Engaging the Oppressor

By Bashi, Sari | Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2019 | Go to article overview

Engaging the Oppressor


Bashi, Sari, Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal


Introduction--South Africa

It was June 1995, one year after South Africa's first democratic elections brought anti-Apartheid activist and guerilla fighter Nelson Mandela to power. After being barred from the World Cup in 1987 and 1991, South Africa was hosting the world Rugby championship. Its national team, the Springboks, a symbol of white Afrikaner domination, had made it to the final round, fielding a lone black player, Chester Williams. Mandela had spent twenty-seven years in prison, many of them under brutal conditions on the beautiful but isolated Robben Island, where race classifications dictated even the food rations he received--as a black man, he received one ounce less meat and a half-ounce less sugar than Indian and colored prisoners. (1) In a now-famous gesture that June day, Mandela walked onto the field at Johannesburg's Ellis Stadium at half-time wearing the Springbok uniform, and when the South African team won the championship, he returned to the field and raised his green cap in a victory gesture. The message was clear: there is a place for everyone in the new South Africa, former oppressor and formerly oppressed. We will rebuild this country together.

It was admirable to embrace one's oppressor after he had lost his monopoly on power. But Mandela's inclusiveness began long before South Africa's democratic transition. In 1964, at the height of oppression by the Afrikaner ruling government, Mandela was on trial for sabotage. He faced the death penalty at the hands of a white judge. Throughout South Africa, security forces were using torture, extrajudicial executions, and racist laws to maintain a brutal form of racial supremacy that dispossessed blacks of their land and relegated them to far-flung "townships," to be admitted into white urban centers only as laborers bearing passes. In a speech at his trial, Mandela, the co-founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), enumerated the devastating effects of white domination on black lives: death, poverty, poor education, family separation, illness, and others. He then addressed the fears of the Afrikaner minority against whose government he had planned a sabotage campaign:

   Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our
   disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to
   the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be
   Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.

   But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only
   solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all.
   It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in
   racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely
   artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one
   colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting
   against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy
   ....(2)

Mandela's extraordinary personal qualities notwithstanding, his insistence on addressing the fears of his white oppressors--an almost absurd posture, given their overwhelming power over him--was an integral feature of the political movement of which he was part. The ANC adopted a robust approach to engaging the white minority, an approach that bordered on radical empathy: even in the darkest days of oppression, it clearly and persistently promoted a vision of equality and respect for whites, too, in a post-Apartheid South Africa.

The South African case invites a broader inquiry into the question of how activists for justice and human rights talk to and about the oppressor. The first part of this article will explore the ways in which the ANC and its allies spoke to and about the white minority during the period of Apartheid. What underlay the ANC's commitment not just to non-racialism but also to actively reassuring the white minority, even as that minority brutally and often fatally oppressed the black majority? …

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