As National Research Director for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Charles Villa-Vicencio was intimately involved in the historic process that followed the collapse of apartheid and paved the way for a new social order. As a theologian, prior to the commission, he had spoken out against the apartheid regime, writing and editing numerous books that helped lead South African Christians out of complacency about their government’s policies. After the commission concluded, he founded the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, in Cape Town, and now advises peacebuilding efforts around the world. His most recent book is Walk with Us and Listen: Political Reconciliation in Africa (Georgetown University Press, 2009). We spoke at the offices of Georgetown University’s Conflict Resolution Program, where Villa-Vicencio serves as a visiting scholar.
This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Religion and International Affairs.—ed.
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NS: I’d like to start with your experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. What prepared you for that experience? What kinds of skills did you find yourself using?
CVV: Prior to going to the commission, I taught in a religious studies department at the University of Cape Town. My interest was the impact of religion on secular society and of secular society on religion. I had already worked fairly extensively in the social sciences and political analysis, so the transition was not a very difficult one. It was, in a sense, continuous with what I had done. But it’s interesting that you ask that question. There was a journalist who interviewed me at the conclusion of the commission, and he asked me essentially the same thing. I realized that, though trained as a theologian, I’d hardly used a theological concept for the past three years—but, nevertheless, it may have been the most theological job I’d ever had in my life.
NS: How exactly is that?
CVV: The theology that I was teaching and practicing in the church was always related to building a decent human society, and that’s what we were trying to do in the commission. My feet were deep in liberation theology, contextual theology, and black theology. The jargon of the day was that you don’t write theology or teach theology or read theology—you do theology. The commission’s essentially pragmatic task seemed to me to be also essentially theological.
NS: Since then, have you found yourself drawing again on explicitly theological language and resources? Or do you find that you’re still able to do theology in this more implicit way?
CVV: When my time in the commission ended, I went back to the University of Cape Town, back to the department of religious studies, and realized that my concerns had moved on—whether it was forwards, backwards, sideways, upwards, downwards, I’m not sure. I resigned from the university and set up the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Since then, I’ve moved more and more into the area of transitional justice, peacebuilding, human rights, political conflict, and negotiation theory. But, very recently, I have found myself tending to reach into the theological pot again. In the last year or so, probably, I have become more and more conscious of the importance of religion and theology—above all, the importance of spirituality, if one can make that distinction, which I think one can.
Note: Charles Villa-Vicencio visited Romania in 2009, being invited by Dr. Silviu Rogobete, Consul General of Romania in Cape Town and myself. He was hosted in Romania by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Romanian Cultural INstitute and Areopagus Centre in Timisoara. As he himself confessed, his faith was going through a crisis at that time. Since then, as a result of a personal crisis, his faith was revived again. Thanks be to God!
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