The South African experience

Albert Nolan OP

Albert Nolan, South African author and Dominican Vicar General, was recently awarded the Order of Luthuli in Silver for his life-long dedication to the struggle for justice in his country. Here he suggests that ‘Reconciliation in South Africa has been due in no small measure to the faith communities.’

IN APRIL THIS YEAR South Africa celebrates ten years of freedom. Readers will remember South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Pictures of black and white voters waiting patiently and peacefully in long, snake-like queues were flashed around the world. With all the hype about impending violence and inevitable chaos, the peacefulness of the transition and the spirit of reconciliation that has reigned in South Africa since then have been hailed as a miracle and a sign of hope. Miracle or not, the South African experience with all its limitations is surely one of the signs of our times. And it is as such, as a sign of our times, that South Africa has significance for Christian theology.

The South African experience speaks to us of the possibility of peace and reconciliation in situations that appear to be irredeemably conflictual. None of us thought that democracy and peace would come as quickly and effectively as they did in South Africa. However, it is important from the start to recognise that South Africa’s reconciliation is incomplete. There are problems, serious problems, and we will need to look at some of them later, but much depends on whether you see the incomplete reconciliation as a glass that is half full or half empty. The miracle is that there is any reconciliation at all. In our situation half a glass, instead of an empty glass or an irreparably broken glass, is a gift for which some of us are profoundly grateful.

The role of leadership
Around the world people have come to believe that the South African miracle was the work, almost exclusively, of our outstanding leader and statesman, Nelson Mandela. The world was deeply impressed by his lack of bitterness and spirit of forgiveness after 27 years of harsh imprisonment. Most impressive of all, though, was, and still is, his personal freedom. He speaks his mind and does whatever he believes to be right no matter what anyone in the world may think or say – including his own strongest supporters. We have all witnessed his magnificent gestures of reconciliation like going to tea with Mrs Betsie Verwoerd, the elderly widow of the architect of apartheid.

But Mandela was not alone as a great leader. Walter Sisulu, who died last year, was our extraordinarily humble, saintly and inspiring father figure. At no time did he seek power, prestige or money for himself. Most of the time he remained out of sight – in the wings as it were. But as Mandela never ceases to explain, Walter Sisulu was his mentor and his inspiration. They were together in prison on Robben Island.

Behind the two of them was another great man in the person of Chief Albert Luthuli, the first South African to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Oliver Tambo was the gentle but indefatigable leader of the ANC in exile during the dark days when others like Mandela and Sisulu were in prison. He did not live to see the first democratic elections. Nor did Steve Biko, who, tortured and killed by the apartheid police in 1979, remains to this day an inspiring and heroic figure.

Two leaders of the South African Communist Party must be mentioned too as great leaders who contributed significantly to the miracle of reconciliation. The first was the extremely popular and charismatic Chris Hani. Few people outside of South Africa realise what an important role he would have been playing today as a peacemaker alongside Mandela and Mbeki, if he had not been tragically assassinated by the white right in 1993. The other Communist leader was Joe Slovo, the white ANC militant whom everybody learnt to love and who played an indispensable role in the negotiations and the first cabinet before he died in the late 1990s.

Then there were the great church leaders of the time who contributed significantly to South Africa’s peace and reconciliation: the well-known Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, the Afrikaans director of the Christian Institute, Dr Beyers Naude, and the Catholic Archbishop of Durban, Denis Hurley.

There were others too, including many women and thousands of unsung heroes who were imprisoned, tortured and killed so that the rest of us might one day enjoy freedom.

What the South African experience seems to be saying to us here is that justice, peace and reconciliation can be achieved only through good leadership, which does not only mean leadership that is strong and decisive, but leadership that is humble, honest, fearless and unselfish, a leadership that is based upon a deep personal freedom. In Christian terms we might want to call it ‘holiness’ or ‘sanctity’. That this should have been found in people who sometimes had little or nothing to do with the Church is a challenge to our theology.

The policy of non-racialism
The ANC or African National Congress, to which most of the great political leaders belonged, advocated a policy of non-racialism. The enemy, they maintained, was not white people or the Nationalist Party or the apartheid president, P.W. Botha. The enemy was the unjust system of apartheid. It was the system that had to be destroyed, not people. The conflict was not between black and white, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority on the one side was black and on the other side white. The conflict was understood to be between a policy of racialism and a policy of non-racialism. Whites who were really serious about non-racialism struggled side by side with blacks, and blacks who decided, for whatever reasons, to go along with a racial divide cooperated with the white racist regime. This was particularly true in the so-called homelands or bantustans.

Excluded together, so united
Unlike so many other conflicts in the world then or now, the South African conflict was not tribal or ethnic or religious. In fact, the white regime, by excluding all people of colour irrespective of their culture, religion or ethnic origins, even the people who were racially mixed, effectively united all tribes, religious faiths and shades of colour against them. Only people who were perceived to be of pure white ancestry were allowed to vote. The conflict was therefore seen to be between racism and democracy and not simply between black and white.

Of course not everybody saw it like that and there were interminable debates about whether we should be non-racial or anti-racial, whether whites could be part of the struggle again and whether it was a racial struggle or a class struggle. But there can be no doubt that the policy of treating the system of apartheid itself as the enemy contributed substantially to the peacefulness of the transition and to the subsequent reconciliation – limited as it is. It also made it possible for Christians and people of other faiths to support the struggle with a theology of justice and peace. Among other things it became possible to hate the sin of racism without hating the sinner.

The role of civil society
Another element in South Africa’s dialectic of change was the development of a strong civil society. Because only the mildest of opposition political parties were allowed to operate, the real opponents of apartheid, black and white, worked in and through the organs of civil society. Many South Africans were in fact members of the banned African National Congress (ANC), Pan African Congress (PAC) or South African Communist Party (SACP), but they worked in civil society movements like trade unions, youth movements, women’s movements, student movements as well as volunteer organisations or NGOs (non-governmental organisations) working for the poor, the uneducated, the illiterate, the disabled and so forth. Churches and religious communities, and especially religious organisations and movements working for justice and peace, were also seen as part of civil society.

It was in the organs of civil society that people of different colours and creeds learnt to work together united in the struggle against the common enemy, apartheid. In 1983 almost all these organisations and movements, including some church movements, came together to form the extremely powerful United Democratic Front (UDF).

One of the ways in which South Africa has been different from other African countries and from many other countries in the world has been its strong reliance upon civil society. In many other conflicts the protagonists on both sides have been politicians and only politicians. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, has practically no civil society to speak of. The conflicts are power struggles between politicians and between their armies.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the role of civil society in the South African miracle, especially after its formation of a united front against apartheid. It was this that made it possible for the South African struggle to be a genuine people’s struggle and for religious communities to be part of the same struggle.

Reconciliation in South Africa has been due in no small measure to the faith communities. By supporting the struggle against apartheid and by rejecting the ideology behind it as ‘heretical’, the South African faith communities and especially the Christian Churches, though not all of them, helped to dismantle apartheid and bring the politicians and revolutionaries to the negotiating table.

The path of negotiations
The National Party government had been struggling for years to contain the revolution. The ANC was engaged in urban guerrilla warfare, known as the armed struggle; the people, especially through the UDF, were making the country ungovernable; the Churches were delegitimising the policy of apartheid and international sanctions were crippling the economy. The apartheid government had tried every possible form of repression to maintain the status quo: wholesale imprisonment, torture, assassinations, intimidation, propaganda, theological justifications, espionage, infiltration, divide-and-rule tactics, and the most horrendous massacres. Until, in the end, they had to face the fact that either they went for some kind of negotiated settlement or we would just destroy one another and the whole country in a bloodbath too horrible to contemplate.

The ANC, on the other hand, had always wanted a negotiated settlement. That is what they had been founded to do way back in 1912. The aim and purpose of all the various forms of struggle, including the armed struggle, was to bring the apartheid regime to the negotiating table. The ANC leadership knew perfectly well that a military victory or a coup d’état was impossible.

What a negotiated settlement had to offer, as almost everyone on every side realised, was the possibility of a ‘win-win’ solution. There would be no losers – no conquerors and no conquered. What the National Party and its allies had to learn was that there could be no reconciliation without justice. What the ANC and its allies had to learn was that there would be no peace without compromise.

Peace without justice
Over the years most whites had been pleading for peace and reconciliation, but they had not been willing to sacrifice their privileges and allow equal rights for the black majority in one undivided nation. They wanted peace without justice. Tough negotiating changed that.

On the other hand the black oppressed majority were very suspicious of any compromise that would leave them disadvantaged, or discriminated against, in one way or another. And yet, white fears had to be addressed. In the end the negotiators found some brilliant ways around this by making temporary concessions called ‘sunset clauses’. Municipal government, for example, would remain the same for a number of years.

It then became possible to agree upon a temporary or interim constitution which would allow for a fully democratic election and, after that, the writing of a final constitution in which everyone would have a say. Today, we have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world as well as a very effective constitutional court. The result has been a growing human rights culture and a society based upon the rule of law.

Reconciliation in South Africa is based squarely upon a common belief in the value of negotiations. Today, South Africans, black and white, travel the world to assist in situations of violent conflict by ‘preaching’ the virtues of a negotiated settlement.

A feature of South Africa’s experience worth noting is that negotiations, and even the original talks about talks, were never brokered or facilitated or mediated by anyone from outside – even when the negotiations threatened to break down and once or twice did break down. That the negotiators themselves were able to pick up the pieces again and again and get the process back on track must be attributed to our extraordinarily wise and magnanimous leadership.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The negotiated settlement had to include something about amnesty for the tens of thousands of people who were guilty of human rights violations during the days of apartheid. Without that, no agreement would have been possible. The last clause of the interim constitution, therefore, obliged the newly elected government to set up mechanisms to deal with amnesty.

The principal mechanism, set up quite soon after the first democratic elections, was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It had 17 members with the highly respected Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the chair. Its mandate was to investigate gross violations of human rights, to facilitate the granting of amnesty to those who made full disclosure of what they had done and who could prove that their motives were political. In addition, the Commission was to recommend ways in which the victims’ dignity could be restored and reparations be made to them.

In the years that followed, 20,000 statements were received from victims, 2,000 of them were made in public hearings broadcast in full on the radio with highlights on television, and 8,000 applications for amnesty were heard, many of them also at public hearings. For more than two years South Africans were exposed almost daily to revelations about their traumatic past. It was an extremely emotional experience as perpetrators and victims faced one another. Some repentant, some not. Some willing to forgive, others not.

The TRC was an extraordinarily important instrument for bringing about reconciliation in South Africa. However, as a paralegal tribunal, the TRC could not demand repentance from the perpetrators nor forgiveness from the victims – much less prove either of these. That kind of reconciliation belongs in the arena of religion (the sacrament of confession, for example) or the sphere of personal relations. It did happen, though. There have been some dramatic displays of remorse and powerful acts of forgiveness, both during the TRC hearings and since then. On the other hand, watching the worst perpetrators of crimes against humanity ‘get away with it’ was not easy. Some of the apartheid leaders did not even have to appear before the TRC. It was, unfortunately, the price that had to be paid for peace. Perhaps more could have been done, though, for the victims. But there can be no doubt that without the TRC there would have been practically no reconciliation to speak of.

An ongoing challenge
South Africa’s reconciliation remains incomplete in some very serious ways.

Racism is still rife. As an attitude of mind it did not, and cannot, disappear overnight. Some say that it has simply been swept under the carpet. It surfaces now and again and if you read between the lines you can still recognise its presence. Whites today would be quick to deny that they are racists. In fact, one of the greatest of insults in South Africa now is to call someone a racist. And yet, how often one hears that give-away disclaimer: ‘I don’t want to be racist, but …’

Misunderstandings between black and white abound. Some are cultural, others arise from a lack of appreciation of how much black people actually suffered under apartheid. Whites on the whole are singularly lacking in gratitude for the miracle of reconciliation in South Africa.

On the other hand, not all our divisions and differences are racial and as a nation we are learning, in often surprising ways, to live together. The present leadership goes out of its way to celebrate our reconciliation and to promote it. December 16, once a holiday celebrating a military victory, is now our Day of Reconciliation. The struggle for reconciliation continues because, as President Thabo Mbeki never ceases to remind us, we are still fundamentally a divided nation.

The other great evil that remains is poverty. Much has been done. Millions of houses have been built, the supply of electricity and water has been widely extended, roads and schools have been improved, the economy is booming and yet large numbers of people are still jobless and destitute. Economic justice will be the great challenge of the future.

A social problem that seems to have increased substantially since the end of apartheid is crime. It is not easy to say why. There are no doubt numerous factors that come together to account for the increase in muggings, burglaries, car hijackings, heists, bank robberies, drug-dealing, fraud, corruption, rape and child abuse. An analysis of crime in South Africa today, and especially of violent crime, is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that we are not the kind of country that will allow such things to go unnoticed and unchanged. We do not allow one another to become complacent and apathetic.

HIV/Aids pandemic
Towering above all our other problems, though, is the HIV/Aids pandemic. By far the majority of infected people in the world today live and die in the southern countries of Africa. South Africa has been particularly hard hit. Our democracy, our economy and our reconciliation will be seriously challenged by the death of millions of relatively young people, many of them economically active and well educated, and by the many millions who will be orphaned and by a struggling population that will be further traumatised by this new tragedy.

Most of the people of South Africa have been deeply traumatised, either by the state terrorism of the past or the criminal violence of the present. Now we have the added trauma of HIV/Aids. Others are suffering from suppressed guilt or an inferiority complex. Individualism and greed seem to be all-pervasive. A surprising number are plain cynical and despondent about the future. We do not have much inner peace and personal freedom. And that’s a problem too.

On the other hand, we are a dynamic country, full of energy and activism. We argue, debate, accuse and blame one another, but when we are faced with problems like racism, poverty, crime, corruption, rape, child abuse, and HIV/Aids, we protest, organise, mobilise, demonstrate and run campaigns. In the political language of South Africa, we ‘toyi-toyi’.

This is a sign of hope for the future, among other things because these forms of protest generally bring together people of different races, creeds and cultures. Examples of this would be the Treatment Action Campaign which campaigned successfully against the government’s policy on Aids, and the Basic Income Grant Campaign which is proposing a particular way of helping the poor.

From the point of view of Christian hope, although we have come a long way, we still have much further, very much further to go. We can see how the Spirit of God has been working in our midst, but we can also see that our peace and reconciliation are limited, because as individuals most of us are not at peace with ourselves, not yet at peace with the earth and not at peace with God. Without a much greater degree of inner peace, human beings, in South Africa or elsewhere, will always find it difficult to live in peace and harmony with one another.

To sum up
The South African experience of conflict and reconciliation highlights a number of human and Christian values:

– the value of dialogue and negotiation in place of violent conflict,
– the value of striving for a more just society rather than the victory of one group over another,
– the value of making carefully defined concessions or compromises,
– the value of a willingness to forgive or at least to grant amnesty when necessary,
– the value of dealing with the past rather than burying it,
– the value of avoiding complacency and apathy in the face of overwhelming problems,
– the value of a strong civil society including trade unions and religious communities, and, last but not least,
– the indispensable value of good leadership and personal freedom.

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