by James L. Gibson. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 328pp. Hardback. $85.00/£45.00. ISBN: 9780521517881. eBook format. $68.00. ISBN: 9780511537363.

Reviewed by Neil Vidmar, Duke Law School. Email: VIDMAR [at] law.duke.edu.

Justice Perspectives in South Africa’s Continuing Transition to Democracy

OVERCOMING HISTORICAL INJUSTICES is the third volume of James Gibson’s important empirical investigation of the attitudes of South Africa’s multiple racial groups as that country began its transition to democracy. The book cannot be fully appreciated without reference to the first two volumes.

Gibson and Amanda Gouws, OVERCOMING INTOLERANCE IN SOUTH AFRICA (2002), was based on a representative survey, conducted in 1996 and 1997, that explored the tolerance attitudes of the various diverse South African racial and ethnic groups during the transition from apartheid. Tolerance of the different opinions and behaviors of persons who are perceived as members of out-groups is an essential requisite of the success of democratic institutions. South Africa has great diversity: Africans (divided into many tribal and ethnic groups), Whites, Coloreds, and persons of Asian origin. Moreover, as Gibson and Gouws pointed out, the legacies of the colonial past, apartheid, and the long history of violence between these contesting groups did not bode well for a democratic society. A central finding of their research was that the perceived threat posed by other groups was the major element in intolerance. The research provided grounds for a pessimistic outlook regarding a successful democratic transition.

The second book, Gibson, OVERCOMING APARTHEID (2004), was based around a second survey conducted in 2000 and 2001 that explored the attitudes of South Africans following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s frank exploration of atrocities committed by all sides and the provision of amnesty for some of those who committed the acts and were willing to come forward and admit their deeds. Despite the resistance and misgivings of many South Africans of all racial groups, Gibson’s data showed, with many qualifications, that the Commission clearly was successful in certain respects. While the majority of Blacks, Coloreds and people of Asian origin had long argued that apartheid was a crime against humanity, a majority of whites also came to that realization (albeit about one in four whites did not accept this view). The Commission also uncovered wrongful acts committed by the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party. The data suggested that the revelations of the Commission helped lead to a common understanding among most South Africans that many sides committed wrongs. Acceptance of these facts may be seen as “partial reconciliation.” [*89] Partial reconciliation is the correct phrasing because none of the different South African groups showed much change in their political tolerance, but at least many came to accept the institutional legitimacy of the Commission and showed some appreciation of human rights. The degree to which this occurred was moderated by education and other factors. Gibson also recognized that Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu played important roles in whatever was achieved by the Commission.

Before turning to OVERCOMING HISTORICAL INJUSTICES, I need to acknowledge that I do not claim professional expertise in the subject of South Africa; and reading through all three books was an educational process for me. However, as a social psychologist I have been engaged in the empirical study of the various dimensions of “justice” for more than three decades. OVERCOMING serves as an outstanding empirical field exploration of that topic in a context that not only has major implications in South Africa’s transition to democracy, but from my perspective has wider implications for our understanding of how people view justice and injustice.

Competing historical claims to land can be divisive issues within countries and the cause of wars between countries. They are especially salient in South Africa because the apartheid system and its colonial predecessor expropriated the vast majority of land for the white minority. Today, the competing claims for land threaten political and economic stability. Thus, as Gibson points out, the reconciliation of land claims poses conflicts between legality and the multiple dimensions of justice: distributive, retributive, procedural, and restorative justice. These major dimensions also implicate “disinterested” justice because both sociological and psychological research has shown that people care about justice for persons with whom they identify even if they have no direct material interest in the dispute. Given the diversity of groups within South Africa, including distinct tribal groups within the African category of racial divisions, “social identity theory” is implicated in many ways relating to justice judgments.

The new South African constitution makes provisions for restoring land ownership or compensating for it through legal means. But this has been a slow process that has engendered complaints from different interest groups with the consequent threat of land invasions and continuing civil disruptions. The land claims pose difficult questions about who has entitlement. Are there exceptional circumstances such as a desperate squatter who, if ejected from her current living space, has no place to live with her family? To what degree and under what circumstances should the different bases of claims prevail? Should non-Western concepts of land that are focused on tribal or communal belongings prevail over individual, or private, constructions of property? Running through these questions is the underlay of continuing intolerance and negative reactions to amnesties granted under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Gibson explored these issues through a representative face-to-face survey undertaken in 2004 that lasted around 85 [*90] minutes. The survey encompassed the various racial and tribal groups of South Africa. Both probability and quota sampling were required to obtain an accurate portrait of attitudes and beliefs. Implementing the survey was no mean feat as it encountered the problems of language, culture and low response rates by whites. An important feature within the survey was a series of experiments using variations of vignettes to assess attitudes in the context of specific problems. One set of vignettes involved an inter-racial conflict between a squatter and a white owner of the land that was resolved by legal or extra-legal means. Another set of vignettes involved either a racial or intra-racial dispute over a parcel of land that varied in the degree of legal legitimacy of the claim based on one disputant’s argument of forced removal from the land in the 1980s.

Some of the findings uncovered in the research are not encouraging. Gibson concludes that the sense of victimization by certain groups appears to have become more, rather than less, widespread over time. Other findings demonstrate complex, differing perspectives on historical injustices. For example the data showed that most South Africans of every racial group believe that individual property rights ought to be protected. Yet, perceptions of squatting implicate mixed views associated with group interests and perceptions of historical injustices. The findings suggest that some perceived injustices can be ameliorated if the losing party, in this case a squatter, is seen as receiving procedural justice. Acceptance of procedural justice was strongest among Blacks who had adopted a South African identity. However, those who held to ethnic identities cared less about procedural justice.

Land disputes based on historical versus contemporary rights claims present similar problems. As Gibson acknowledges, the most obvious finding was that the politics of land restitution and redistribution are deeply shaped by race, with Blacks wanting to take the past into consideration while Whites do not. Moreover, while Whites tend to highly value property rights, Blacks “are more organically” tied to land. Indeed, group identities, not surprisingly perhaps, have a great deal to do with how people perceive land issues. Persons with strong group attachments were more likely to [*91] focus on historical injustices, strongly suggesting that land issues and group identities are interwoven. Large proportions of population were still deeply concerned with land reconciliation and considered it an unresolved issue. Many of the differences in attitudes were couched in symbolic terms rather than through direct self interest. My brief reading excursion into continuing land disputes in South Africa in 2009 indicates that land reconciliation is a complex problem involving corporate business interests as well as the problems explored in Gibson’s vignettes, but public attitudes play an important role in institutional legitimacy.

OVERCOMING HISTORICAL INJUSTICES is a significant book, particularly when viewed in the context of Gibson’s preceding volumes. It empirically examines relations between concepts of justice and the legitimacy of political institutions. Moreover, in contrast to much of the empirical research on justice which has tended to focus on one form of justice to the exclusion of others, often in contrived simulation experiments, Professor Gibson has managed to show the interdependence of attitudes about distributive, retributive, procedural and restorative justice when they are examined in the context of a very serious political context, in this instance land reconciliation. It sets a higher standard for scholars in political science and other social sciences who investigate problems in relation to justice behavior, group identity theory, and legitimacy of democratic institutions.

Gibson, James L. 2004. OVERCOMING APARTHEID: CAN TRUTH RECONCILE A DIVIDED NATION? New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Gibson, James L., and Amanda Gouws. 2002. OVERCOMING INTOLERANCE IN SOUTH AFRICA. New York: Cambridge University Press.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Neil Vidmar.