As South Africa mourns the passing of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, it is a moment to reflect on the role that faith-based actors play in transitional justice and in the maintenance of peaceful societies.
Tutu's activism in pre and post-apartheid South Africa demonstrated the United Nation's definition of transnational justice characterised by a full range of processes associated with a society's attempt to come to terms with a legacy of past abuses in order to ensure accountability.
Tutu defiantly opposed and advocated against the brutal apartheid regime. His influence in the Anglican church and South African society played a role in the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). We can only wonder what direction would have been taken if a different person had led the commission without Tutu's enormous capacity for empathy rooted in his religious beliefs.
An Afrobarometer survey revealed that about 95% of Africans identify with a religion of one sort or another. Religious and faith-based actors – as non-state actors – have large constituencies that influence many individuals' perceptions, grassroots behaviour, and reactions. This shows that the involvement of faith-based organisations is of paramount importance in transitional justice processes.
In times of crisis and gross human rights violations, faith and religion can be sources of answers and solutions. In 1961, anti-apartheid activist and Imam Abdullah Haron described the Group Areas Acts as "inhuman, barbaric and un-Islamic" and added that "these laws were a complete negation on the fundamental principles of Islam".
As we recognise the influence that faith and religious actors have, we also need to be conscious of the negative role that they can also play if caught on the wrong side of the conflict. Extremist groups parading under the banner of religion can be instigators and facilitators of violence.
The curse of extremism
The Islamic State continues to violently widen its footprint in Northern Mozambique, while in northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram perseveres in using its religious extremist ideologies to wage insurgency in communities.
In Rwanda, religion was used to fuel the 1994 genocide. American professor of political science Timothy Longman has argued that Christian churches "consistently allied themselves with the state and played ethnic politics" and worked to sanitise the atrocities and Rwanda.
Athanase Seromba is one of the religious leaders implicated in the Rwandan genocide. The New Humanitarian reported that he is "accused of helping orchestrate the massacre of some 2,000 Tutsi refugees at his parish in Nyange in April 1994".
With this contradiction, the role and influence of faith-based organisations in transitional justice cannot be ignored in Africa's context and is something that we need to probe.
Transitional justice processes are largely political in nature; we cannot underrate these institutions' role in peacebuilding. Taking into account the contextual political environment, faith-based organisations can facilitate dialogue at a national and local level as well as improve communication with other faiths. This can strengthen transitional justice processes and build unity among disgruntled groups.
This was the case in South Africa, where religious leaders acted together as an example of how faith-based organisations were very much involved in the TRC process. Forty-one faith institutions made written submissions or gave representations at the hearings. Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the chair of the commission, provided a safe space allowing victims to reveal their deepest emotions.
Transitional justice processes must be inclusive
However, involving faith-based organisations in transitional justice processes requires a proper analysis of the context to ensure that their role will be seen as legitimate by all parties involved in the process.
For transitional justice to be successful, institutions that represent the majority in affected countries need to take a more active role in building sustainable peace on the African continent.
With this said, faith-based organisations have a particular role to play in breaching community divisions, curbing the recurrence of violence and atrocities and fostering resilience and peace.
Sustainable peace will only be achieved by the involvement and participation of civil society, community-based organisations and faith-based organisations as part of the solution in transitional justice processes. Religion places a natural role in values of restorative justice, forgiveness and reconciliation after all.
To quote the late Archbishop Tutu:
"Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth."
This Op-Ed was originally published by News24