No reconciliation without social justice

by Zackie Achmat

edited by Brad Brockman 

Reconciliation has not been achieved in South Africa – and it never will be unless we urgently find more truth and justice in the way we are seeking to transform society. Reconciliation does not happen in a single day, nor is it a simple condition. It is a complex process that unfolds over time and must be continually renewed. For this, we are in desperate need of leadership and moral authority, the kind that will inspire people to get involved in the struggle for a better society.

It is now commonly accepted that our country would have had a racial civil war, an inter-ethnic civil war, had the violence of the 1980s split over into the next decade and century. If there had been a political settlement, there would have been sustained violence in the country.

The Honour to Serve_images

Umkhonto we Sizwe

It is important to remember that the apartheid state was under siege, but not defeated. The army and police retained considerable might. By contrast, the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, was a guerrilla army with no military power. South Africa did not really experience an armed insurrection or even a guerrilla war. Our population is largely urban, so the struggle was very different from those in Vietnam, Algeria or China, which mainly depended on a ‘peasant war’ waged in the rural areas. The state also had the support of Inkatha, the witdoeke (vigilante groups), and police assassination units like Vlakplaas, which did not hesitate to use against anyone who identified with the ANC. The balance of forces favoured the democratic movement led by the ANC. While a white state would never have survived, victory in any civil war would have come at an enormous cost to human life. To avoid this, a political compromise became essential.

With the transition, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) offered an essential opportunity for justice for victims of gross human violations. Despite the good work that the TRC managed to do, not enough was done to prosecute apartheid criminals, in particular the top echelons, who refused the generosity of our people. Today we would have been better off if there had been trials for top-level state officials and high-ranking officers in the security forces who did not fully participate in the TRC. Those who did not come clean needed to be put on trial, as happened with the Nazis after the Second World War at the Nuremberg Trials.

Former president P.W. Botha held the TRC in contempt. So too, I would argue, did F.W. de Klerk, all the generals and, much more importantly in my view, big business. Anglo American, Anglovaal, Sanlam, Old Mutual: all failed to do what was necessary for coming clean about their role in apartheid and for doing something to redistribute wealth more equitably. Though I have never since the 1990s advocated the abolition of capitalism, we did miss the opportunity to effect more fundamental changes in overcoming apartheid inequality and its social deficits. This should have been part of the public dialogue preceding the establishment of the TRC. Today, we must seek a path against corporate lalwelessness.5_5_trc_cartoon

As Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass point out in their new book on inequality in South Africa, it was not the robbery through land dispossession and cheap wages that constituted the real dispossession of black people; it was what Linda Chisholm had called the ‘intellectual dispossession’ of black people. The wealth that the apartheid state invested in white education is what has allowed most of white society to retain its privilege. There is also admittedly a small minority of black people – a growing minority, but a minority nonetheless – who share in the wealth of white people. Yet, for the majority the greatest dispossession happened as a result of decades of vastly inferior education.

Pass laws, on the other hand, were part of the colonial system of migrant labour. The people essentially responsible for these inhumane laws were mining companies – later also white farmers, but essentially the mining industry – which wanted a supply of cheap labour for the mines. The dreadful consequences of the migrant labour system are well known. It undermined family life and social structure in the rural areas. It destroyed subsistence agriculture, initially through the 1913 Land Act. It ensured that migrant workers were paid a pittance. Harold Wolpe’s analysis showed, for example, how rural women subsidized the profits of the mining industry by having to feed their children while the men were away. Lastly, and probably most importantly, the pass laws criminalised tens of millions of people. That there were 4 million convictions under the pass laws in a ten-year period leads us to ask: how many raids were conducted, how many arrests were made, how many people were arrested two or three times, how many families were disrupted? No one has paid for this: not the mining industry, and not the state.



The worst crime of the post-apartheid era has been the continuing intellectual dispossession of black, particularly African and Coloured, working-class and poor children across the country. The inequalities in education today are greater than under apartheid. This based on a number of things. First, it follows from the partial privatisation of former white (‘Model C’) public schools that was allowed by the charge of excessive fees, which automatically excluded black working-class children. These schools already had established intellectual and physical capital – a well-trained cadre of teachers, laboratories, libraries and large sports grounds – yet they were allowed to charge fees. So today you have in Khayelitsha or Manenberg in Cape Town families unable to afford school fees of R100 or even R50 a year, while in the Southern Suburbs the fees at some government schools are over R17 000 a year. So imagine the disparity.

However the greater inequality subsists in the number of teachers and the quality of their teaching. The majority of teachers in Coloured and African townships today – and I use these racial terms deliberately because they remain realities – have a greater burden in their shoulders than any other former Model c teacher. They have to be a parent for the child who is not looked after at home; they have to be a doctor for the child who comes to school sick; they have to be a social worker for the child who is neglected, physically abused or sexually abused; they have to be a drug counselor and a policeman for the child who is so brutalized that he comes to school with a knife to stab other children or teachers. This is what a township teacher has to do. Moreover, teachers in township schools are often less qualified than their counterparts in the suburbs. Under apartheid the qualification that most African and Coloured teachers had was matric or a three-year teacher’s diploma. A significant minority was barely qualified, with only matric or a Standard Eight plus a teacher’s diploma. Teachers with degrees or postgraduate qualifications were impossible to find in rural and urban schools for the majority of our people.

Another aspect of the intellectual dispossession of our children is language. It is true that the majority of African children have been dispossessed of their mother tongue, first through colonization, and later through Afrikaner nationalism. If children do not learn in their mother tongue, at least for the first six years of their education, conceptualization and capacity for abstract thought are underdeveloped. A study by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the HSRC found that the majority of teachers cannot teach properly in their mother tongue, because African languages are not standardised. For the majority of African teachers, English is a second language and Afrikaans is a third and stigmatized language. Also, in the majority of communities where people are taught through the medium of English, the community does not speak English, the family does not speak English, and the teachers themselves do not speak English as a first language. What does that do to a people? The question then arises: where is the reparation from big capitalist publishing houses, particularly those once allied to Afrikaner nationalism? Where is their contribution to ensuring that the apartheid deficit in language development is overcome for indigenous black African languages?

So how can we claim that we have reconciled when we condemn the majority of our children to an intellectual dispossession that will make themselves slaves – not only because they cannot read, write and count properly, but because there is no economic future for them in today’s globalised world?

There is nothing to stop the parents at former Model C schools in the Southern Suburbs from saying: ‘Ok, we’re paying R17 000 in fees a year.R6 000 of that should go to an equity fund to build libraries, to build schools and so on.’ Are middle-class parents going to object? Only the odd person will, because the majority will see the value of having every kid in society educated, the value of opening unlimited horizons for a child in Khayelitsha or Manenberg, and the value of building equality in education.

Anglo American, Old Mutual, Sanlam, Anglovaal: these giants that control the economy, that put the wealth of the country into their pockets and leave people destitute of social security, work and healthcare, are enormous danger. They have not yet paid reparation – and reparation for apartheid is essential. There is no way that we can have reconciliation, unless there have been significant reparations – and reparations are not paid to an individual only. There is no reason why all the companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and those that have delisted and gone to America and Britain, should not give two percent of their wealth to an equity fund. This is a reasonable demand. It would allow the state, in addition to the ordinary taxation which we all pay, to address the enormous imbalances that we have inherited. And it would create a sense of unity and social cohesion among all people if it is done properly. It must not be accompanied with finger-pointing, but with an understanding that we all have to invest in the future of the country.

I really believe that it is not only the right thing to do, but it is in every business interest to say: ‘Here’s two percent of our wealth’, and make this ongoing. So whenever money is invested and shares go up, dividends can be paid to the state for education and housing backlogs, public works, job creation, healthcare and social security. But we’ve not had the national leadership that said: ‘Look, this is what happened. We’re not blaming you but this is what happened; it was part of a system. Let’s all fix it together. This is what we’re proposing.’ Thabo Mbeki failed us as a leader in this respect, because what he instituted was a policy of racial nationalism that alienated minorities, particularly white people, and allowed white people to go back into the laager and build a new culture of white supremacism, which says: ‘We don’t care about the rest’, ‘We’ve paid our debt’ and ‘Our children are not responsible for apartheid.’

In a very regrettable article, James Myburgh, for whom I once had enormous respect, wrote that white people, and other minorities as well, have been greater victims of crime than blacks. What people like Myburgh forget is the migrant labour system that destroyed families and social cohesion, the ten years of HIV deaths that weakened the social fabric, and the criminalization of the vast majority of African people by the pass laws simply because they wanted a family life. The difficulty that all of us face now stems from our failure to understand that the whole African population, irrespective of class, was criminalized under apartheid, and did not see the police as an instrument of justice, but as an instrument of oppression. This needs to be considered with the larger problem of social injustice, including the massive unemployment rate and the huge inequality between rich and poor. And as we all know, it is not poverty that cause crime, it is inequality. If I have a cellphone and you have nothing, and your family has been criminalised over generations, what are you going to do? Are you going to have respect for the law? Are you going to see a white or black person as a person, or are you going to see them as someone with something that you want or need? So to argue that whites or coloureds are the greatest victims of crime is not only wrong – the evidence shows that the majority of people affected by crime are African and Coloured working-class and unemployed people – but fails to understand the connection between social injustice and crime.

South Africa has one of the largest public police forces in the world, and also the largest privatised police force in the world. Whom does the privatized police force protect? It protects middle-class and business people like us with alarms, barbed wire and armed response. Yet all of these protections are ignored by the vast majority of white people and all of business.adt_patrols

If you take these things together – the crime situation, unemployment, the education system, the lack of justice for crimes against humanity committed under apartheid – the question we have to ask is: Have we averted a civil war or have we simply postponed it? Unless we address these and other questions, there is no way we are going to avert a civil war. Black men are killing black men at an alarming rate. People have been so brutalized through lack of education and economic opportunity, through dispossession and criminalisation , that they fail to see another person as a human being. Black women and children carry an even greater burden of violence.

What we are seeing now is that violence is shifting from the private to the public sphere. This is manifest in rape in shebeens, women’s skirts being pulled off at taxi-ranks, and black working-class lesbians being targeted for murder. The most extreme example of this violence has been the attack on other African people over the last few years, which resulted in xenophobic pogroms in 2008. What this underlines is that there are serious racial, ethnic and class-based fault lines in society and that poor people are struggling against each other for the limited resources available.

The conflict will continue to expand and eventually it will engulf all of us, unless we take steps to fix our education system, improve social security and make business understand that without social justice, business will not survive, just as people will not survive.

The conscious struggle for social justice and social equality is the most important route to reconciliation. The Constitution, which came out of negotiated settlement, is of enormous benefit to that struggle, but it requires active citizens. In small ways the Treatment Action Campaign, the Social Justice Coalition (which emerged from xenophobic pogroms) and Equal Education are places where non-racialism, freedom, equality and reconciliation are built daily through struggle. After all, here is where I learnt that for a whole generation of children, ‘Die Stem’ – which until this year I never sang – means reconciliation, and not what we used to sing: ‘Uit die blou van Bonteheuwel /Uit die diepte van Diep Rivier /Oor die ver verlaate Distrik Ses /Waar die bulldozers antwoord gee /Ons sal klipgooi tot die einde /Ons Sal opfok tot die end /Ons sal lewe, ons sal sterwe /Ons vir jou, Azania.’

ENDS  2010

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