The late Nelson Mandela is being fondly remembered by some South Africans as the father of reconciliation in our country. But for many others the word “reconciliation” leaves a bitter taste on the tongue. What do we mean when we talk of “reconciliation”? Is it possible to achieve it? Is it even desirable to seek it? Maybe it’s time, after Mandela has been laid to rest so beautifully over the weekend, to start a difficult conversation around this dangerous and difficult word.
When I was around ten years old my father solemnly pressed a well-worn hardcover book into my hands. “It is time you read this,” he said. The book was called Tant Miems Fisher se Konsentrasiekamp Dagboek (“Auntie Miems Fisher’s Concentration Camp Diary”). It contained the diary written by Miems Fisher while incarcerated by the British towards the end of Anglo-Boer War. It exposed the cruelties visited upon her and other women and children in those camps, where more than 30 000 Boer women and children died.
I can’t recall his exact words, but my father implied that this is an episode of Afrikaner history we should never forget. Nor should we forgive the English for perpetrating this horror. This happened more than 70 years after the war had ended, at the time when Afrikaners were at the height of their political power, which they (I should, perhaps, rather say we) used very efficiently to dehumanise and oppress the majority of South Africa’s population.
This past week my late father (and Tant Miems Fisher) was on my mind. If my father was unable to reconcile with English South Africans more than 70 years after the Anglo-Boer War had ended, why is there an expectation that fellow South Africans should reconcile with us whites merely twenty years after the advent of democracy, when the ghost of apartheid is still haunting us and the effects of its devastation is still felt every day, all around us?
Let me put my cards on the table. I have a problem with the manner in which the term “reconciliation” is often used in South Africa. In this problematic formulation, “reconciliation” is a once-off event partly made possible by Madiba, one that allows us (no, requires us) to end the conversation about our past, our role in it and our present-day responsibilities as members of a social and political community.
Instead of viewing reconciliation as a long, difficult and painful process that requires us to confront our past, it becomes an incantation invoked by some South Africans to avoid talking about the demands of justice. It is based on the assumption that reconciliation is easy, that it demands little of us (especially from those of us who benefited and continues to benefit from past and on-going injustice).
It aims to wipe the slate clean and is often invoked to silence those who ask difficult questions about what reconciliation – real reconciliation – may demand of us. It does not keep open the possibility that in the present social and economic context reconciliation may be impossible to achieve and that pursuing it may be unjust or unwise.
This narrative of reconciliation is deployed to ensure that we avoid talking about (mostly, still, race-based) inequality, of the need for redress, of the way in which our chances to achieve our full potential as a human being still to a large degree depends on who we are born as, who our parents are, where we stay, what school we went to, what financial and other benefits our parents are able to muster to boost our ability to succeed.
In my view, to the degree that it is possible to talk of reconciliation at all, it must be talked of as a process. I cannot speak on behalf of anyone else, but as a white South African it seems to me this idea of reconciliation is only worth pursuing (if it is worth pursuing at all) if it is going to be part of a process that disturbs and unsettles me, that makes me feel uncomfortable and reminds me of my privilege and asks difficult questions about how I must respond to it. Questions which I sometimes feel at a loss to answer.
It will also remind me of how my own response to the demands for justice will always fall short (as, I believe, us humans always all fall short of the demands that justice make on us.) It is a process that might force me to consider the possibility that I am, after all, not the hero of this story. But it may be a process in which I see the possibility of becoming a fully integrated human being and not just a cardboard cut-out, not just a cipher for a past that I dare not engage with.
It seems to me it is when we are disturbed, made uncomfortable, when all the easy platitudes so carefully constructed to protect us from ourselves and our history have been abandoned, that something of what makes us human is revealed to ourselves, if not always to others.
But maybe this is not a process that should be tagged with the tainted and maybe impossible demand of “reconciliation”. Reconciliation is a term that implies two sides coming together and relinquishing something: fear; suspicion; hate; anger.
For those with economic and social power it would also require another, more material, “giving up” of power. But I am not sure that it is so easy or even possible to give up one’s power. No matter what I say or do, I suspect I will not be able to escape who I am, how others see me and how I am treated. I suspect it is sentimental folly to believe you can escape the consequences of the social reality of which you are a product. And how will giving up actually change the way our world remains structured in a way that continues to produce yet more injustice?
Another question comes to mind. Is it ethically responsible to expect black South Africans who continue to experience structural racism at every level of society to give up hate, anger and suspicion? This is not a question I can or wish to answer.
This means I wish to leave open the questions of whether reconciliation is possible or desirable at all in present day South Africa.
I do know that I strongly believe that white South Africans should not pursue “reconciliation” if the aim is merely to comfort us and smooth over our interactions with black South Africans. That is not reconciliation, but a form of co-optation.
I assume that these musings on “reconciliation” will make many people uncomfortable or even angry and that some will want to take me to task for writing it. How dare I, as a white person who can never know how it feels to be black in this country, write about such things? How dare I question white privilege if I still live a relatively privileged life? Am I not being, yet again, a sanctimonious little prick (as one commentator recently called me), pretending that I am better than other South Africans?
I could argue that I would welcome and celebrate any conversation that might result from an engagement by those who feel I need to be taken to task. But this, too, may be a lie. I have not always and will probably not always welcomed being disturbed and questioned and made to feel uncomfortable about who I am and how I fall short of the ideals I set for myself. But in a week that South Africans have been urged to reflect on how we, too, could take Nelson Mandela’s vision forward, maybe its time to try a bit harder.
Such conversations – if I am able to engage in them – may well make me deeply uncomfortable and unsettle me. Maybe it will also disturb some of the assumptions of others who take part in it. And (maybe far too idealistically) I believe it is when we have such disturbing and uncomfortable conversations that we may begin to get to another kind of process which, in another more ideal world, we might have been tempted to call reconciliation. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
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