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The Winding Path to Reconciliation

Kayum Ahmed is the executive director of

On the day I stood in front of the Voortrekker Monument struggling to come to terms with its granite symbolism, I also visited Vlakplaas, where the sound of the gentle river flowing past the farm is occasionally interrupted by the tortured screams of a different era. In many ways, Reconciliation Day compels us to confront these historic symbols, to reflect on our past, and to look at the new world - our post-apartheid world – through complex, sometimes personal, and sometimes distant lenses.

For the past eight years a group of adherents to the Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Judaism and Christianity have organized an Interfaith Walk of Reconciliation in Cape Town on our national Day of Reconciliation. The post-apartheid government renamed 16th December Reconciliation Day in 1995. Prior to the political change in 1994 it had been a public holiday symbolizing two significant events. The first, is the Battle of the Blood River where the Voortrekkers defeated the Zulu army in 1838. The second, is the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961.

Since 2005, this walk of reconciliation event – at which all are welcome – has sought to mark the significance of Reconciliation Day in our young democracy’s calendar by demonstrating that, as an interfaith community at the tip of Africa, we live together in peace despite our turbulent history of colonialism, violence and apartheid.

This year’s walk starts at a new place – the mother church of the Dutch Reformed community of faith, known as the Groote Kerk. This offers participants an opportunity to further open our hearts to embrace the other and to be embraced by the other. Symbolically, starting our journey at the Groote Kerk, reminds us of our vulnerability, but also of how far we have come during the past 20 years and how the journey together into the future may look.

Significantly, the walk proceeds from the Groote Kerk past the Slave Lodge up The Avenue through the Company’s Garden (where slaves were forced to work) and onto the Gardens Synagogue. From the Synagogue the walk proceeds to the Boorhanol Mosque in Longmarket Street in the Bo-Kaap.

At various points along the way, we pause to reflect and consider the paths we have taken, some by choice, and others, forced upon us. We then return to the St George’s Cathedral, popularly known as the People’s Cathedral for the anti-apartheid role it played during our history.

The path to reconciliation is not an easy path. It twists and turns and winds, gently nudging and sometimes pushing us to confront our turbulent past and the uncertain future. But this path of struggle and conflict can also be a path of liberation and enlightenment.

At the South African Human Rights Commission, we are often confronted with deciding which path to take as part of our mandate to transform society, secure rights and restore dignity. In one such matter that took place at the University of the Free State, five black workers who were cleaners at the university residences were filmed in a video made by three white students. The Reitz video – named after the dorm building where the incidents took place – depicted workers performing various humiliating acts, including drinking urine out of bowls. The students made the video to express their dissatisfaction with a decision taken by the university management to integrate the residences. Historically, the University of the Free State had institutionalised segregation separating white student residences and black residences. At the end of the video, the three white students look at the camera and say: “This is what we think of integration.”

The Human Rights Commission facilitated a reconciliation process between the black workers and the white students. We consciously decided to deal with this matter outside the formal court system. The night before the reconciliation ceremony, I was privileged to sit around the table with the former students and the workers. There were two remarkable things that struck me about the reconciliation process that the Human Rights Commission facilitated. The one was the ability of the workers to forgive. I remember one of the workers saying to the former students, “you were our children and you will always be our children.” These students were in fact young enough to be the children of the workers who were humiliated by them.

The second thing that struck me, was the ordinariness of the former students. We often assume that racists are monsters that lurk in the dark. But these former students were ordinary people, like you and I – people who were able to cause such humiliation, pain and anger.

And so I often marvel at our capacity as human beings to, on the one hand, perpetrate such inhume acts against one another, but to also have the ability to love unconditionally, to give of ourselves and to create positive change.

While in the past, some paths may have been forced upon us, today, we have more choices than ever before. On this day of reconciliation, which path will you choose? DM

Kayum Ahmed, Chief Executive, South African Human Rights Commission

Further inquiries for the reconciliation walk may be addressed to members of the organizing committee: Di – 083 2322349 / [email protected]; Mohammad – [email protected]; Laurie – [email protected]; Gina – [email protected]



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