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fambul tok

Restorative justice is the core concept of balance and peace in many if not most African cultures. We could do well to learn from this aspect of indigenous cultures and their concept of social justice.

I remember when I was in South Africa, I was invited to an elders meeting in the township of Manenburg. The meeting was inside a spacious dimly lite wooden shack with dirt floors and wooden benches. Seated up front were 4 or five elderly men in very clean and well worn suits, but no ties. The dignity of the men as they sat there reminded me of those seated on the US Supreme Court or the Hague. As an honored guest I was allowed to sit up front, but told to say nothing. I was to observe, learn and share. What took place next was an eye opener for this naive man of many years ago. A number of cases were brought before the elders, but I will only focus on one. This was a case that had already taken place, and was now being reviewed as a followed up as the constituents reported back the outcomes.

A number of weeks earlier a couple of bicycles were stolen from a neighborhood in the Manenberg township of over 50,000 residents. Instead of going to the town elders for council, the victims' parents contacted the local police. The police rounded up the usual suspects, beat some of them, with the only tangible result being the bicycles were not recovered and people were hurt. This was unacceptable so the victims' parents humbly went back to the elders. The elders accepted. The bikes were not only found, but returned the next day. No punishment was meted out. The desire was to bring back to balance what was existing before the bikes were stolen. All was forgiven! My first lesson in restorative justice - Umbutu [Ubuntu]! What I had witnessed could have been a Harvard Law School seminar. The eloquence and distinguished nature of the arguments and the logic pursued in this case and others turned my world upside down. I had judged people by their circumstance and poverty and not their humanity and intelligence. I too was humbled!

The TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) headed by Desmond Tutu in South Africa was an important attempt at restorative justice in South Africa. There have been other TRCs around the world that have been crucial to the healing of nations that have suffered from terrible oppression and wars. TRCs are tremendous tools for restorative justice, however, they lack the efficacy that is already built into many of the very cultures they are trying to heal. TRCs are very costly and conducted by people brought in from outside the affected communities vs local traditions facilitated by people trained within the community by experts that may or may not be from the community. Community and personal healing seem to materialize deeper and quicker.

One such initiative is an organization named Fambu Tok. It embodies restorative justice like no other concept I've seen to-date. There are many examples to draw from around the world and I believe they all merit investigation. The wisdom of restorative justice on a global scale has profound consequences for us in so-called modern day "civilized" societies.

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