Jaco Barnard-Naude
Jaco Barnard-Naude

Living reconciliation

“The face of the other: Human dialogue at Solms Delta and the meaning of moral imagination” was the title of Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s inaugural lecture delivered at the University of Cape Town on November 11 2010. Gobodo-Madikizela is best known for her book A human being died that night: a story of forgiveness, in which she recounts her interactions with Eugene De Kock, the man known as “Prime Evil”. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand the complexities of reconciliation. Gobodo-Madikizela’s work has consistently focused on the role of empathy in coming to terms with trauma. In previous work she has investigated relationships between empathy, humanity and forgiveness and in her inaugural lecture she directs her attention to the relationship between empathy, trauma and reparation, reminding us that the face of the other represents not only the other’s psychological or spiritual existence and needs, but also her concrete, material existence and needs as someone who has a biological and uniquely human life.

What or who is this “face of the other”? Is it literally, a face, or is the phrase really a metaphor? Who or what is the other? Is it — he or she — simply another human being or are there other, non-human, forms of the other? What is the relevance of the face of the other to post-apartheid transitional discourse? When it comes to answering these questions the work of the Lithuanian Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, is a crucial starting point. Levinas lived through the Holocaust in which most of his immediate family members were killed. He was himself interred in a forced labour camp for five years. By his own admission, Levinas’ philosophical work is dominated by the horror of the Nazis. He believed that the cause of the World War II was a total eclipse of man’s responsibility for his fellow human being. It is out of these convictions that Levinas formulated his ideas of responsibility for the other and the “face of the other”. Fundamentally, Levinas wants us to think what it means to encounter the fellow human being. This human being, even if he is like me, is never the same as me. In this sense, every human being is an other. Moreover, Levinas argued that I am responsible for the other, because the other represents a calling to which I am obliged to respond. When we address one another in language through dialogue, we are essentially responding to each other. This, of course, implies that we are also listening to each other. The idea of the face is integral to this responsibility. Levinas summarises his idea of the face like this: “I call face that which … in another concerns the I — concerns me — reminding me of his abandonment, his defenselessness and his mortality, as if he were unique in the world — beloved.” From this formulation of the face, we can see why the other is, for Levinas, a calling. The face represents the vulnerability and mortality of every human being. In doing so, it not only reminds me of the irreplaceability (or the dignity) of the other — it reminds me of my own dignity as an irreplaceable human being. It is through the encounter with the face of the other that I am called to responsibility.

The implication here is that the other, while a fellow human being, is also simultaneously someone divine — someone wholly other, priceless. If we think back to the events that occurred in South Africa during the tenure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), we can see why Levinas’ philosophy of the face of the other is so relevant. Indeed, the TRC can be summarised as a large scale encounter with the face of the other. Here the victims of apartheid encountered the perpetrators, often for the first time. Sometimes these encounters led to reconciliation and forgiveness, other times it did not. Sometimes perpetrators refused to disclose where a body was buried or how a victim died and in this way refused to encounter the face of the other. The literature on these encounters is vast and Gobodo-Madikizela’s book is one such story of a true encounter with the face of the other.

Yet, the TRC never did, nor could it, facilitate all the necessary encounters and all the facets of these encounters. A common criticism of the TRC is that it focused too heavily on the dimension of apology and forgiveness, but not enough on the dimension of reparation. For part of my responsibility to the face of the other must be that where I have visited wrong upon the other, I am obliged to attempt a reparation of that wrong. Apology is a beginning, but it is certainly not the end of the reparation process. Reparation indisputably has a tangible dimension, precisely because the face of the other is a material face, a face that is in the world and that has needs without which it cannot live a dignified life. This fact was often underemphasised in the TRC’s discourse but it is a fact that we can no longer afford to ignore if we want to live reconciled lives in South Africa. This fact crucially requires that we visit anew the question of the beneficiary of apartheid and the beneficiary’s ethical responsibility to give back to those who had suffered material, psychological and cultural damage. Giving back in no way amounts simply to handouts — it requires far more. It requires a living, a way of life, a responsibility to the other that can never be finally over and done with. The first few entries on this blog will explore the possibilities of and the justifications for, primarily material reparation in post-apartheid South Africa.


Levinas, E (1991) Entre nous.

Gobodo-Madikizela, P (2007) A human being died that night: a story of forgiveness.

Gobodo-Madikizela, P (2010) ‘The face of the Other: human dialogue at Solms delta and the meaning of moral imagination’ available at: http://www.pumlagobodom.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=59&Itemid=67