Every time you read of yet another racist incident at the University of the Free State (UFS), you cannot avoid colliding with the despondency people feel as they become resigned to yet another Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the way. Every time you want to get angry, be outraged at racism, you are very quickly reminded of how Nelson Mandela managed to forgive and reconcile. Every time a call is made for decisive action against racists, we are told not to antagonise race relations. We are repeatedly told that we should love the racism out of racists — to turn the other cheek. We are told that our leaders know best.
I believe positive race relations in this country were given a shot of adrenalin by Mandela’s reconciliation. But in the same instance and without contradiction, I also believe that race relations have become paralysed, tranquilised in fact, by Mandela’s reconciliation. This is because it has made us as a society, afraid to have frank conversations. It has made us as a society, intoxicated with the idea of forgiving people without punishing them. In order to understand why Jonathan Jansen is so mistaken in tacitly promoting the lawlessness that masquerades as reconciliation at UFS, we need to understand why Mandela chose his brand of reconciliation in the first place — a brand that is ill-suited for UFS.
Thabo Mbeki and Mahmood Mamdani in “Courts can’t end civil wars” argue the case for why South Africa did not hold Nuremberg trials against apartheid SA operatives. They argue that ever since the Allies militarily defeated Hitler in World War II, discourse on mass violence and social injustice has centred on punishing perpetrators. It has centred on subjecting them to trials such as those that were had then, at Nuremberg. They say these trials, court proceedings that is, are premised on the notion of holding criminals to account for the criminality of mass violence and social injustice. But the problem with treating civil wars, mass violence and social injustice exclusively as acts of criminality, is that there are often constituencies with valid political demands who are behind the violence and injustice. This is further complicated by the fact that perpetrator and victim constituencies invariably have to share the same geographical living space after the conflict. Hence the notion of doing nothing else but only punishing a few individuals does not address these political demands of these constituencies and thus results in social instability. So in order to promote social stability such that rule of law may become normalised, you need to undergo a process of reconciliation. A process of amnesty as reconciliation in the South African case.
Mbeki and Mamdani’s analysis frames parameters wherein amnesty as reconciliation is warranted. It is warranted in situations where there are constituencies with valid political demands who are fighting or are about to fight with each other. Warranted in situations where there isn’t a mutually agreed upon and established norm of good behaviour. Warranted in situations where there is a lack of institutions that all participants view as legitimate and under whose authority they feel bound. In situations where it is not just a few individuals who perpetrate wrongs but it is an entire constituency.
For me all of these requirements are lacking in the UFS setup. Who are the warring constituencies with valid political demands at UFS? All I see are a few students hell-bent on degrading others, a few students exhibiting gross intolerance and a few students suffering from superiority complexes. Are there no established norms of being a good student at UFS and of being a good South African citizen? I seriously doubt this. Do the students feel that there is no legitimate authority in the UFS management, to whom they can express their concerns? From media statements I’ve read, I feel the university has been very engaging and responsive to the needs of students. Is there a constituency that is perpetuating wrongs and not just acts of a few individuals? The case at UFS is very clear — there are pockets of students for who criminality and boorish behaviour is a way of life.
Jonathan Jansen has done very well at UFS and many people respect him for his innovative efforts to improve the university. But as a country are we not mature enough to handle knowing that a pocket of racist students exists? Are we not mature enough to handle him calling them out as racists? Are we not mature enough to be able to handle that he can act decisively and firmly without us descending into suspicion that he is a racist, out to get white people? Are we not mature enough to say “yes, enough of this amnesty as reconciliation stuff, can we now please deal with these stubborn bigots in our midst”?
It is time that people in this country realise why Mandela did what he did. It is time people realise that this did not give a free pass on every bigot to think that this is the way forward. Enough is enough. We must stop behaving like it is some people’s job to turn the other cheek — nobody has such a job description.
An overwhelming number of South Africans have said we should leave the hatred of the 20th century, in the 20th century. This is the 21st century, we can’t go around excusing bigots because we’re afraid the country or its institutions will fall apart.