans from entire sectors of study or employment; the TRC virtually ignored Bantustans, forced removal policies, and pass laws. The TRC sidestepped all these aspects of apartheid by emphasizing individual crimes against humanity, even though these structural aspects of apartheid constituted the majority of apartheid’s victims. And even for individual truth and reconciliation, the TRC was often deficient. While perpetrators and victims both testified, rarely did they meet. While perpetrators confessed their crimes, they almost never needed to face the actual victims of those crimes and apologize in order for amnesty to be granted. This deficiency in the TRC process may have left a psychological toll on victims; according to the director of a Cape Town trauma centre, victim-witnesses for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission often experienced a return to intensified symptoms after an initial, short-term sense of relief (Graybill 2004).

Where Rwanda finds its greatest success is where South Africa finds its greatest failure: socioeconomic inequity. A 2015 poll of South Africans showed that while over 60 percent of white respondents felt they had access to the financial resources they need to achieve their goals, only 43 percent of black respondents did, and only 26 percent of Coloured respondents did. Unemployment shows an even more striking economic gap. 31 percent of black South Africans are unemployed; less than 7 percent of white South Africans are (Msimang 2017). Unlike Paul Kagame, the ANC, when given an opportunity to do so in 1994, did not use South Africa’s international stature of the moment to remedy the vast privilege gap that remains between white and black South Africans. The political instability that roils within South Africa to this day is testament to that.


There are several conclusions that can be drawn from the cases of Rwanda and South Africa in regards to successful models of reconciliation. First, and perhaps most importantly, a society cannot even begin reconciliation until the socioeconomic disparities that caused one-sided violence are changed. While Rwanda is far from whole after the 1994 genocide, government efforts to rebuild, grow the economy, and improve education, healthcare, and infrastructure did a world of good for Tutsi-Hutu relations. The gacaca strategy of using perpetrators as the labor to rebuild a broken nation (via community service) is especially ingenious. It was economic linkages between Tutsis and Hutus on a local level that allowed for deeper cross-ethnic healing and acceptance, not the official government policies of ingando and the 100-day mourning period. This stands in stark contrast to South Africa, which has long standing issues of corruption and inefficiency in its government, and has not remedied long-standing socioeconomic gaps, coinciding with a society that has barely begun the process of true engagement with the past.

Second, neither bottom-up nor top-down strategies of recovery and reconciliation are guarantors of success. While ingando has served the purpose of the RPF government in Rwanda to scare its population, there is little evidence that it has improved the state of cross-ethnic relations. The two factors that Rwandans point to to explain the peaceful state of the nation are reduction in socioeconomic disparities and gacaca courts, which began and ended on the local community level. Additionally, the grassroots efforts of dialogue groups and economic cooperatives have been successes for Rwanda. However, the lack of leadership on the government side of education in South Africa has resulted in a perhaps subconscious revisionist version of apartheid being taught to young people on a massive scale. Additionally, as previously stated, the lack of government intervention into the socioeconomic divide in South Africa has taken a toll on black South Africans.

Third, commemoration of national crimes should include multiple narratives from the side of the victims. In Rwanda, Hutu victims of crimes committed by RPF soldiers are wiped from the pages of history. In South Africa, commemoration of apartheid implies that the problems of apartheid have been solved, when a conversation with an unemployed black South African citizen would likely wipe away that impression. Victims of crimes as immense as genocide or apartheid experience suffering in different ways, and their numbers tend to overlap those of many different groups and situations. The expectation that time will heal wounds does not always apply to all victims, particularly when the mass crime in question has not been resolved satisfactorily. Singular narratives of victimhood will always exclude some victims and can provide false resolution to a recurring societal problem.

The question remaining for national reconciliation is the process of justice. The gacaca courts and South Africa’s TRC certainly did not make their respective situations worse; however, both systems of justice had weak points. On balance, I would argue the gacaca courts are more successful than the TRCs, judging the sheer amount of people processed and the enthusiastic participation of most Rwandans. If the gacaca system allowed for restitution for all victims, not just those on the side of the government, it would be far more successful.


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