South Africa’s reconciliation process needs to produce more justice


Fanie du toitFifteen years after the demise of apartheid, the main lenses through which IJR analyses post-conflict reconstruction across Africa – justice and reconciliation – remain relevant to South African transition too.

Reconciliation is grounded in the basic conviction that all people, regardless of gender, race, income or any other differential, are inherently equal – and therefore deserve justice. It requires putting this faith into action by working across historical divides to increase justice, in all its legal, political, socio-economic and cultural guises. Coming together on any other premise, including charity steeped in paternalism, however subtle, cannot last and will only deepen tensions rather than alleviate them.

In the hurly-burly of post-conflict reconstruction across Africa, justice and reconciliation go together, and require a careful, almost prescient, context-specific balancing act. Seeking justice against human rights transgressors, or economic justice for victims of structural violence, is impossible without some national consensus on the rule of law, and how to affect redress in a new dispensation. Imposing the ‘rule of law’ or ‘social justice’ from on high risks simply ushering in new forms of oppression and violence.

However, reconciliation without justice should also be rejected outright. When adversaries suspend hostility in order to govern together (as in Kenya and Zimbabwe), this unity needs to expand and deepen justice in all its guises. While stopping the guns brings immediate justice for those directly in the line of fire, ultimately ceasefires, peace agreements and governments of national unity need justice to be sustainable.

South Africa remains a case study in the long-term impact and longevity of a post-conflict policy that put a high premium on reconciliation – some have said, at the cost of social justice.

Fifteen years on, South Africa remains uncomfortably juxtaposed between indicators of decline, such as increasing inequality diminishing public trust institutions (falling by up to 30% in some cases, IJR research suggests), and those demonstrating important progress, including lower levels of violent crime, improved school participation, and increased gender representation in the labour force.

Arguably, South Africa has normalised to the degree that it can no longer be judged as either an unequivocal failure or an unblemished success. Perhaps we never could. The debate is about those who emphasise our successes as a sign that we can in fact ‘do it’ for ourselves, and those who underscore our failures as a sign of protest that we could have done so much better. And perhaps both have a point.

South African society remains one of the most unequal in the world. Our unfinished business, the social dividend that did not follow our remarkable transformation, the ‘third miracle’ absent from our political and economic successes, could perhaps be described by two unresolved challenges – what I will call the ‘white question’ and the ‘black question’ (the latter used inclusively).

The ‘white question’ is one of ideological or cultural reconstruction, of overcoming racism and the idea that some are inherently inferior to others. I am deeply worried by the lack of progress on this front.

Despite increased ethnic tensions and racial animosity from some blacks towards whites, including comments reported in the media (even by prospective Constitutional Court judges), and despite the obvious and important contributions many whites make towards a non-racial society, to me, this remains largely a white problem, and a white task.

IJR’s Reconciliation Barometer shows that racial attitudes have not changed sufficiently. While in upper-income groups white and black mix freely during office hours, socialisation is limited outside of the workplace. Lower-income, almost exclusively black communities remain socially and economically isolated. Research also shows that whites remain most resistant to integration, for example, through integrated neighbourhoods or mixed marriages.

The white question needs to be overcome through a two-fold move: inward and outward. Journeying inward, whites need truly to embrace the inherent equality of all people. While faith and education are the obvious conduits, many South African institutions have failed in this regard.

There is also an outward journey – towards the other. The irony remains that white people themselves speak more about their guilt (especially when denying it) than black compatriots. I don’t often hear black South Africans talk about white guilt, but rather about white privilege. Historically acquired, presently real and guaranteed for the foreseeable future, regardless of employment equity or black economic empowerment, privilege ensures whites remain vastly better off than their compatriots. The Cape Area Panel Study (CAPS), conducted by the Universities of Cape Town and Michigan, tracked close to five thousand youth in Cape Town between 2002 and 2005, finding that among matriculants, the ‘black youth employment level…remains well below that of young whites and coloureds.’

Reconciliation requires, in this context, the sincere acknowledgement of privilege, the historical reasons for this, and the need for all to participate in making South Africa a more equal society.

The second question, the ‘black question’, is ultimately of more importance to our national survival, and concerns the long-term impact of ongoing structural violence embedded in South Africa’s socio-economic inequality. It is one of diminished self-worth, being sidelined and adrift in world of rampant consumerism, instant self-gratification and the gross display of wealth, within touching distance of those who know that neither they nor their children will ever have a chance of participating.

While cognisant of the danger of pathologising the poor, it is important to remember that we come from a past where self-worth, respect and dignity were stratified at every level of society. Could it be that to land up in a post-apartheid peri-urban slum in 2009 with no hope out is the worst possible confirmation of the belief that apartheid sought to engender: that people caught here have less value than those in more affluent areas?

Regrettably the post-apartheid state suffers, together with South Africans collectively, from a palpable schism between professed and practised values. Whereas our constitutional values emphasise individuals’ inherent worth, in reality, what we have determines our worth in present-day South Africa. The ‘haves’, white and black alike, are among the wealthiest people in the world. This confirms the inferiority of poor South Africans on a daily basis, not by our official values, but by our unspoken, practised ones.

South Africa’s Gini coefficient remains the highest in the world (between 0.66 and 0.7). In 2007, the earnings of the poorest 10% of South Africans constituted only 0.6% of the GDP, whereas the top 10% earned an astounding 72.5%. Municipal workers recently fought for a 15% increase to salaries starting at R3 350 a month, equalling only a few hundred rand more on each payday, while municipal managers earn close to a million rand a year. This is neither sustainable nor just – I believe it is about to change. Service delivery protests have entered a new level of intensity, now driven not only by local grievances, but by a sense of growing alienation and exclusion.

Poverty alleviation needs to be far more than an economic plan. It needs to have important social dimensions. The Western Cape Social Transformation Plan has tried to address this, and has partnered with the IJR Community Healing programme, in which leaders in poor communities are supported in taking local histories into account and putting ‘the past’ on the table as a strategic question, as they make their development plans.

South Africa’s story has not been resolved one way or the other – justice and reconciliation remain finely balanced. It is a place with enormous challenges, yet with real capacity and a track record that shows we can do something about this. It is a place of the grossest form of racial inequality the world ever witnessed, and yet perhaps precisely the place where white and black can for the very first time become truly equal.

Dr du Toit is Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

© Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 2009.

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