Defend Truth


On Truth & Reconciliation: Let’s begin with the simple complicated truth


Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

It is a universally accepted principle that without truth there can be no reconciliation. At our founding moment, Nelson Mandela the politician knew that to consolidate power his party would need to know the truth about the crimes of the apartheid regime. In that sense, the TRC was a critical act of intelligence gathering in which the ANC had a great deal of self-interest. At the same time, Mandela the statesman recognized that forgiveness would offer whites a powerful incentive to tell the truth and would propel the nation forward. Yet a report on reconciliation demonstrates that for white South Africans, the truth about apartheid remains elusive.

For ten days many white South Africans mourned the passing of Nelson Mandela. The scenes of grief and the outpouring of love were moving. Yet they didn’t square with recent research showing that in their daily lives, many white South Africans refuse to undertake the crucial work of reconciliation.

According to a recent survey by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), only 52.8% of white South Africans agree with the statement “apartheid was a crime against humanity,” compared to 70.4% of coloured, 77.1% of Indian and 80.9% of black South Africans.

The survey also shows that white South Africans are far less likely to agree with the statement that “government should provide support to victims of gross human rights violations during apartheid,” than any other race group. Only one third of white South Africans agree with the statement whereas two thirds of black, two thirds of Indian and just over half of coloured South Africans agree with the statement.

When you look at these statistics, it is easy to forget that fifteen years ago we went through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which many apartheid-era acts of murder, rape and torture became matters of public record.

If the IJR study is anything to go by however, many of those white South Africans who were grieving for Mandela this past week do not remember the most basic fact about apartheid and its legacy, which is that it was declared a crime against humanity by the international community in 1971, and that this declaration was buttressed by the ICC’s Rome Statute in 2002.

They suffer the innocence of the amnesiac: if no crime existed, then none of the privileges that these whites enjoy today can be traced back to an unfair racial advantage.

The fact that half of white South Africans surveyed do not ‘believe’ that apartheid was a crime against humanity says more about us as a country than a thousand photos of us clasping one another in grief.

Indeed South Africans are photogenic in moments of crisis: in election lines that snake across the country, in ecstasy as the World Cup arrives on our shores; arms wrapped around one another to mark Madiba’s passing. Yet as we go about the ordinary business of forgetting in our daily attire, we are extraordinarily unprepossessing.

The writer Teju Cole notes that “the torturer cannot forgive the tortured for having been tortured.” The anger that many white people demonstrate towards black people – over affirmative action in particular – speaks to this fact. They are angry because they are guilty.

Yet as Sandile Dikeni suggested in 1996, the flip side of this is the phenomenon by which some whites will “kill you if you don’t forgive…They’ll hug you to death, and you don’t have an option” but to hug them back or forgive them or give them whatever it is that they need. There is something about this sorry-ness that is self-indulgent, that cares more about the torturer than the tortured.

Speaking to one another across two decades, Cole and Dikeni nail the dilemma of reconciliation on the head. In our country there is either the brute denial of culpability evidenced in Cole’s words and in the IJR barometer, or there is the contrition that Dikeni mocks – self indulgent, petulant, aggrieved even.

In the immediate aftermath of apartheid, ordinary white people became full and equal citizens without having to issue any personal apologies to black people whom they had wronged. Their participation in the new system, their use of the same queues and toilets and beaches as black people, indeed their refusal to leave the country even as millions of others headed for Australia and the UK and America, indicated that they were worthy of forgiveness.

In the end however, even the basic objective of the TRC – to establish the truth – seems to have evaded our country. Just as it was twenty years ago, at the dawn of our new democracy, the truth is once again contested. The crimes of the past have disappeared from the minds of some among us.

White people reading this may be asking what choices they have then. If contrition is not good enough, and if impunity and denial are also unacceptable, then how are white South Africans to behave?

In its final report, the TRC “affirms its judgment that apartheid, as a system of enforced racial discrimination and separation, was a crime against humanity … At the same time, the Commission acknowledges that there are those who sincerely believed differently and those, too, who were blinded by their fear of a Communist ‘total onslaught.”

Richly complex and generous, the sentence says it all. Perhaps, as the Commission did, we might begin by letting those who were blinded by their fear admit to this. Perhaps we might begin with the simple truth, told neighbour to neighbour, colleague to colleague, friend to friend. Unscripted, with no cameras and no world watching. Perhaps we might begin with the simple complicated truth. DM


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