Twenty Years after Apartheid – Patrick Mbugua and Daniel Ohs

On the 10th of May 1994, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first black President of the Republic of South Africa. Two weeks earlier, on 27 April, Mandela’s party – the African National Congress (ANC) – had won South Africa’s first elections by universal suffrage, marking the end of over 45 years of apartheid rule.

While apartheid was expressed in the form of total racial segregation it was also a philosophical, political, economic, and social system. As a philosophical system, apartheid rejected human equality. As a political system, apartheid used oppressive laws and brute military violence to enforce segregation. As an economic system, apartheid concentrated all systems of production, exchange and distribution in the minority White group. Finally, as a social system, apartheid rejected cultural dynamism, criminalising all inter-racial interactions. With the fall of apartheid, Mandela and his party were faced with the daunting task of dismantling its institutional foundation, and also addressing the entrenched legacy of structural violence left in its wake

The first major issue facing Mandela and the ANC was the question of reconciliation. Launched with the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, the South African reconciliation process is held by many to be a model of what reconciliation should constitute. Its specific objectives were to establish the causes, nature, and extent of gross violation of human rights of apartheid. It also served to facilitate the granting of amnesty to perpetrators of political violence – either supporting or fighting apartheid – on the condition of full disclosure. These activities functioned to fully reveal the fate of victims, guide reparations, and provide recommendations to prevent the future violation of human rights.

Led by Desmond Tutu, the Commission recorded statements from 22,000 victims. This uncovered many hidden truths, facilitated a good reparations policy, and laid the foundation for reconciliation. However, some critics argue that the reconciliation process focused too much on individual perpetrators and failed to tackle apartheid as a wider social system. As a result, it did not address economic inequalities in South Africa. Amnesty also removed any accountability from those who benefited from these inequalities. The question then is how to balance the promotion reconciliation between groups while at the same time requiring wrongdoers to be accountable for their actions.

A second issue facing the new South Africa was structural violence. Structural violence is the manner whereby social systems harm people by impairing their basic human needs. There is no doubt that post-apartheid governments have done a lot to upgrade townships around South Africa. Since 1994, many areas have greatly improved thanks to investments through private and public funding. Township residents now travel to and from work from upgraded taxi stations, shop in modern upmarket malls, and visit world-class theatres.

However, the majority of the black population still lives in abject poverty, especially in rural areas. Meanwhile, the much-touted black economic empowerment policies have produced a new fabulously wealthy black elite. Furthermore, elite greed and corruption have emerged as the biggest issue in South Africa in the last few years. This has blighted the dreams of equality that millions imagined after the end of apartheid.  This raises the question of whether crony capitalism is ever compatible with sustainable peacebuilding in countries emerging from protracted conflicts.

A third key challenge for Mandela and the ANC revolved around the agents of change within South Africa. During apartheid the springbok, both as a national symbol and the nickname of the South African rugby team, represented white supremacy and segregation. However, when Mandela famously wore the Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup – itself one of the most hated symbols of apartheid – he managed to completely transform its symbolism. Mandela, as a a powerful symbolic agent himself, proved that national icons are not concrete realities, and neither is the violence and hate they represent. The springbok is now South Africa’s symbol of unity.

The end of apartheid twenty years ago leaves a number of lessons and difficult questions. Most notably, it illustrates that leaders must seek to find a balance between the sometimes abstract concepts of reconciliation and social healing, and tangible societal reform and accountability. When it comes down to it, one cannot truly be achieved without the other. Neglecting societal reform at the expense of reconciliation risks leaving any healing hollow and meaningless. Conversely, overly favouring reform and overlooking reconciliation paves the way for new structural inequalities to rise. However, as Mandela proved, if discrimination is constructed by people, it is ever possible that it can also be deconstructed. Overall, we must remember that we are all human, and deserving of the right to live in an equal society.

* This essay was published in Otago Daily Times as an OP-ED on 21 May 2014. To read the original article, click here.