December 16: The Day of Reconciliation is a call for each individual to heal emotional wounds

South Africans fell in love with the idea of reconciliation, as if it is something that might magically happen across our nation just because we have a day dedicated to celebrating it. 

This love affair with the term reconciliation is not new — in the 1990s most of us outsourced our responsibilities to reconcile the differences, hurt and guilt of our traumatic history to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As if the sharing of truths and emotions of 22 000 individuals could do the hard work to create reconciliation on behalf of more than 60 million people. This small group of people was supposed to carry and reconcile the anger, hurt, guilt, regret and anxiety of so many. 

Notwithstanding the wonderful work that was done through the TRC, it is a fantasy to think that other people could do the work for us and on our behalf. Each one of us has to do our part in creating true reconciliation. We are too scared to say it, but as South Africans, we all know that something incomplete is hanging in the air, something that needs to be finished and completed. 

The noun reconciliation has no meaning on its own, it is just a derivative and outcome of the verb, to reconcile. The verb to reconcile has its origins in old Latin, meaning to bring together again and to make friends, to restore to union and friendship after estrangement. According to Dictionary.Com: “To reconcile with someone is to repair a relationship that had been broken.” 

Furthermore, Dictionary.Com notes: “Reconciling is to create more than just a truce. When true reconciliation occurs, two formerly hostile sides become respectful of each other — and, ideally, friends.” To reconcile is about taking action to restore relationships to the level of true friendship. 

The Day of Reconciliation is not a day to celebrate. Rather, it is a call for action to each one of us, to repair broken relationships, to open the emotional wounds of hurt, anger, guilt and regret, and to do the hard work to clean these wounds so that they may heal. 

It was not by accident that the Day of Reconciliation falls on 16 December, the date that marks both the Battle of Blood River and the creation of uMkhonto weSizwe. Both these events were triggered by fear, mistrust, anger, and hurt towards those opposing parties represented by the two events. Both these events are rich in meaning for different groups of our nation and dedicating 16 December to reconcile is symbolically meaningful. 

Calling every South African to do the work to reconcile on this date that personified separation is immensely significant. We cannot just carry on as if there is already perfect reconciliation, whilst the unfinished work and its related emotions that keep us from moving beyond truce and to become friends again are hovering over us. 

Reconciliation requires hard work to create restitution and atonement. But restitution can only happen on an individual level, not a national or group level. Reconciliation is also personal. Nobody can make amends on behalf of a group or others – this is meaningless because it is “out there” and “on top” in a void. Reconciliation is personal. I can only set myself and others free from my own lived experiences, my feelings and honest contemplations. Each one of us has to do reflective introspection about our own willingness and devotion to reconcile. 

As an individual, I have to examine my feelings and question my mindset about the extent that I am dedicated to reconcile. I have to get in touch with my inner dispositions about reconciling with those who have done me wrong — and those who I have done wrong. Without an inner need and devotion to reconcile, nothing will happen because the historical hate, anger, hurt, guilt, regret will continue to overwhelm my thinking and mindset. 

Then I have to make an internal decision whether I want to reconcile and repair broken relationships. This is not an easy decision as it comes with an obligation to do something and not to wait for something to be done to me. Once I have decided to reconcile, there is work to do, whether it is internal work to forgive or external work to confess and make amends. 

Reconciling is not a once-off act and it does not happen “out there”; it is a journey of consistent inner work, followed by continual small acts of reconciling. It is not only on 16 December that we have to think about reconciliation. If I have to apologise for things that I’ve done wrong, I may have to do it several times to different people and in different situations. If I have to forgive others who have done me wrong, I may have to do it many times and in different settings. 

Reconciliation is a way of life and a life philosophy. Every interaction I have with someone presents an opportunity to reconcile. This applies to my interactions with both individuals from my own group and the so-called “others”. In my interactions with my own group, I can build respect and bring “others” closer as friends or I can stoke the fires of hatred and anger. In interactions with ”others”, I can demonstrate respect and brotherly love in ways that assist both parties to make friends and resolve differences, or I can reconfirm stereotypical legacies that broaden the divide between us. 

But it all starts with me, and a willingness and devotion to reconcile. Reconciliation is not about what might happen on top of other things; it starts with me and it starts inside me.

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Mias De Klerk
Mias de Klerk is professor in leadership and organisational behaviour at University of Stellenbosch Business School, editor-in-chief of the South African Journal of Business Management and the director at the Centre for Responsible Leadership Studies.

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