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Enjeux nationaux : études de cas

Engaging with the Past to Engage with the Future

David Newbury
p. 430-431

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1These two texts are starkly different. One looks to the future, the other to the past. One is programmatic, the other analytic. One focuses on victims, the other on causes. One is concerned with individual suffering, the other with state power.

2The differences are not simply in “approach”; there is a more fundamental difference between the two: the one focuses on personal tragedy, the other on political tragedy. The two go together, but the fact that victims are found in each category does not mean that each category is equally responsible: there is a difference between individual crime and state policy, and the difference resides in the presence of state power. In contexts where the judicial system is encapsulated within state power, it is impossible to rely on courts. Under those circumstances the state cannot rectify itself, and therefore the first step must be to analyze the state system, not erase it from our vision; a political problem requires political analysis.

3In short, what operates successfully at the personal level, between individuals, does not always operate successfully at the political level, at the level of the state. To equate the two levels is to substitute form for context; the two are not the same. (It is worth noting that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was not established by the apartheid regime. Instead it was initiated by a government which held the support of the vast majority of the community who were the victims of with terror.)

4The two papers also differ in their sense of inclusiveness and in their vision of agency. While both accept the pain of the victim, only one sees that as the result of specific historical actions. Seeing history as the product of specific human actions in the past–even harmful actions–nonetheless empowers people in the present to create their future. A history that recognizes responsibility for the future therefore, must be inclusive: the perpetrator must recognize the victim and the victim must recognize the perpetrator. History that erases the former encourages impunity; history that neglects the latter encourages vengeance.

5To move beyond the past is first to recognize it. To do this, two elements are necessary. The first one is an acceptance of a common past (though not an equivalent past); such a vision acknowledges anger. The second element is acceptance of a common future; such a vision limits anger. Fully incorporating these two elements, then, is the first step to a future that differs from the past.

6Thus these differing historical presentations are revealing, not least by illustrating the steps that need to be made: one needs to acknowledge diverse pasts; the other needs to commit to a shared future. Each can do so without relinquishing their current position, since each is part of the other.

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David Newbury, « Engaging with the Past to Engage with the Future », Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 173-174 | 2004, mis en ligne le 08 mars 2007, consulté le 24 août 2019. URL :

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David Newbury

Smith College, Northampton, Massachussets.

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© Cahiers d’Études africaines

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