Are yesterdays answers today’s questions?

SUREN PILLAY asks whether new conceptions of justice should guide efforts to overcome apartheid’s social and economic divides.

On a recent visit to a government agency – as a citizen, not a researcher – I began chatting with an affable front-desk consultant. After some general conversation on the dire state of the world, she – of Afrikaner descent – confided to me that an Afrikaner savant has predicted the end of the universe in 2012. This savant also predicts that when Nelson Mandela dies, his body will lie in state in a glass coffin for seven days. On the eighth day, she whispered almost without sound, ‘the blacks will kill all the whites…’ Before I could wonder aloud why she was sharing this with me, someone who considers himself black, she elaborated, ‘then all the Indians…’ Suddenly I was transformed from potential perpetrator to fellow victim, and understood why she felt obligated to convey this humanitarian insight to me.

Despite this oddly revealing anecdote, I believe that twenty years after Nelson Mandela’s release, the pervasive allure of these genocidal visions has lost its grip. The fear that once silenced private moments of doubt, and stiffened the sinews of public displays of kragdadigheid, has given way to other misgivings – about jobs and crime, rather than the systematic erasure of whites.

Gestures of reconciliation, including the disposition of Nelson Mandela and other liberation leaders and the acceptance of both African and South African political identities in post-apartheid society, allayed these fears for many white South Africans.

Of course, these gestures also reflected a pragmatic political compromise with power. While certain relations have changed, others remain intact: political power has shifted, but economic power less so, producing only a small coterie of ‘black diamonds’.

A 2008 study found that white workers earn on average 450% more than black workers. This and other research suggests persuasively that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. However, citing these data often produces a predictable response: both black and white tend to experience these statistics as accusations and mutual incriminations. Progressives acknowledge and lament this reality, while others dispute it or deny any responsibility: ‘I never voted for apartheid’, ‘I was too young’, or ‘it was those Afrikaners’. Rather than being reconciled, these disputes show just how divided we remain.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was an important attempt to negotiate a collective future out of a conflicted past, and create a single political community based on acknowledgement and forgiveness. However, while the TRC – aligned with the international community – acknowledged apartheid as a ‘crime against humanity’, it focused primarily on the secondary violence that arose from the implementation of apartheid. This included a focus on violence committed by both state agents and anti-apartheid activists, but not on the system that legalised racial division and skewed access to resources.

Two categories of people fell out of view along the way: the millions of victims, mostly black, of apartheid’s banal bureaucratic violence, and the lesser millions of predominantly-white beneficiaries of the system.

Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani observes that while the TRC recognised the consequences of apartheid for millions, it only acknowledged some 20 000 ‘victims’ in the end, defined as those who experienced ‘gross violations of human rights’. It is worth pondering the questions this raises for us today.

In hindsight, has the meaning of ‘justice’ in post-apartheid South Africa been shaped by the needs of ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ identified by the TRC?

Notwithstanding those awaiting reparations, some of apartheid’s most visible victims now flagrantly relish ‘the good life’, as former liberation activists have become the faces of the new political and economic elite. Some former activists are self-righteous about the good life – as Smuts Ngonyama notoriously quipped, ‘we didn’t struggle to be poor’ – because it means justice for our struggle and sacrifice, years in exile, and languishing in prison.

Is ‘the good life’ not justice for the painful years under the anvil of the apartheid state, when Eugene De Kock’s men might come knocking in the night? Is it not justice to ensure that comrades benefit from tenders, after a shared history of life-or-death moments pursuing a good cause?

If apartheid’s victims and perpetrators are narrowed to numbers defined through the TRC, do we unconsciously also believe that justice is served and deserved only by that few? If perpetrators have received either amnesty or jail terms, does this explain why many whites today feel no further responsibility for apartheid’s legacy? If most white citizens simply lived normal lives, raised families, worked hard in their jobs, and lived within the law, how – they ask – can they be accused of gross human rights violations? And if apartheid’s black victims were only those who experienced beatings, torture and assassinations firsthand, doesn’t it follow that black beneficiaries of justice after apartheid might also be few? This picture is worryingly close to today’s reality.

It is worth asking what might have been, and might be, if we instead think of apartheid victimisation as the collective experience of millions. Rather than recognising or memorialising individuals, what about the ordinary, unnamed victims who slumber in their thousands as statistics in our archives: the share-croppers and peasants wiped out by the 1913 Land Act, migrant workers wrenched from their families, the domestic workers who have mothered millions? And for its beneficiaries, a legacy of racial privilege, cohesive suburban neighbourhoods, good schools and healthcare, based on a discriminatory system that turned colonial racism into law. What if we think of apartheid as that living legacy?

If apartheid’s wrong is the creation of this shared dilemma, how do we conceive of justice in a society marked by the coexistence of suffering for the majority, and a good life for a few old and new beneficiaries, rather than one of individual victims and perpetrators? What, then, are our past and present ethical responsibilities across racial divides? Would we be jolted into more urgent actions to address apartheid’s silent victims, ineligible for reparations through the TRC?

Would such a view of justice allow activists now-turned politicians and entrepreneurs to feel complacent and entitled to the good life, without experiencing a niggle of guilt?  Would it encourage apartheid’s beneficiaries to join a conversation about a more equitable distribution of resources, both intellectual and economic, without responding defensively? Is it not time to create a form of justice that truly addresses transformation, and counters perceptions that it upholds old privilege by empowering only our struggle veteran ‘tenderpreneurs’, and the young leaders being moulded by their example?

Suren Pillay is editor (with Chandra Sriram) of Truth vs Justice? The Dilemmas of Transitional Justice in Africa, UKZN Press, 2009.

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