A tribunal on apartheid?

RUPERT TAYLOR asks whether the Russell Tribunal can offer lessons for South Africa in the national quest to confront and eradicate racism.

Over mid-November 2011, the Russell Tribunal on Israel/Palestine met in Cape Town to question if Israel is an apartheid state. From a South African perspective, what bears reflection is: why, as yet, has no such high profile non-governmental tribunal has been convened to fully examine apartheid itself? A question that becomes all the more pertinent if apartheid is understood in structural terms of being a particularly pernicious form of systemic racism – and as such not yet a thing of the past, but a phenomenon that is far deeper than most people recognise. For, surely a case can be made that racism is not now just about racial prejudice and discrimination, that it is in fact something still structurally embedded in South African society?

In this regard, it is important to stress that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did little to historicise racism and systematically interrogate the racialised structure of apartheid. In effect, the TRC shied away from confronting the full force of the argument as to why, as argued by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, apartheid constituted ‘the most racist of racisms’. And indeed, what remains unsettling about contemporary South African intellectual life is the absence of any sustained public discussion as to what the system of apartheid really entailed and meant.

The point is, that as apartheid was a particularly extreme and totalising form of racial domination, it needs to be understood that all social structures were interlocked into one racialised dehumanising system. After all, how else under apartheid rule could it come to pass that a black person was always subordinate to a white person; and justice could come to have no meaning for those racially classified as black. As Ahmed Kathrada asserts in his Memoirs, ‘Race was the single factor that determined where people could live and work, what hospital or university they could go to, which church or cinema they could attend, what bus or train they could use to get there.’

Although the writing of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko engaged with the totalising nature of white racism as a ‘system’, no intellectual work has subsequently sought to fully unpack the sociological implications of this racism. To help take the argument forward we can, however, refer to a definition of ‘structural racism’ given by two American social scientists, Andrew Grant-Thomas and john a. powell, who maintain that: ‘We can describe a social system as structurally racist to the degree that it is configured to promote racially unequal outcomes.’

Recognising the salience of this insight in the South African context today is not that difficult. White people’s life chances far more favourably outstrip those of black people. White South African’s continue to hold an unequally high amount of land and greater share of wealth and capital income, and benefit from far greater levels of access to the country’s leading schools, best universities, and most highly paid corporate jobs. Most black youth of today are still born into poverty and encircled by racially structured barriers with respect to education, employment, and wealth accumulation. Black South African’s are still destined for a life of suffering below the poverty line of R418 per month – if not premature death. According to the recently released National Planning Commission Report, white households currently earn almost ten times per year more than African households, almost half of young Africans have never had a waged job, and the life expectancy of white males is some 17 years longer than African males.

As opposed to the popular readings of apartheid as some kind of morality tale in which good confronts evil, but where there is never any questioning of what made the whole story possible in the first place, a tribunal would seek to interrogate the totality of apartheid. Through rigorous social scientific research involving both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, and drawing on both written evidence and firsthand and expert testimony, it would seek to unpack the interconnected and cumulative material and experiential patterns of racially structured exclusion and injustice. It would subsequently endeavour to develop and advance a new conceptual framework with innovative indicators and time-framed policies.

As well as probing how factors such as an individual’s spatial location, quality of schooling, and employment prospects are structured to form mutually reinforcing conditions that produce advantages for white people and disadvantages for black people, a key way of highlighting the continuing labyrinth of structural racism would be to draw out individual life-stories. To hear from those who continue to suffer most from the grip of structural racism would go a long way to unveiling what black people uniquely have had to endure and continue to bear.

It may be recalled that one of the all-time best-selling novels in Afrikaans was Elsa Joubert’s The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena (1978). This book captures well the power of witness by telling the story of how Poppie (a pseudonym of a real-life African woman) and her family, despite all efforts, could not ‘side-step’ the totalising logic of apartheid. By the end of the story no black character was left ‘free of it all’ and the African ‘location’ is left portrayed as being that of a ‘gaol’. As University of Stellenbosch philosopher Johan Degenaar perceptively argued at the time of the book’s publication, this was a work that spoke to the ‘structural violence’ of apartheid in as much as it deprived ‘people of choices in a systematic way’.

In pursuit of the above aims, such a tribunal would best be comprised of a small number of leading intellectuals, supported by a well-resourced in-house research team, and funded through a foundation that engages in ‘creative philanthropy’ – like the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. Above all, the tribunal would be guided by the imperative to create a society in which the life chances of all South African citizens are no longer racialised in terms of both opportunity and outcome. It would help provide a beacon for the National Planning Commission to chart the best way forward to meet its key strategic objectives of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality. It would play a crucial role in helping build a non-racial society that, in the words of Oliver Tambo, is free of ‘racism of any kind’.

Professor Rupert Taylor is in the department of political studies, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

One Response to A tribunal on apartheid?

  1. Dr Chris Roux


    I am curious why in the face of all forms of perniciuos racism and genocide committed in the world in the last century you are so intent on continuosly rekindling the flames of the tragedy that occured during the nationalist apartheid period. Does your focus on history delimit you to South Africa only? Before you go down the track and argue that refererring to enormous social crimes committed elsewhere does not absolve apartheid, may I qualify that I am referring to the healing process that followed large scale social inhumanties committed against people. Or are you saying that the atrocities, rape, plunder and massacre of people in the name of war or invasion does not count in the scale of human suffering as much as racial discrimination does? There are many nations and ethnic groups who are today recovering and growing out of their terrible pasts and yet one reads very little about pepetuating memories and hatred in the way you seem to favour. Twenty five thousand Afrikander women and children were murdered by the British through internment camps and the loss of wealth caused by the war is incalculable. Twelve million people died in the concentratio camps of Germany. Millions of Chinese died horrifically during the Japanese invasion. The horrors inflicted on South Koreans by communist North Korea are beyong description. The genocide commited by Stalin and Mao in their social engineering endeavours are of an order that would competely annhilate the population of South Africa. These are just but a few examples but most importantly these are nations that have recocered and rebuilt rather than continuously and obsessively relive, reconstruct and immortalize the wrongs suffered. That is why people with greater wisdom than you lead the Truth and Reconciliation process. Its about healing, not vengeance.

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