By Sheena Jonker
A South Africa where white people gained the position in society that they occupy and the place in the economy that they enjoy through sheer hard work, is an imagined South Africa. It’s not real.
When Pastor Andre Olivier says “We (white people) took nothing from black people” he was accessing this imagined dimension that has become a narrative that is widely bought into.
And it’s not going to help us build our nation.
In the church’s official response, they talk about acknowledging the scars left by apartheid and also about the need to “correct the past”.
The problem is that if acknowledging and dealing with scars is the end game, we dis-acknowledge the very present reality of one of the most unequal societies in the world.
The other problem is the past can never be corrected. It’s in the past. What we need to correct is the present situation. It’s our present reality that needs correcting. And that comes through redress. And before we can ever begin to do that we need to understand and acknowledge the past.
Professor Sampie Terreblanche in his book Western Empires, writes of the unprecedented accumulation of wealth by the Western world which has come at a dire cost to the people of what he calls the “Restern World”. And empire building has been at the root of it. He writes of the last 500 years having seen successive epochs of empire, followed by war and systemic chaos.
Apartheid and its corresponding legislation in the South African context, was actually the codification of centuries of systematic exploitation and exclusion.
Imagining that the dismantling of the legislation and the ushering in of political freedom (or democracy) has, in itself “corrected” or even has the potential in itself to “correct the past” or even the present reality that is a deeply unequal society, is exactly that: imagination.
Terreblanche further unpacks the history of how the “haves” of world history have systematically channelled global resources towards the West through cunning and conquest. He also writes about how, during these processes Christian missionary society played a key role as the soft avant-garde, which was followed by the hardware of guns and military.
If we examine this five-century old history we see clearly the forces through which empires have been rolled out: arms, money, ideology, religion. The latter is what makes the sentiments articulated by Pastor Olivier particularly alarming: there seems to be a new breed of evangelicals that appear completely out of touch with the God revealed in Christ.
“We took nothing from black people.”
Are we to believe that Pastor Olivier honestly knows nothing about or lacks a proper understanding of The Group Areas Act (which was the harmonisation of three pieces of legislation that excluded the majority to a fraction of the land and reserved for a tiny minority the majority of the land) and its related forced removals and destruction of dwellings. Are we to believe that he knows nothing of Bantu education, of job reservation and of how the system literally took away the humanity of black people.
Okay so he referred to the law that favoured us. How then does a man with a platform like his so comfortably and confidently articulate that “we” took nothing from black people.
White South Africans today still enjoy advantages in the world that flow from the greatest entitlement thinking in the history of the world: Western empire building.
I don’t dis-acknowledge that there are some white people who live in poverty and that there is not a growing middle class of black people. But I’m taking at an overall look at society where the majority still live with the economic and spatial injustice created by the past and that exist in the present.
The notion that white people have what they have because they work hard is a blind one. It is largely (though not exclusively) the labour potential of black people, cheapened and peddled by Western ideology that have built this country. If wealth automatically flowed from hard work, our labour force would be obscenely rich.
Pastor Olivier insists he is all about nation building. I don’t know the man and he may well have done a lot of good. But the sentiments he holds as articulated a few days ago carry the power to do a lot of damage
I am always alarmed at Christians that rail against political correctness (which is largely about treating all those we encounter with a sense of respect) and teach their children that words carry no power to harm still teaching their kids that sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never harm us.
These are a people who believe in a God that literally spoke the universe into existence. A people that believe in the creative power of words and that that creative power is accessed through faith in Christ.
Why then are they seemingly so unaware of the harm and destruction potentially accompanying words that reveal such profound lack of insight.
Professor George Devenish, constitutional expert, a few years ago said that we ignore land transformation in South Africa at all of our own peril. And it’s a patently obvious reality right now. It is in the interest of all South Africans everywhere to commit to creating just conditions and a just society. Where legal systems fail to bring about just conditions we know that people, in desperation start turning to “out-law” action or vigilante justice. The issue is not about whether that is right or wrong. The issue is that it is inevitable.
Australia’s indigenous population suffered numerous injustices at the hands of European invaders of their lands from the late 18th century onwards. Crimes against them ranged from discrimination and the appropriation of traditional land and water resources to smallpox pandemics and massacres. But perhaps the most infamous was the state-sponsored forced removals of indigenous children from the mid-19th century to the late 1970s. Almost all aboriginal families have been directly affected by this process. These came to be known as the “stolen generations”. (From 21 Speeches that Shaped our World, Chris Abbott)
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recognised this as a “stain on the nation’s soul” and issued a formal apology part of which read as follows:
“We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants, and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”
Apartheid law and the centuries’ preceding exclusion and exploitation similarly destroyed communities, families, people. The migrant labour system itself, which is a present reality, took fathers away from families, leaving the families left behind vulnerable, exposed and broken, and burdening those fathers and sons and brothers with socio-economic burdens that simply cannot be sustainably born.
Pastor Olivier fails to acknowledge or even see that regardless of whether we were there or not there, were in agreement or not in agreement, the decisions of our forefathers and mothers leave a stain on our souls and a present reality that simply cannot be sustained.
But the big thing is that we have not even got into the door of progress towards a just society (which is important for every one of us) while we live in this imagined world that white people have taken nothing from black people and that we have what we have through sheer hard work.
Sheena Jonker is an academic lawyer and practitioner of restorative justice and alternative dispute-resolution methods. She is the founding head of ADR Network SA as well as Access to Justice, a non-profit organisation that exists to mobilise legal and dispute-resolution resources for poor communities and in public-interest matters.