Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Conflict Museums and Nostalgia

Hamber, B. (2012). Conflict Museums, Nostalgia, and Dreaming of Never Again. Peace & Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18(3),261-281 [Access in the Journal]

Monday, October 29, 2012

Conflict museums and nostalgia

I have a new article out "Conflict museums, nostalgia, and dreaming of never again" published in Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, Vol 18(3), Aug 2012, 268-281.

The abstract reads as follows: Sites that mark atrocity span the globe including Villa Grimaldi in Chile, the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum in eastern China, and Robben Island in South Africa. Generally such sites seek to have some form of social and individual impact. Typically they seek to educate the next generation and prevent future forms of atrocity by revealing the past. It is contended that an overly emotional focus on the narratives of victims at such sites can limit understanding of the dynamics that cause violence. The article also explores whether there is a nostalgic element to conflict museums. Although it seems counterintuitive that nostalgia would have any place in thinking back on periods of extreme violence, it is argued that nostalgia is present in a number of ways. How this plays out in postapartheid South Africa is specifically explored. The article concludes by highlighting the dangers in South Africa of what can be termed a regenerative nostalgia for the “struggle” against apartheid and the perceived unifying peace process that followed.

For more details see click here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Some lessons from Fearless Felix

Watching Felix Baumgartner free-fall from space and break the sound barrier was extraordinary. As he climbed out of his little balloon with the curve of the earth below him, I was in awe of both what he had decided to do and the sheer beauty of the earth below.

But what I found equally remarkable was his attitude. Despite the seeming madness of his space dive, he says he is not an adrenaline junkie – rather, he says, he is a ‘risk manager’. He also seemed acutely aware of his family throughout the feat, saying he was worried about dying in front of his loved ones. If you google ‘Fearless Felix’ you will find many references to his family – they are obviously important to him. He seems to have used his family’s support as a foundation rather than a ceiling for achieving his outlandish dreams.

Further, as he stepped out of the capsule, he says, all he could think of was returning home alive. The world record, or so he claims, was not his primary concern at that moment. In other words, despite his ostensibly daredevil antics, when staring potential death in the face, it was his family and his life he valued the most. This is natural, although his words and deeds got me thinking about the idea of what is important in this life.

Family is obviously one of the most vital parts of our lives. Most of us would think about them at a time of danger, whether self-inflicted or not. But the notion of family can also be twisted, especially politically. More and more politicians these days are exploiting our basic urges to want to be with and to look after those closest to us.

Returning to family values is the rally- ing cry of many politicians across the globe. Even Jacob Zuma, who perhaps cannot escape the issue of family, given the size of his, recently also called for a return to family values.

But what does this really mean? Of course, it makes intuitive sense as we all care for our families, and growing up in a supportive environment of any form is important in human development. But putting your family first can also be a selfish act.

Thinking of your family in the first instance can be reduced to doing what- ever is necessary to improve their life chances. The extreme end of this equates with exploiting or harming others in the pursuit of your family’s happiness and prosperity.

My problem with the idea of family first is that it sounds wholesome, and who would disagree. But, deep down, it feeds a very conservative tendency of focusing on you and your kin above community or society.

By evoking the family as a core social principle, politicians often allow us to feel good about doing self-centred things like supporting tax breaks for people of the same social class, or welfare cuts if one is not on welfare as well.

But, returning to Fearless Felix standing outside his diminutive space capsule with the world below, one cannot but be struck by how small we all are in this universe. As he has said: “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are.” You would think this realisation would make us as a species want to be closer, to cooperate more and work together.

Yet, perversely, it seems the more we realise the expanse of the universe and all its diversity, the more we seem to retreat into our families and the little worlds we all inhabit in our day-to-day lives. With this mindset, we are easy pickings for politicians who want us to support conservative ideas, which equates with putting your self-interests before those of society. This might in the short term make each of us feel secure, but in the long run it is a recipe for social disaster.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 26 October 2012 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

When should society tire of the voices of the past?

This article was first published in January 1997, I am re-posting it as there is a renewed interest in dealing with the past in Brazil with the establishment of the new Brazilian Truth Commission.

The kitchen of a small house in downtown São Paulo, Brazil, is the meeting place of the Comissão de Familiares de Mortos e Desaparecidos Politicas (Commission of the Families of Political Murder Victims and the Disappeared), an organisation of family members whose loved ones were killed during the military dictatorship in Brazil.

The kitchen is lined with filing cabinets that contain information collected by the families on some 400 cases of murder and "disappearances".

Unlike in South Africa, there was no official investigation in Brazil following the military regime. Without any governmental support, it has been these families and human rights activists who have had to try to find information on the "missing" and the dead.

Some 20 years since the "disappearances" the relatives are still trying to establish the truth about what happened to their loved ones.

During the period of military rule in Brazil (1964 to 1985) thousands of citizens were persecuted, forced into exile, murdered and tortured. The official lists compiled by human rights organisations report thousands of cases of torture, 240 people murdered and 144 missing. Relative to other countries in South America, these numbers are negligible.

Comparisons to the 30 000 "disappeared" in Argentina are of little comfort to the relatives who feel that the atrocities committed by the Brazilian government have received little attention since the passing of a general amnesty in 1979.

Although a civilian government was instated in 1985, the families of the "disappeared" have continued to seek the truth and draw attention to the numerous atrocities carried out by the past government.

Groups of this nature are not uncommon around the world, and such organisations have emerged in at least 16 countries. Most of these organisations have developed spontaneously.

Their roots lie often with relatives who have met as a result of their common experiences. Stories of meeting one another at government offices and police stations while seeking information about their loved ones are common.

Groups exist in almost all Latin American countries and have also been established in African countries such as Chad, Ethiopia and Morocco. Similar groups also operate in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Turkey, Croatia and in China.

These groups are diverse in membership and objectives, but generally share three common aims: a demand for information about what happened to their loved ones; a need for official acknowledgment; and a quest for justice in respect of those responsible.

In Latin America truth, social and psychological rehabilitation, and acknowledgment are generally placed before the need for compensation. As most of the groups have developed in the context of blanket amnesties, there is an ongoing demand for justice.

Impunity for crimes committed under military regimes is the issue that sits hardest with relatives of the murdered and "disappeared" throughout the world.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of the boldest international efforts to try to meet some of these needs. Unlike a "blanket amnesty", the commission trades full disclosure or "truth recovery" for amnesty - thus potentially meeting victims' needs for truth and public acknowledgment.

In South Africa, amnesty is justified as being necessary to ensure peace. It is considered that prosecutions could not have been guaranteed due to inefficiencies in the criminal justice system and a lack of access to information necessary to sustain successful prosecutions.

Most victims would probably agree that an investigation like the truth commission is a necessary first step to uncovering the truth. However, the onus is not on victims to accept any amnesty agreements. Rather, the commission has the responsibility to explain amnesties and has to be prepared for the angry responses. It is critical that it is not demanded, either implicity or explicity, that victims are expected to forgive the perpetrators. Families' anger or other emotional responses to the granting of amnesty to perpetrators has to be legitimised and space provided for people to express their feelings.

The lessons from other countries are that amnesties are always unpopular. Ironically, if the truth is uncovered, this may stimulate rather than eliminate families' demands for justice.

Even with the efforts of the truth commission, the varied nature of the cases and the impossible search for the truth means that the issues of the past can be expected to remain on the agenda for many years.

Despite the Chilean Commission of 1991 being reported as the most successful truth commission to date, today people still seek to report past cases and many are unaware that the commission even took place.

In South Africa we need to guard against the attitude that once the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is over, the chapter on the past is closed. For the victims of past abuses, the chapter only closes when they are personally ready.

This can be more challenging than it sounds. Take one faction of the victims' group the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, for example, who refuse any form of reparation and compensation. They will not even participate in any official investigations or bodies, and insist: "You took them away alive, we want them back alive".

Perhaps they only want others to experience the frustration thay have felt and are determined to offer constant reminders that, in reality, there is nothing that can ever be done to replace their "missing" loved ones. As bizarre as this extreme position sounds, if we are to truly sympathise with victims we are required to understand it.

In Brazil, the government has recently agreed to compensate the families for the murdered and "disappeared", but the relatives say compensation was never their goal. They see this as the government's final attempt to buy their silence and close the book on the past, but without disclosing the facts of what happened.

As a result, the families of the "disappeared" in Brazil are referred to by both those from the left and the right as "dinosaurs". They are seen as harping on the past. The society is tired of these mothers who will not be appeased or who cannot forget.

The real question is: at what point does a society become tired of hearing the voices of the past? In South Africa, despite even the most valiant efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, we can expect to hear the voices of victims long into the future.

The challenge to all South Africans is to learn to cope with, and accept as legitimate, the ongoing anger and even impossible demands of victims who will continue their struggle for an ever-elusive truth.

Published in the Mail and Guardian, 17 January 1997

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Social media – friend or foe?

I am somewhat addicted to Twitter, and marginally hooked on Facebook. I find them useful in following multiple news sources, building a work profile and staying in contact with friends across the globe. That said, I think (and this is what all addicts say, apparently) I can control my habit. I definitely prefer human company to my computer and feel that social media should enhance life, not subsume it.

That said, there is an addictive element to social media (or, perhaps, to my personality). Being constantly in touch with people and getting blow-by-blow accounts of events can be compelling.

Researchers at Harvard, according to, have found some evidence that the act of disclosing information about oneself is connected to the same regions of the brain that are linked to reward. This could be one reason why some people can be compelled to post and share information on social media.

But can we really become hooked on social media?

Some psychiatrists (perhaps desperate for new business which they may even pick up online) have called for the consideration of a social media addiction disorder. In fact, some are now talking about Facebook Addiction Disorder, amusingly called FAD. If you search Facebook, you can, rather ironically, find several pages on it.

Dr Cecilie Schou Andreassen heads the Facebook Addiction Project at the University of Bergen. Preliminary research by the Bergen team apparently suggests that younger people and women are more likely to be addicted to Facebook.

Social media addiction, or so the so-called experts say, can result, paradoxically, in social withdrawal. Some academics also say there may be a link between narcissism and Facebook and Twitter use, but others argue that sharing enhances relationships and intimacy. Still others claim that the increasing use of social media suggests a collapse in interpersonal face-to-face contact.

This is, arguably, nowhere more evident than the explosion in dating sites on the Internet. Meeting people on the Internet through such media might point to an increasingly disconnected world where we can no longer connect in person, or our communities are so shattered and our lives too busy to relate in traditional ways.

But people are using dating sites and social media to connect in their droves. In the US, the dating sites industry is a $2-billion business, and revenues have increased by 50% in the last year. Twitter has about 100-million users and Facebook now has a whopping 850 000-million users, and both are growing daily. In other words, nearly one-seventh of the planet is using Facebook.

The sheer volume suggests that people must be getting something out of it, and it would be wrong to simply pathologise the increasing use of the Internet and desire to connect with others as an addiction or something trivial.

The world has changed. Harping on about the good old days when people met at the corner café seems pointless to me. Not exploiting new ways to connect with others is self-defeating. I also think scare stories about increasing levels of dependence and growing social decline because of the Internet are unproductive.

New technologies have always provoked different forms of moral panic. Rock music and Elvis Presley’s hips were going to be the ruin of civilisation. Television was going to turn our brains to mush.

Of course, one can debate the merits of television and some music. But what is indisputable about them and many technologies is that they are born out of creativity. The question, therefore, for me, is not about social media addiction, but rather about how it can be used positively in terms of collaboration, new ideas and innovation.

So more focus is needed on how we can all, young and old, learn to harness the opportunity social media offers, good and bad. Spending energy on teaching creativity is far more productive than prevaricating on the evils in the world and trying to guard against them.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 23 August 2012 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Psychologists, Ethics and Torture

Below is a live tweet record by @BrandonHamber of the panel discussion at the International Congress of Psychology 2012 in Cape Town.

The panel began with the screening of Doctors of the Dark Side followed by a discussion on the ethical issues facing psychologists given the controversy about psychologists involved in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, and the American Psychological Association (APA) stance on the issue.

On the panel Leslie London (South Africa), Stephen Behnke (APA Ethics), Paul Kimmel (USA), Mike Wessells (APA), Chair: Umesh Bawa (South Africa) and moderator Norman Duncan (South Africa)

@BrandonHamber Tweet Record 27 July 2012

Just watched Doctors of the Dark Side. Films about role of physicians and psychologists in detainee torture #icp2102

There is now a panel discussion on the issue of torture and psychologists role in allowing it to happen #icp2012

Leslie London speaking first from South Africa #icp2012

London notes the failure of accountability is striking for psychologists who oversaw torture in Guantanamo Bay #icp2012

Failure to hold health professionals accountable will result in abuses in the future says London #icp2012

London says at least 29 doctors reported for involvement in apartheid, only one ever investigate #icp2012

Cannot have ethics without human rights says Leslie London #icp2012

Stephen Behnke adresses accountability from APA perspective. Says we cannot do anything about non APA members #icp2012

Stephen Behnke is the Director, APA Ethics Office #icp2012

Behnke says organisations have a responsibility to offer support to psychologists in these difficult positions #icp2012

APA made a list in 2007 of practices that are forbidden including water boarding. APA took to long to do that says Behnke #icp2012

When to know when to pull out of a situation or not is a difficult issue says Behnke #icp2012

Behnke uses the death penalty as an example. It is legal in US, APA has intervened to prevent it in some cases #icp2012

But it is difficult to know if we should pull out entirely or if we should have intervened in some cases says Behnke #icp2012

Discussion very polite so far, does not capture the massive tensions in the APA there have been over the years on this issue #ico2012

Mike Wessells former Director of Psychologists for Social Responsibility now talking #icp2012

Wessells says we need to think systemically because torture is an issue that is still not over, there are systemic pressures #icp2012

After 9/11 in US a distortion of issues and psychologists were not immune from the images and manipulation of Bush administration #icp2012

George Bush distorted the nature of law about torture #icp2012

No laws should throw out human rights says Wessells. Human rights standards have to be above national law #icp2012

Wessells says we need support for whistleblowers and accountability #icp2012

Torture does not happen because of bad apples, systemic and enabling factors need to be addressed says Wessells #icp2012

A coalition of all psychology associations is needed that rises above our own membership and offer moral guidance says Wessells #icp2012

It was unethical for psychologists to be at Guatanamo Bay because it was decreed beyond international standards says Wessells #icp2012

Floor getting heated, someone saying that surely we should have just been out of this altogether #icp2012

Another person from the floor asks if the APA should apologise for any of its actions #icp2012

Nora Soveass from UN Committee of Prevention of Torture raises the issue that convention also talks about prevention #icp2012

If there are no rights in an area, like the ICR not being allowed into a place, we should no be there says Sveaass #icp2012

Behnke now speaking. Says he agrees with Sveaass. There are no exceptional circumstances #icp2012

Behnke says the Bush memos on torture were horrific #icp2012

Behnke says APA was too slow, we took too long. But as we move forward, never again will US psychologist be involved in this #icp2012

Wessells on again says Sveaass reminds us that the specificity of what was happening in Guantanamo was known #icp2012

We need to do an honest retrospective and admit that big mistakes were made, we need a broader vision and not tinkering #icp2012

Another question what is being done to prevent this from happening again #icp2012

Behnke: APA is clear. No torture or involvement in this, and clear psychologists have to report torture if they're aware of issues #icp2012

Behnke says he agrees with Wessells we need to think systemically #icp2012

But Behnke says APA has not agreed about the issue of where we should be or not be, that is more controversial in the organisation #icp2012

Leslie London says international human rights law is our benchmark, without that we end up asking how much torture is torture #icp2012

Wessells says as long as we use language like do what is safe and legal its a problem, we need ethics that transcends national law #icp2102

Paul Kimmel ends and says we don't need lawyers but we need to be humanists, and go back to that to prevent torture #icp2012

Umesh Bawa, Chair from South Africa says we must remember we have said never again after Nuremberg and there was Rwanda etc. #icp2012

Bawa notes that there is continuing torture around the globe and calls for us to remember that as it is going on #icp2012

Bawa says we have to commit ourselves to defending human rights in all situations #icp2012

Panel ends. Will it make a difference? I don't know? Better we have it, but so much to be done and is the system as Wessells notes #icp2012

And here is a photo of the panel for good measure #icp2012

Here is a piece "The Ghost of Jeffrey Benzein Lives On" that I wrote about torture and professionals a while back, read here.

The discussion on APA and torture still bouncing in my head #icp2012

The more I think about it the more ridiculous the notion of lists of acceptable and unacceptable practices seem to me #icp2012

The fact 'torture' lists are needed suggests a moral and ethical vacuum at the core of the APA and training of psychologists #icp2012

Mike Wessells is correct there is a systematic problem in the profession and wider society #icp2012

Other resources:

Psychologists for Social Responsibility Documents on Torture

Coalition for an Ethical Psychology

10-Year "Psychology, Torture, and the APA" Timeline

Timeline of APA Policies and Actions

Torture at Abu Ghraib

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Presentations: International Congress of Psychology

I have now finished my presentations at the 30th International Congress of Psychology (22-27 July 2012) in Cape Town. On Monday 23 July 2012, I hosted a symposium at 11am, entitled "From the individual to the collective: Exploring social transformation through psychosocial Interventions". This symposium reported on the findings of Trauma, Peacebuilding and Development project with various authors of the case studies speaking. I will also presented, with with Dr Elizabeth Gallagher our research on "Youth, masculinity, the past, and conceptualisations of trauma in post-conflict Northern Ireland". We hope to have a book about the project out next year.

Yesterday, the 24th I was part of a symposium focusing on the issue of reparations after violent conflict entitled "Surviving gross human rights violations - exploring survivors' experience of justice and reparation". My paper was entitled "Healing political wounds: The role of macro interventions in assisting victims of political violence".

An audio clip of my introduction is available here: Audio Clip (3 Minute Introduction)

The main points, as tweeted were:

  • At ICP 2012 presenting paper “Healing the Wounds: The role of macro interventions in assisting victims of political violence”
  • The impact of political violence is not the same everywhere but practitioners argue it is with concepts like PTSD
  • This can remove context and fail to take account of the historical and individual meaning associated with political violence
  • If we don't recognise context in addressing political violence we can fail to see the how macro interventions operate
  • By macro interventions I mean truth commissions, or trials or tribunals
  • The delivery of truth, justice and reparations are part of this context, and are key to individual healing
  • This highlights the limits of defining psychological support as only about therapy or interpersonal assistance
  • Changing the context or the environment changes individuals mental health
  • Changing the context is a mental health intervention. This is all our responsibility #icp2012

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain

Today I gave a  keynote address at the "The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain: Impacts, Engagements, Legacies and Memories" Conference, 11–13 July 2012. The conference was an inter-disciplinary conference hosted by the Centre for Research in Memory Narrative and Histories at the University of Brighton. The conference sought to explore the impacts and lasting effects of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ in Britain and responses to the conflict from Britain. More details on the conference are here.

My paper will be entitled 'Symptomatic treatment: The challenge of policy and practice interventions aimed at assisting victims of the confict in and about Northern Ireland'.

I am still finalising my paper but here are some tweets from the day to give you a little flavour.

@JoDoverWork 9:14am Preparing to chair a session at the Brighton conference with @BrandonHamber about policy & practice for assisting victims of the 'Troubles'

@BrandonHamber 11:39am My paper at Brighton conference entitled "Symptomatic Treatment" argues we are medicalising how we look at victims of the conflict

@BrandonHamber 11:41am We also need link in truth, justice and reparation, and describe the context now and then, to deal with the full range of needs

@BrandonHamber 11:42am What victim voices are we silencing or rewarding in peace process Northern Ireland, is there social space for people to still be angry?

@BrandonHamber 11:44am Victim healing comes not only in the therapy room but how they negotiate victims place in society and acknowledge what has happened

@BrandonHamber 11:45am There is an onus on political leadership to create a framework to talk about the past in Britain and Northern Ireland

@BrandonHamber 12:00pm Good response to my talk. I'm working on the final paper. But many of the ideas in my book "Transforming Societies"

Monday, July 9, 2012

Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report

Important event earlier this year and only getting around to provide links to it now, that is the launching of the "Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report: Number One" written by Paul Nolan (Feb, 2012).

The NI Peace Monitoring Report will "provide independent monitoring of Northern Ireland’s journey out of violence, and of the efforts to create a society in which all can live free from fear, and in relationships of trust and safety with their fellow citizens. An indicator framework will be created to allow the measurement of change towards the goals of equality, social cohesion, sharing, and the ability to deal with political difference through open dialogue and accommodation. The findings will be made available to all through the publication of an annual report".

The real value will be in the publication of subsequent reports to see if the monitoring of the data provides useful indicators of progress in Northern Ireland or not. Download the report.

Friday, July 6, 2012

South African TRC Report Online

I was going through my old blogs and noticed that back in 2004, and several times thereafter, that I complained about the fact that the South African TRC report was not available freely. At the time there was a problem with the publisher who the TRC sold the rights to. However, I am happy to report now that the TRC report is available online via the Department of Justice. On the site you can review its contents.

I have created a handy zip file with the entire report in it, download the full SA TRC Report (18MB, zip, pdf).

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Irish Open and the Union Jack (Photo)

The Irish Open and the Union Jack
Taken by Brandon Hamber, 30 June 2012
For more photos of Irish Open, rain and umbrellas, click here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bought and Sold by Benjamin Zephaniah

Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It's not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.
The ancestors would turn in graves
Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder
How our souls were sold
And check our strategies,
The empire strikes back and waves
When they have done what they've been told
They get their OBEs.

Don't take my word, go check the verse
Cause every laureate gets worse
A family that you cannot fault as muse will mess your mind,
And yeah, you may fatten your purse
And surely they will check you first when subjects need to be amused
With paid for prose and rhymes.

Take your prize, now write more,
Fuck the truth
Now you're an actor do not fault your benefactor
Write, publish and review,
You look like a dreadlocks Rasta,
You look like a ghetto blaster,
But you can't diss your paymaster
And bite the hand that feeds you.

What happened to the verse of fire
Cursing cool the empire
What happened to the soul rebel that Marley had in mind,
This bloodstained, stolen empire rewards you and you conspire,
(Yes Marley said that time will tell)
Now look they've gone and joined.

We keep getting this beating
It's bad history repeating
It reminds me of those capitalists that say
'Look you have a choice,'
It's sick and self-defeating if our dispossessed keep weeping
And we give these awards meaning
But we end up with no voice.

  • Source: Too Black, Too Strong. Published by Bloodaxe Books (2001)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Call for Inquiry into Prehen Ancient Woodland Planning

Below I post an open letter calling for the support to prevent destruction of Prehen Woods.

Dear friends


Prehen Historical and Environmental Society has asked the Stormont Committee for the Environment to conduct an inquiry into the transparency, equality and accountability of the Planning Service, due to concerns caused by our experience relating to the development at Prehen Ancient Woodland.

The Environment Committee is meeting on Thursday 28 June at Stormont, and our case is being considered at the meeting.

We are therefore asking for as many of you as possible to email Anna Lo, Chair of the Environment Committee, in support of our call for an inquiry.

I am attaching a sample letter which you can use or adapt. We would be delighted if you would sign your name to it, and email it immediately to and copy to (Clerk of the Environment Committee) as the papers are being compiled for the Committee on Monday.

I am also attaching details of the Prehen case for your information, which exemplifies the failings in the planning process.

Many thanks and kind regards

George Mc Laughlin Prehen Historical and Environmental Society


  • Summary of events to date concerning the Prehen Woods, click here
  • Sample letter to send to Anna Lo, click here
  • Join the Facebook Campaign, click here.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Putting the Presidential pickle in perspective

I was 17 when I personally first encountered censorship. I produced a school play in the late 1980s which reached the finals of a play festival in Johannesburg.

Unbeknown to me, the play I selected, Egoli, by Matsemela Manaka, was banned. The play focused on the hardships under apartheid of two mineworkers, played by black friends at my integrated school. At the time, I was politically naïve. To me, the play simply represented suffering and was an interesting story.

After we had reached the final, which meant the play would be shown to a large audience, I was informed we could not perform it, as it was banned. Our English teacher was then hauled before a censor board. We miraculously received permission to put the play on one more time only. We performed the play and came second. I believe we lost because of the play's political content, but I am biased.

My story is minor compared with the censorship many artists experienced under apartheid. Dozens fled the country because the State disapproved of their art. Some were killed. Yet my story also highlights how the apartheid State tried to regulate all aspects of life, even trivially involving itself with a schoolboy.

But South Africa has changed. The Constitution protects artistic expression. The African National Congress (ANC) was instrumental in achieving this. However, given its approach to the furore over Brett Murray's painting, The Spear, many are asking if the party is now rolling back these freedoms.

Murray's painting is distasteful and, no doubt, President Jacob Zuma and his family felt offended. But does this justify mobilising State and political party resources to deal with the President's feelings? If Zuma felt affronted, he could have sued for defamation. Instead, he turned the matter into a national issue.

I accept that the painting may represent a deep-seated racism to some, and many whites still fail to acknowledge the pain caused by apartheid. But, if these are the concerns of the President and the ANC, they should foster national debate on the subject in a sensible and considered way, leading from the front. Instead, as emotions erupted over the painting, the President and the ANC chose to fan the flames.

>The President lectured Murray on his lack of responsibility in exercising his right to expression. However, in my book, the President, who is, after all, the most powerful person in the country, showed a lack of responsibility in dramatically intensifying a volatile situation before calling for debate and understanding.

Over the ten days following the controversy, the ANC released 12 press statements – half these were about the painting. This points to an increasingly self- obsessed party that is losing sight of real issues.

A confident party and a confident President would not concern themselves with a picture hanging in a gallery frequented by a handful of patrons. The ANC and the President chose to make the painting an issue.

Meanwhile, in Syria over 100 people died in a single massacre, many of them children. The ANC, with strong connections to China and Russia, could have used the energies expended on caw-cawing about a painting to help put pressure on Syria, not to mention addressing pressing local issues such as poverty. Instead, the ANC focused on a fictitious representation of the President's penis.

So, like the censors that sought me out over 20 years ago, the ruling elite in South Africa run the risk of trying to micromanage society, vainly believing they can get everyone to think like them.

I hope The Spear debacle is not part of such a trend. However, the President's attempts to censor a painting and calls by senior ANC figures to destroy it point to a party that may be on a precipice. If they step over it, it is only a matter of time before they will be chasing schoolboys around for drawing the President's genitals on a toilet wall.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 8 June 2012 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

MSc. in Applied Peace and Conflict Studies

In case there are any of you out there still considering a masters programme for next year I wanted to recommend our new MSc. at INCORE. In 2012 Ulster will celebrate 25 years of masters level provision in peace and conflict studies by launching the newly designed MSc. in Applied Peace and Conflict Studies. Building on the previous MA in Peace and Conflict Studies, this internationally renowned programme, now based at INCORE (International Conflict Research Institute), has been re-structured to offer cutting-edge provision including a focus on comparative lesson learning from Northern Ireland; new technologies and peace; psychosocial approaches; development; and evaluation in conflict zones. The restructuring is timely and reinforces Ulster's position as a leader in terms of provision in the area. For more information.

Truth Commissions Online Resources

General Databases

Truth Commissions.Org
USIP Truth Commission Database

Country Specific Truth Commission Final Reports

Mental Health in post-Agreement Northern Ireland

Gallagher, E., Hamber , B., & Joy, E. (2012). Perspectives and Possibilities: Mental Health in post-Agreement Northern Ireland. Shared Space: A research journal on peace, conflict and community relations in Northern Ireland, 13, pp.63-78 [Download]

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Zuma's Presidential Pardons Process Unconstitutional

Please see below a press statement released this morning by the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice (SACTJ).


Almost 150 criminals, racist killers and those responsible for mass atrocities committed during and immediately after apartheid have been recommended for special pardon in a deeply flawed and unconstitutional process headed by President Jacob Zuma, the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice (SACTJ) warned today.

The Coalition asserts that President Zuma would be acting inconsistently with the values and principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as well as a recent decision of South Africa’s Constitutional Court which confirmed that the disclosure of truth was an essential precondition of the process.

The Coalition advised President Zuma, through its attorneys, the Legal Resources Centre, that no pardon may be lawfully issued on the back of the special pardons process which eschewed the exposure of the full truth of apartheid era crimes as well as crimes committed well into South Africa’s constitutional democracy. The special pardons process has condoned the concealing of the identities of senior politicians and security officers who authorised the murders of anti-apartheid activists.

In a move to “promote national reconciliation and unity” and deal with the “unfinished business” of the TRC, former President Thabo Mbeki set up a Special Dispensation process in 2007 to pardon political perpetrators who had not participated in the TRC amnesty process. He also extended the process to those whose crimes were committed after apartheid up to 16 June 1999. A body named the Reference Group (RG), made up of representatives from the 15 political parties in parliament, was tasked with reviewing applications and making recommendations. Pardon applicants were required to disclose the truth and show that their crimes were politically motivated.

Amongst those recommended for pardon are apartheid era police minister, Adriaan Vlok, and police commissioner, Johann van der Merwe. They received suspended sentences for their role in the attempted murder by poisoning of former South African Council of Churches head, the Rev. Frank Chikane in the late 1980s. Vlok and Van der Merwe acknowledge that a death list had been drawn up but merely claim that they were passing on instructions. In their applications for pardon they do not disclose the names of the persons who gave such instructions nor do they disclose the identities of others on the death list.

Those recommended for special pardon include persons responsible for:

  • the killing of an entire family including a five-month old baby,
  • serial killings (one offender was convicted of 21 murders, another for 19 murders),
  • racist and brutal assaults on black protesters,
  • the bombing of a grocery store frequented by black people on Christmas eve 1996 resulting in 4 deaths and 67 serious injuries,
  • a cash-in-transit heist in 1998 claimed as “fund-raising” for the Pan African Congress’s 1999 election campaign, and
  • Kidnapping, armed robbery, arson, housebreaking, theft and unlawful possession of explosives".
Most of these incidents occurred well after 1994, when non-violent channels for political action were available to all South Africans. While leniency is afforded to called political offenders, victims’ pleas for justice and reparations have fallen on deaf ears.

The Special Pardons process is deeply offensive to all South Africans who made sacrifices for the liberation of South Africa. In denying South Africans the full truth it serves to undermine national reconciliation. Should President Zuma issue such pardons he will be violating the rule of law.

Background to the SACTJ

The SACTJ is an umbrella body of organizations working to advance the rights of victims of past conflicts and to hold the South African government accountable to its obligations. The member organisations are committed to helping secure the rights of victims of apartheid-era human rights violations and raising awareness about these rights. These organisations are Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), Human Rights Media Centre (HRMC), Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), Khulumani Support Group (KSG), South African History Archives (SAHA) and Trauma Centre for the Survivors of Violence and Torture (TCSVT). The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) is a friend of the SACTJ.


Hugo van der Merwe, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation: 27-82-570-0744,

Catherine Kennedy, South African History Archives: / +27117171973 / +27726826240

Marjorie Jobson, Khulumani Support Group: +2782 268 0223 /

Shirley Gunn, Human Rights Media Centre, +2782 924 8268 /

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Banky's Jubilee Art Work

This is Banky's latest creating for the Jubilee. On his website,, he notes: "I painted this on the side of Poundland in North London. A shop which sells cheap jubilee merchandise, is located on the route of the Olympic torch relay and was caught using sweatshop labour two years ago. But I only discovered any of this afterwards - I just thought it was a nice coloured wall".

Passing of Professor John Darby

It is with great sadness I note the passing of Professor John Darby, the founding Director of INCORE. John was an inspiration and mentor and friend to me and many staff at INCORE, and his legacy and inspiration lives on in all that INCORE does and continues to do. He will be missed. My thoughts are with his family at this time. At his time of passing her was Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. John was an expert on comparative peace processes. He was the author and editor of many books, including “The Management of Peace Processes,” “Guns and Government,” “The Effects of Violence on Peace Processes,” “Contemporary Peacemaking,” “Violence and Reconstruction” and “Peacebuilding after Peace Accords.”

Friday, June 1, 2012

30th International Congress of Psychology

I will be at the 30th International Congress of Psychology between 22-27 July 2012. This year it is held in Cape Town, South Africa. I will be involved in several presentations.

On Monday 23 July 2012, I will hosting a symposium at 11am, entitled "From the individual to the collective: Exploring social transformation through psychosocial Interventions". This symposium will report on the findings of Trauma, Peacebuilding and Development project with various authors of the case studies speaking. I will also present, with with Dr Elizabeth Gallagher our research on "Youth, masculinity, the past, and conceptualisations of trauma in post-conflict Northern Ireland".

On the Tuesday the 24th I am part of a symposium focusing on the issue of reparations after violent conflict entitled "Surviving gross human rights violations - exploring survivors' experience of justice and reparation". I will give a paper at 4:30pm called "Healing political wounds: The role of macro interventions in assisting victims of political violence".

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Charles Taylor guilty

Today Charles Taylor, former Liberian President, has been found guilty of 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity, when supporting rebels between 1996 and 2002. Here is a piece in The Guardian and a video.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland

Today I attended a Transitional Justice Institute workshop looking at dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. Main question asked: where to now. In short, the key point emerging was that the dealing with the past question has not gone away, and there is a need to have some organised way of addressing it. However, a lack of leadership and commitment locally and by the two governments stymies things moving forward. While this goes on victims continue to be frustrated by the plethora of mechanisms out there, none of which are meeting their needs in entirety, in fact making many feel they have to repeat themselves in multiple forums. There is also a growing resentment by some victims of their cases being called "historical" or "legacy issue" implying the concerns about truth and justice are not contemporary. Denis Bradley spoke at the event, and although does not see much progress, said he felt that the Consultative Group on the Past report has not been entirely binned and may return, as it is the only viable option on the table.

Also see my collection of resources and website on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Reparations in context

Today I am attending a meeting entitled "Reparations in context" as part of the 14th World Society of Victimology Symposium in The Hague. The event is organized by Redress, International Victimology Institute Tilburg, Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, Leiden University and The Hague Institute for Global Justice. At this meeting, experts in the field of victimology are invited to share ideas and identify new topics that thus far have received less focused attention and need further consideration. The event is intended to find new avenues for the implementation of reparations for victims in international criminal proceedings that may result in new projects to be further developed after this meeting. A background document on reparations will serve as a starting point, though an open, small scale debate is envisaged in order to stimulate creative and innovative thinking.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Website update

After much work I have updated my website. Now there is much better integration with various forms of social media such as Twitter, Linkedin and Instragram. Also updated the background pages of the blog and Twitter to match - my homemade patchwork of images, hope you like it. All my publications on the website are also now up to date, including a new section featuring the translation of my book into Spanish.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The serious business of tree hugging

Back in 2001, infamous tough politician from Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, admitted that he liked hugging trees. At the time, he noted: “Hugging trees has a calming affect on me. I’m talking about enormous trees that will be there when we are all dead and gone.”

This week, I was amusingly accused of being a tree hugger after I circulated a petition to save a forest in Northern Ireland known as the Prehen woodland.

By global standards, this forest is minuscule. The remaining tract of forest in Prehen, just outside Derry, covers 18.5 acres, compared to the 1.7-billion acres of the Amazon forest basin.

But this small forest is also unique. It is an ancient woodland with trees dating back to the 1600s and is one of the few ancient woodlands left on the island of Ireland. One of the last colonies of indigenous red squirrels lives in the forest and it offers local people a green area on the edge of the city.

Nonetheless, the local government and planners still allow continued encroachment on the forest, giving developers licence to chop down ageless trees to build luxury homes. The developers then have the gall to advertise the new homes as located in a forest setting.

The savagery the officials have allowed on this tiny forest over the years is disgraceful, but is also part of a bigger global problem.

Prehen Ancient Woodland
Forests cover about 30% of the world’s land area. But deforestation continues at an alarming rate. Logging, mining, housing and the planting of crops for grazing, besides other practices, destroy 4 500 acres of forest worldwide every hour, according to the United Nations. It is estimated that 18-million acres of the world’s forests is lost each year.

Experts estimate that, within 40 years, the last remaining rainforests could be consumed. This will have a devastating effect on the global climate and the 1.6- billion people who rely on forest products for all or part of their livelihoods.

Yet those who fight to roll back this destruction, like veteran local Prehen campaigner George McLaughlin, are generally dismissed as troublemakers by the planning authorities while, globally, corporations and governments turn a blind eye for a quick buck or financial support for their next election campaign.

Given the gargantuan annihilation of trees around the planet, should I, or anyone for that matter, care about the Prehen woodland in Northern Ireland?

Of course, we should. We need to challenge the human delusions I have seen in relation to forest annihilation. When it comes to vast forests like the Amazon, we are tricked into thinking they are too big to be completely wiped out. When it comes to small forests like the Prehen woodland, we think they are too insignificant to matter.

However, not caring about the Prehen woodland, or any other, is like saying the extinction of a specific species of insect is not important because there are lots of other insects in the world. But, like an extinct species, once this ancient woodland is gone, you cannot grow it back.

Adams claims he likes hugging trees because he knows they will be there long after he is gone. Well, in this case, he might be wrong.

When will the authorities in Northern Ireland wake up to the reality staring them in the face? Or will they continue to sell their resources to the highest bidder for some short-term gain, just like many others worldwide?

Given the record of government and the planners in relation to the Prehen woodland and internationally, there is little prospect. But each day I hope, just as my financial adviser is prone to say, past performance is not always an indicator of future performance and, perhaps, someone with the power to stop the wanton destruction of forests like the Prehen woodland will stand up and have the courage to say: “No more.”

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 19 March 2012 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.