Majority of whites hold same views as De Klerk on apartheid

Apartheid-era benches outside the law courts in Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town, regulating where 'non-whites' and 'Europeans' were allowed to sit. / Esa Alexander
Apartheid-era benches outside the law courts in Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town, regulating where 'non-whites' and 'Europeans' were allowed to sit. / Esa Alexander

To many white South Africans, apartheid was not a crime against humanity

A few years ago, I attended a round-table organised by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. One of the participants at this dialogue was the Institute for Race Relations. Two researchers did a presentation on a study they had done to determine what white South Africans think about race and racism.

One of the key questions asked in a survey was whether they thought apartheid was a crime against humanity. The results were depressing, though not completely shocking. They revealed that an overwhelming majority did not believe apartheid was a crime against humanity.

Of course, research of this nature uses a manageable sample to derive its results. And it may be argued that its size is not enough to arrive at a conclusive determination. But I found it profound, not only because of what it revealed, but because of who had conducted the research.

Steve Biko once said something deeply profound about the role of white liberals in the Struggle against apartheid.

He contended that they have an obligation to conduct their activism within their own community - that white people are more likely to engage their own as equals, and that black people did not need white people marching with them in solidarity, because black people were not unaware of their oppression, and it was not they who needed to be conscientised and made to recognise the inhumanity of apartheid.

This argument came to me when the two young white women did their presentation. I realised that the white community in SA would be most comfortable expressing their genuine sentiments about race and racism to fellow whites.

There is a comfortability there that a black researcher would not be able to establish. And so, I believed that those results were a true reflection of whites, and that they were expressed because a rapport had been established with the researchers - based largely on racialised kinship.

So, when I heard the last president of apartheid SA and former deputy president FW de Klerk argue that apartheid was not a crime against humanity, I was not shocked. Just as the post-World War II period in Germany and Europe at large gave birth to Holocaust denialism, so too has the post-1994 dispensation in SA given birth to apartheid-denialism. White South Africans have been engaged in apartheid-denialism for a long time. It is precisely this fact that has made them resistant to change.

While some believe the actions of the EFF at the state of the nation address were disruptive and opportunistic, I believe we must thank them for at least aiding in deepening and sharpening the contradictions that exist, and which so few of us are willing to see in their complete ugliness. Both black and white South Africans have been trapped in a state of soporification - in denial of the true extent to which racism is still alive.

But perhaps most importantly, what the EFF did was to force us to reflect deeply on what democracy means to black people in the absence of justice. The party laid bare the fallacy of reconciliation as what happened in 1994 was a one-sided reconciliation whereby black people were forced to accept an apology that was never even given. In the process, justice was compromised, and for over two decades, black people had to contend with that reality while perpetrators and beneficiaries of apartheid did not.

When reconciliation is not backed up by any significant reparation, the oppressed cannot fully heal and the oppressor cannot fully comprehend the extent of their crimes. The fact that De Klerk and a sizeable amount of whites do not believe apartheid was a crime against humanity demonstrates not only that they do not recognise the humanity of black people, but that they are bold in their arrogance, bolstered by a democratic regime that never held them accountable for their actions beyond the pathetic TRC that was more about providing a platform for white people to absolve their guilt than for black people to seek justice.

I hope one of the things this conversation will allow is collective reflection on the part of all South Africans about what needs to be done to achieve true justice. For whites in particular, it must compel introspection about the significant ways in which they can atone. It starts with, above all else, recognising that apartheid was a lived reality, and has caused unimaginable damage.

It was a crime against humanity - and it is a crime for which someone must pay.

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