I WAS brought up in what I call a "jam tin" culture. One of the defining elements of white culture in my youth was our practice of giving workers tea in jam tins. If I ever thought it was an oddity of our household, I learnt later, from listening to black teachers talking about the experience of domestic work, that this was a consistent practice.

Such apparently petty humiliations do damage because of their symbolic power in communicating the sense of human valuing and devaluing. The person who drank from the tin would also serve us tea in china cups.

Jam tins are, I am sure, on their way out, but the sense of human devaluation continues to poison society. Nothing evokes this more than the Reitz incident at the University of the Free State (UFS), in which black workers were subject to such unthinking humiliation. As for the perpetrators, they found the actions humorous and entertaining. How do we address the emotional satisfaction that comes from such acts of injustice?

Such questions are pressing, not least because some of the reactions to what happened focus on the wrongness of what was done, while others focus more on gaining emotional satisfaction from inflicting punishment. Recognition of wrong often becomes muddled with revenge, sometimes leading to situations in which those who see themselves as victims slip into becoming perpetrators.

In South African history, we must acknowledge the atrocities perpetrated on Boer women and children in concentration campus, but also acknowledge that the insistent focus on Boer suffering and British injustice helped drive the establishment of the apartheid state . The challenge is how we both recognise the wrong and take the poison out of the society.

We cannot pursue reconciliation without justice. To judge whether UFS vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen was correct to drop the university's disciplinary action against the Reitz perpetrators is thus to ask if he got the balance between justice and reconciliation right. Much of the criticism against him ignores his comments on what it will take to bring both justice and reconciliation to the institution. His decision may be been wrong in some way, but surely the vitriol of some of the attacks on him is part of the problem that needs addressing.

Similarly, we cannot pursue justice without some process of reconciliation. Go into our prisons, see who is there, and ask what reconciliation is being brought to both them and those they harmed. It seems that the current approach to crime is to close off those questions, and to go for "shoot the bastards". Such approaches strip justice of any sense of reconciliation. They also entrench inequality, with the result that the punishment falls disproportionately on those who are poor and black. We have to question what justice is if it does not build a sense of human value in its process.

Exploring the possibility of restorative justice means engaging critically with approaches beyond the formally legal, including indigenous methods of recognition and reparation, and such precedents as the Gandhian tradition. We are starting to make inroads, for example in the diversion system for juvenile offenders.

We cannot address these issues unless we engage at a deeper level. I was teaching the other day issues of racism in a class of adult students. There were statements about the ways in which the prevailing messages of racism had damaged relations between Africans and Indians, the two groups in the class. Then a student said: "When will we stop internalising these things? It is as if someone had poisoned our sense of self."

Reconciliation in the end must restore to all of us a sense of integrity.

n Hemson is acting director of the International Centre of Nonviolence at the Durban University of Technology.