Haunted by History

By Mbeki, Thabo | Harvard International Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Haunted by History


Mbeki, Thabo, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

The question of race is the defining parameter in South Africa's continuing struggle for national unity and reconciliation. For many years to come, South Africa's progress as a nation will be measured by the degree to which it has succeeded in closing the racial divides that continue to separate communities. The quest for national unity and reconciliation is fundamental to South Africa's emerges as a nation at peace with itself. It remains for South Africa to build on the progress it has made; to build an equitable society; to banish the antagonisms of the past; to create a new national identity in which everyone will draw pride and strength from a variety of colors, cultures, languages, and religions.

Text:

Headnote:

Race and National Reconciliation in South Africa

The question of race is the defining parameter in South Africa's continuing struggle for national unity and reconciliation. For many years to come, we will be able to measure our progress as a nation by the degree to which we have succeeded in closing the racial divides that continue to separate our communities.

At Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a few kilometers east of Cape Town, are the remains of a 340-year-old almond and thornbush hedge planted by Jan van Riebeeck to keep the "menacing black African hordes of pagan primitives" at bay. The thorned hedge soon proved inadequate to protect the enclave of "European civilization" perched precariously at the Cape of Good Hope; it became impossible to continue the civilizing mission except through the enslavement of the people to the law, the whip, and the gallows. The temporary sojourners became permanent citizens at the expense of the native population. The almond hedge marked off the native reserves that we were persuaded to describe as our homelands. Today, where Jan van Riebeeck's hedge once stood, railroad tracks separate the black and white quarters of Cape Town.

An illegitimate state was imposed upon the majority of the people-a state whose codified system of injustice the international community justly declared a crime against humanity. It is this reality of a state founded on conquest that led to the gross violations of human rights whose investigation constitutes the heart of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). President Mandela has called for the elaboration of a program to end racial fragmentation and conflict. Any attempt to insulate or isolate the more narrowly defined work of the TRC from this larger setting will inevitably defeat the very purposes for which the TRC was established. This proposition may not sit comfortably with some among us, who always feel a great sense of unease whenever we refer to the incontestable fact that, in many respects, ours remains an apartheid society. We cannot pretend that our most pressing problem does not exist.

The African National Congress (ANC) called for and pioneered the establishment of the TRC to ensure that the political conflicts of the past did not obstruct our common efforts to create a non-racial and non-sexist democracy. We must now determine whether the work of the TRC has in fact brought us closer to these goals. In many ways, the TRC has succeeded. It has exposed the gross violations of human rights under apartheid, facilitated the tracing of missing persons, fostered reconciliation between the perpetrators and victims of injustice, and cultivated a spirit of remorse and acknowledgment of wrongdoing. However, some elements of the TRC report are cause for serious reservations. In his minority report, Commissioner Wynand Malan makes some disturbing comments about the manner in which the report was processed and adopted. Ultimately, the report failed to consider adequately a number of claims and proposals formulated by the ANC regarding crucial matters such as the definition of gross violation of human rights in the context of war and issues relating to the humane conduct of warfare. …

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