Perspectives from the South on Transitional Justice: Bailey Robbins reflects on the Global Campus on Human Rights, held for LLM global students at the University of Pretoria

       "People come to 'save Africa' and 'teach Africa' about transitional justice. As if we don't know how to think. Why can't we conceptualize transitional justice for ourselves?" As I sat in the University of Pretoria Law Building and listened to Tshepo Madlingozi speak, I knew his words would shape the way I think about international law throughout the rest of my career. Tshepo is the Chairperson of Khulumani, an attorney, and a professor at the University. When he invited me to the 2-day Global Campus of Human Rights conference, I was excited to attend. The conference was led by Tshepo and a professor from London. I spent the following 2 days listening to many different philosophies, problems, and potential solutions surrounding transitional justice in post-conflict countries. What I walked away from the conference believing is this: there is more than one way to be in the world. 

            Our Western vision of transitional justice, particularly in the United States is not the only way to put a country back together when it has fallen apart. In fact, in a country such as South Africa, where "Western thinking" goes against the very grain of so many people's being, implementing Western solutions can be detrimental. For example, the truth commission established in South Africa after apartheid was modeled on Christianity. Part of the process of granting amnesty (basically, meaning that if you tell the truth about what you did, you won't be prosecuted) looks exactly like repenting your sins and being forgiven - a Christian and Western way of thinking. This model ignored South African culture and did not address what healing and justice mean and look like to South Africans. Put simply, no one asked the people what they needed.

            Another downfall of typical transitional justice solutions are that they don't get to the core of the problem or the underlying issues. Often, transitional justice looks more like sweeping a mess under the rug rather than taking the time to actually clean the mess up. In the South African context, the model of transitional justice that was used failed to look at the social economic causes of the conflict. Apartheid was certainly fueled by racial conflict and hatred, but it goes so much deeper than that. A huge part of what led the apartheid government to displace people of other races comes down to land issues, money, and socioecomics - but we never talk about this side of the conflict. 

            I believe in transitional justice as a mechanism in post-conflict countries. However, this week I learned how much it needs to be improved and expanded upon. We must include civil society in transitional justice. We have to start looking at the specific needs and cultures within a country. Transitional justice is not a blanket solution that works the same in every place. We need to listen to the people. It is also crucial to start addressing the underlying issues, and confront the "why" behind conflict. When the international community works to facilitate transitional justice solutions in post-conflict countries, we have to stop trying to "save" or "teach" these countries. It is time that we let countries like South Africa teach us.

            This week I also had the chance to attend my first court trial in South Africa. An inquest into the case of Ahmed Timol, who died in 1971, was reopened in the High Court. Timol was working underground as a political activist when he and his friend, Salim Essop, were arrested. Timol and Essop were taken to a police station in Johannesburg. Here, they were both severely tortured. Five days later, Timol had allegedly jumped from a window to his death, and Essop was in critical condition in the hospital. At the time, Timol's death was ruled a suicide. Now, the inquest has been reopened to try to prove that Timol did not jump, but was thrown from the window and murdered.

            The trial was intense, but also such a valuable experience. Not only did I get a firsthand view of how the courts operate here (the judges can cross-examine witnesses!), but I also had the chance to listen to Essop testify about what happened to him and Timol in detention. I even had the chance to attend a site visit to the police station where Timol died. Watching Essop choke up as he showed the judge the window Timol allegedly jumped from was unlike anything I have ever experienced. It's one thing to hear about the atrocities committed during the apartheid regime, but to stand in the rooms where political activists were tortured and killed is entirely different.  Something really important for me about this trial is that Ahmed Timol was Indian. We often think of the apartheid regime as having been a conflict between white and black people. However, it is important not to forget the other people who the apartheid government marginalized and repressed, and the other people who gave their lives in the liberation struggle. 

            Pictured below is a group of Khulumani members from East Rand supporting Ahmed Timol and his family, outside the court house. Some of the signs read, "Khulumani Support Group Advocating for Truth Discovery for the Timol Family," "Khulumani Calls for an End to the Prescription Period for Prosecuting Torture," and "On International Day in Support of Victims of Torture 26 June 2017 We Remember & Honour Ahmed Timol." 

            After a week spent listening to hours of testimony about torture, visiting a police station alongside the judges, lawyers, and family of Ahmed Timol (and a whole lot of media), and meeting law students from all over the world at the Global Campus Conference - I was exhausted by Friday night. I decided to cut back on the adventures just a bit, and spent the weekend catching my breath. I tried some new lunch spots in Melville with the other Khulumani interns, had a Netflix marathon with my neighbor, tried hot pod yoga (it has my 100% recommendation), and read by the lake. 

About Bailey Robbins:

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