Defend Truth


Fixing the pain of apartheid and healing South Africa is everyone’s business


James Blignaut is Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.

The emotional, economic, and psychological travesties that resulted from the institutionalised social injustices of South Africa’s past have left gaping wounds that, like an angry volcano, spew out into the air the lifeblood of our society.

Thirty years ago, a man with blinkers on, and whose name will not be mentioned, opened a prison door and released another man. With that act he also released the aspirations of a nation. Both men were globally recognised and honoured, and quite rightly so. Now the blinkers are there for all to see – but there is none so blind as he who does not wish to see. Yet the former has, probably unknowingly, opened another, far bigger and perhaps more significant prison door. Let those with eyes take note.

Crimes against humanity are not defined by the number of body bags they generate, albeit that is an important part of it. In the South African context, as is the case in many other countries, the institutionalisation of social injustice made it legal to commit atrocities of various kinds, but such legalisation does not make these acts of social injustice either ethically or morally right.

Case in point: in the mining sector of a country well known to me, it is perfectly legal for foreign-owned companies to pay sub-minimum wages and extract all the profits and the resources, leaving behind nothing but waste dumps and a human-made desert with no functioning safety, health and environmental restorative plan in place. Does the fact that it is legal for mining entities to expose more than a million people – daily – to life-threatening disasters and work conditions, conditions in which many people die every year, justify unethical behaviour? While exporting all the mineral resource rent, they pay those operating in the gallows less than R30 a day without any kind of insurance, financial or otherwise. Is such vampire-like behaviour, reminiscent of 18th and 19th century slavery, ethically acceptable? It might be legal, but it is certainly unethical.

Back to South Africa: the emotional, economic, and psychological travesties that resulted from the institutionalised social injustices of the past have left gaping wounds that, like an angry volcano, spew out into the air the lifeblood of our society. The few court cases that brought to the fore the despicable acts of the security policy of the past gave a degree of insight into what happened behind those bars and brought closure for some, but not for most. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for which we are grateful, dealt with the cases of many, but left maybe even more unsaid. A narrative of healing was not stimulated; on the contrary, it was stifled, and closed down as if pain were a committee.

A prison door, however, has been opened: the door of silence.

Apartheid was a crime against humanity and its emotional, economic, and psychological pain is visible around every corner. We shall not, we cannot, remain silent about the pain and consequences of the social injustices the institutional crime brought. It has robbed all of us of really getting to know our fellow South Africans, it has placed us in enclaves, dumbing us down to regime-obedient zombies – or face torture and death. It has created an artificially divided world.

With the opening of the first prison door, pain was hidden under a blanket of aspirations. Now, 30 years later, the aspirations are but a mirage, yet the pain has become supercharged. Not only is there the pain of apartheid, there is also the disillusionment of what the democratic state brought. The pain of two wicked histories imposed on each other.

How shall we then mend this life-blood spewing volcano? By committing more atrocities? By institutionalising further injustice? By condoning and hiding corruption, fraud and the embezzlement of money? By further fragmenting and polarising society after the principle of divide and conquer? By allowing municipal services to go down the drain, literally?

The future can be no better than the quality of the decisions we take today, either individually or collectively. A carefully crafted presidential speech, while important, is an insufficient condition to acknowledge the pain of the past, its sources and consequences, and to bring about healing. For such action is required; action unites – action of the scale, intensity and enormity like that of winning a World Cup, but this time every day for a long time. Impossible? Wishful thinking? Pie in the sky? Perhaps, but no more than the daunting task it was seeking to undo an institutionalised and legal yet socially unjust system.

Shall we write a new social compact to reset the moral compass? Would that not be like spending thousands of hours and millions of rand on the changing of the name of a town while the sewage runs freely in the potholed-riddled street? Perhaps more is required. Perhaps consideration should be given to the development of a narrative and praxis of justice (participatory, commutative, distributive, contributing and retributive justice) as intrinsic value – a value that is inherently good and does not require any further justification. These various forms of justice would be achieved through proper and appropriate management, the instrumental value. An instrumental value is something that is good because it contributes to the fulfilment of an intrinsic value.

While efforts had been made to advance some elements of justice, although at a snail’s pace and on a piecemeal basis, the real challenge is with respect to management. Things went seriously pear-shaped in this respect. Let us therefore unpack it a bit more. First, who is to manage? The answer is everybody. Every person manages that which is under their authority or jurisdiction. For some it may imply a small household, for others a large international corporation, or a non-governmental organisation, or the government itself. The essence is: all people are managers. The same individual might also have a distributed managerial obligation, first as member of a household, second as the CEO of a large multinational corporation, third as chair of the local tennis club, fourth as member of a charity, etcetera. Management and managerial roles have been abdicated and ceded to “the government”, or another entity, stripping people of a dignity-enhancing and restorative role in society.

Second, what should be managed? One cannot manage that which is not under one’s control or supervision. Some would therefore have a small sphere to manage, others a large one. A manager is not without power, nor without any sense of value; he/she must exercise their managerial role. Management does not necessarily imply ownership though.

Third, how should the manager manage? Herewith a few possible guidelines:

  • The various facets of justice should always be the greater good towards which the economy, the economic system and those participating in it should work, namely enabling participation through accessibility, fairness and equality, resource allocation, responsibility and, last, security;
  • Being a manager implies that one is not the owner with absolute rights; that would be society at large;
  • Though absolute ownership is based in the collective right of society at large, individual legislative property rights subject to the principles of justice are a right as well;
  • People stand in relationship with all and sundry, either in the present generation or those past and future, and how we express these relationships will determine whether or not justice is done;
  • People must use the resources at their disposal to their own greater good and that of society;
  • Everyone has the right and obligation to participate in society and the economy by applying their trade and through these means provide for themselves, their household and society;
  • Work is to be a social activity towards achieving a certain purpose and its value should not be equated with its associated remuneration;
  • Everyone is accountable for their deeds before society in terms of whether or not they contribute to the greater good or not; and
  • The cosmos and the natural environment are an open, but constrained, system that could regenerate in multiplicity through appropriate management (positive-sum societies), but, through mismanagement, could collapse completely.

Let us not push against an open door, but rather use the opportunity to nurture a narrative of healing based on the principles of justice and management. DM


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