Friday, 27 March 2015

Tackling racism through dialogue and dealing with the past must continue

Racism is very much in the news these days. The pundits will debate whether there is a spike in racism or not, but it has always been present at sustained levels.  Just because we declare apartheid over does not mean it is gone. The real source of racism is the beliefs that lurk deep in the unconscious, embedded there over many decades.   

I see the racism in South Africa in terms of a triangle of three aspects: The need for open-minded discussion; issues of memory and the past, and; current incidents. These parts of the triangle don’t always interact well – and those who are averse to systemic change will seek to maintain a disconnect between them. But a good way forward is to tackle racism in a co-ordinated manner, focusing on dialogue, truth about the past and preventive action.

Regarding the need for open conversation, there has in the last 20 years not always been conducive space for it. Space was often constricted by a number of factors including the reconciliation narrative, the view that racism only happened in the past, and collusion by an elite or aspirational group of blacks who feel discussion of racism can be an obstacle to their intentions to get included in the system as it stands. Now it's opened up.

Good discussion of race has to be honest. It has to give space to those viewed as the “other”. It must be strengthened by information or undisputed facts. Given our history, dialogue has to be painful – to deal with pain and trigger painful emotions.

So I can understand that many people feel unsettled by the current flare up in discussion of racial issues. But sometimes what manifests as ‘bad’ now is actually good for all in the long run. The open discussion is already leading to an improvement in ‘listening’ in institutions such as UCT and Rhodes University, to greater institutional acknowledgements and awareness, and to government support for robust engagement on race.

It has also led to positive responses among some white people – as in the case of Jessica Breakey who last week told UCT students in her blog that the protest against the Rhodes statue was an act of “contradictory beauty” and “a catalyst of a movement”. She told fellow white students: “The conversation on privilege has been drastically stunted by the focus on class and the somewhat narrow focus of only addressing what we’ve termed as poverty and inequality, thinking that our charity work should be martyred and praised.”

Regarding issues of memory, we need to deal with the unresolved issues from our recent past. Dealing with this past is never easy – questions of restitution, restoration and atonement come to the fore. This is why there is so much resistance to continuing with the necessary work of dealing with the past. In January, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory released a statement (based on work with international partners) on the objectives of memory work.  Under the title of Reckoning with Oppressive Pasts, the document says good memory work:
  • must respond to the call of justice, and should recognise that “redress and reparation is essential to the empowerment of the violated”.
  • troubles those who want to “replicate the prevailing power relations”.
  • creates spaces of healing and seeks to prevent recurrence
  • strives “to create a shared future for descendants of victims and perpetrators”. 
  • enables people to take responsibility for violations undertaken in their name.
  • lays “the foundation for sustainable cross-generational action that leads to societal change and transformation”.
Regarding racist incidents, we must move beyond knee jerk reactions and expressions of outrage that lasts for a short time. Such responses blind us to the possibility of taking action that is preventative or properly corrective. We can begin by looking for patterns and explore underlying norms and relations that give rise to incidents.  

We need to know if there are hotspots – for instance, higher education campuses. We need to explore different manifestations of racism, for example in different provinces. This will also give us a chance to see the distinction and the link between racism by those with power – which results in denial of resources, opportunity and rights – and racial discrimination within the working class where the main impact is denial of dignity.
These are some of the actions we can take to strengthen prevention: 
  • Government should strengthen the Human Rights Commission, providing increased resources to fight discrimination. 
  •  Donors such as the Foundation for Human Rights and others should be encouraged to support organisations doing anti-racism work.
  • Institutions should be proactive and audit themselves, and then take appropriate action to change the norms and practices which allow racism to thrive.
  • The media can go further than reporting incidents; they can investigate certain environments in the same manner that Henry Nxumalo went undercover to expose conditions on potato farms in the 1960s.
  • Citizens can play an active role: we should make greater use of the equality courts, which are easy to use and are set up precisely to combat unfair discrimination.
Let’s move forward on dealing with racism. Let’s create spaces for dialogue. Let’s continue to deal with the past and its consequences, which can then inform a more sustainable and shared future. And let’s take targeted action, especially in environments which are conducive to racist discrimination.

Frank Meintjies
This article first appeared in the press on 27 March 2015.


Friday, 20 March 2015

De Kock - a fairer application of transitional justice is needed

The story of Eugene De Kock’s release on parole is a signal moment; it brings together conflicting emotions, perspectives and questions about the failures and gains of South Africa’s transition process.

De Kock committed heinous crimes, including a series of murders. One is tempted to write that no one has sunk deeper perpetrating apartheid violence in South Africa than him. But then one remembers the collective violence that has been visited on black people over centuries. And one recalls those who gave the orders and those who turned a blind eye while hit squads terrorised communities and wiped out numerous black lives. But, when it comes to killing with your bare hands and literally smelling the blood of your victims, De Kock stands out.

I cannot argue with De Kock’s parole. By all accounts he has studied the technical requirements for parole and gone to great lengths to meet them. De Kock has also worked tirelessly – in a calculated manner, if you like – to cultivate support among those who could help his case.

On reading Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book, A Human Being Died That Night, one sees the different sides of De Kock. There is the part of him that is willing – at specific moments – to open up, to make himself vulnerable and to face up to his evil deeds. But there is also the De Kock who is guarded, measured and who studiously avoids revealing too much about himself. This one shrinks from accessing the dark place that drove him to do his reprehensible deeds. In his latter mode, he worked methodically towards being granted parole.

There is disagreement in South Africa about De Kock’s impending release. On one side is the deep pain of the victims’ families, the scars that haven’t healed and those who lack closure.

Jane Quin, whose sister Jackie was killed by De Kock, is opposed to the parole decision, arguing that there is no basis for punishment to be shortened.

The family of Japie Maponya have indicated that, although they do not question the granting of parole, they will not give it their blessing. They say they will not forgive De Kock. Maponye was taken by De Kock to a remote area to be killed; although another officer shot him, De Kock hit him twice over the head with a spade. De Kock told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the body could not be buried because the ground was too hard and the body was dumped “under debris”.  

On the other side are those who choose the path of forgiveness. Some families of De Kock’s other victims supported his release. In addition, key public voices had called for De Kock’s release. In 2011, Andile Mngxitima – then a civil society activist – argued that De Kock was a Christ-like figure who paid the price of jail so that members of the white community could continue to enjoy their gains from the apartheid system. De Kock was a scapegoat and should be released, he said. Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela made the case that “releasing De Kock would open up the possibility of a movement towards a new politics of remembrance, one that would help invigorate dialogue about the kind of future we want and the future of young South Africans”.

De Kock’s parole is now a fact and he walks out of prison a free man. But his release – set against the reality of De Kock's crimes and the generosity of many in the black community – rekindles the demand for a fairer and more equitable application of transitional justice .... for a better balancing of the books. In this regard, it is imperative that authorities take the following actions:

·        We need a better resolution of the reparations issue. Government needs to sit down with those who received the modest reparations payout, most of whom remain unhappy about the reparations process, and other victims of gross violations still demanding their share. This group of people, organised through the Khulumani Support Group, constitute a key voice among those who faced the sharp end of repression. Even if it means using honest brokers such as Archbishop Tutu or Yasmeen Sooka, government needs to find a lasting conclusion to the reparations issue.

·        One of government’s investigating units should probe De Kock’s claims that top leaders in the apartheid government knew about his activities. Are de Kock’s claims false or do they have merit – government has the resources to establish the truth and provide a definitive report to the nation. De Kock should assist in providing evidence to back his claims that De Klerk, PW Botha were aware of or tacitly approved De Kock’s actions in cold-bloodedly targeting enemies of apartheid.

·        Government needs to proceed with the prosecution of those who did not seek or were denied amnesty. Against a background of hit squads, assassinations, poisonings, letter bombs and the many known persons that were involved in such deeds, Government has generally failed to follow through and press charges against perpetrators who still need to fully account.

Reconciliation should always be implemented in a manner that allows and welcomes contrary or questioning voices. South Africa generally celebrates those who have chosen to forgive apartheid’s torturers and killers. But we should equally honour and respect those like Jane Quin or the Maponye family, whose sense of culture and principle lead them to demand that forgiveness be denied or delayed. Both responses form part of a new South Africa based on compassion (especially for the vulnerable and most marginalised), attempts at reconciliation, human rights and the absence of impunity. 


(This article first appeared in the press on 6 February 2015).
Frank Meintjies