Opinionista Laurie Gaum 31 May 2018

The quest for peace in South Africa in our time

What is the possibility to find peace in this beautiful country; in a strife-torn world? Can South Africa become a society at peace with itself? Being aware of our deep wounding is a very important first step in order to quell destructive behaviour.

Is it at all possible to live peacefully in South Africa? I ask this question particularly in the context of a South Africa in which some of the founding agreements reached to bring our democracy about in 1994, are by renewal being questioned. Some of the “founding fathers” of a rainbow nation, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, are criticised for this guiding metaphor which they’ve coined during the transition to democracy. It didn’t deliver on economic justice with the majority of land still predominantly in white hands 24 years after democracy. This question regarding the possibility of peace can equally be asked in a divided world which is surely not meant for the faint-hearted, as it takes considerable “stomach” to negotiate the complexities of contemporary society.

What sort of “peace” do I have in mind here? It is a positive peace which has more than the absence of war and violence on the agenda; a comprehensive peace which furthers the creation of a just society. Political commentator and theologian Tinyiko Maluleke somewhere expresses it like this: “Violence exists in the unjust, inhuman and unequal power relations between people and people; between men and women, between black and white, between adults and children, between countries and between humans and the rest of creation. (…) The spilling of blood is the manifestation of unjust, inhuman and unequal relations and interactions.”

Mentor to Martin Luther King Jr, Howard Thurman, however, spoke about the need to create the “idiom of community” among people. King himself called this the “beloved community”. Thurman says if one party in such a partnership is seen as of an inferior status to another, this forms a false basis for fellowship and makes authentic fellowship impossible. Such unequal interaction, although at times performing as a relationship of “understanding”, actually results in unsympathetic understanding. It is one-sided and underlines the power imbalance in such relations. It offers first aid amidst the utter dependence of the weaker party and therefore boils down to the exercise of ill will.

Thurman furthermore warns against the hatred that can grow among those at the bottom end of the system, out of a festering bitterness and resentment. While this hatred may function creatively as a device for self-protection for the disempowered in the power relationship, it is ultimately destructive to the soul.

Drawing on one of above mentioned “founding fathers” whom is presently brought to task by some, Tutu emphasises from the perspective of Ubuntu the restoration of relationship even between enemies. Here he follows a restorative justice model rather than that of punitive justice. Tutu’s official biographer John Allen describes it as follows: “The central concern is not retribution or punishment but (…) the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships. This kind of justice seeks to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he or she has injured by his or her offence”.

This finds echoes in Dr King’s thought when he says: “God is not interested in merely freeing black men (sic) and brown men and yellow men; God is interested in freeing the whole human race”. King’s beloved community at peace with itself is one “in which all men (sic) will live together as brothers (sic) and respect the dignity and worth of human personality”. He therefore rejected narrow loyalties: “Our loyalties must transcend our race, tribe, class, nation.”

While important questions are presently being asked about a bias in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission towards forgiveness and reconciliation, in reassessing the contributions of Mandela and Tutu and the agreements reached during a particular time period, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater while simultaneously renewing our commitment to work for a just peace. An upsurge in black nationalism is something to steer clear of, especially in the light of the upsurge in Afrikaner nationalism one saw after the South African War if it is read as a cycle of repetition due to the psychological wounding of the Afrikaner through the concentration camps and scourged earth policy of the British. The inferiority complex the Afrikaner consequently suffered of due to the humiliation they experienced, amongst other things, provided the foundation for the apartheid oppression and dehumanisation of people of colour.

And it is indeed the centuries’ long dehumanisation of people, even when it performed as understanding between people, that was in essence unsympathetic understanding and an expression of ill will (Thurman). Is the accomplishment of a community at peace with itself therefore too far-fetched an ideal? President Ramaphosa’s reference at Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s funeral to the wounding of the South African nation in the light of the wounds she carried, is relevant here. Being aware of our deep wounding is a very important first step in order to quell destructive behaviour. Mamphela Ramphele emphasises the need to own the degree of wounded-ness deep within the black community after generations of oppression – being demeaned and made to feel second class and worse. Steve Biko said that black people must discard their own psychological oppression and start within with their liberation, as they free their minds.

The President drew on the biblical example of Jesus inviting his disciples to touch his wounds. How do we, therefore, tend the wounds at this time? As some would have it: The wound can be the gift. Pain which is untransformed however gets transmitted (Richard Rohr). So it may stay a festering and often toxic sore. According to Tutu’s reasoning the survivor needs the perpetrator in the process towards finding forgiveness and healing, as the perpetrator needs the survivor for the establishment of right relationship.

But there’s also a need for time alone to re-find oneself and to be able to re-affirm your identity before re-engaging with the other. A self-affirmation of one’s humanity is a crucial step. For people of faith this affirmation of identity is usually derived from the intrinsic value afforded to a person through their relation to the Divine/God. But even if the person doesn’t ascribe to any specific faith they can come to this self-affirmation through similar means.

For Thurman, it sounded as follows: “Faith in life, faith in one’s self, faith in one another, faith in God: these are the necessities for our peace”. And King in his 1963 “Keep on moving” speech in Birmingham said: “Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth and your own somebody-ness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance”.

What is the possibility to find peace in this beautiful country; in a strife-torn world? Can South Africa become a society at peace with itself? Acknowledging our wounded-ness as the President did sounds like an important step along the way. If we totally lose each other in the process it may however be detrimental to all. Moving towards healing may ask for solo time at times. As Thurman puts it: One must be at home somewhere in order to be at home everywhere. It is therefore a journey of homecoming – a homecoming to self and a homecoming into the bigger community of togetherness. DM

With reference to: Martin Luther King Jr 1999. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr: The Power of Nonviolent Action. (Paris: Unesco)

Laurie Gaum has just completed an International Peace Building fellowship at Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Connecticut

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