In a kind of irony only found in the movies, Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery was invited to speak on the “Rule of Law” before a Cape Town audience on the same day that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir fled South Africa in contravention of a court order.
The room was filled with eager audience members, and perhaps there was an expectation that the deputy minister would use the platform to speak about this issue. But there was also a knowing giggle from the crowd when Jeffery said he wouldn’t speak to the issue that evening.
While the outside world discussed Sudan, Gabrielle Lubowski stood up and asked the panel — which included former justices of the Constitutional Court Albie Sachs and Yvonne Mokgoro — about the decades which had passed since her husband was gunned down in front of his Windhoek home during Namibia’s transition to independence.
Anton Lubowski was a member of Swapo, and a human rights lawyer who spent many years defending anti-apartheid activists in Namibia. His death remains unsolved 25 years on, and his wife desperately asked the panel about the case. Lubowski was a man who used the law as a shield against oppression, and it is startling to think that the law relegated his case to the shadows following his murder.
It was harrowing to hear about the case when we smugly sat in a room, angry at the government for allegedly flouting its own laws when it came to the Sudanese dictator. I hadn’t expected much, but I didn’t know that a discussion about the rule of law would break open wounds of the past either.
The urgency and anger of the present fell away, and the audience was exposed to an example of justice delayed — and right on our doorstep. Although Lubowski’s 1989 murder has sprouted numerous theories involving corruption, big money and crooked apartheid spies, this mystery remains a casualty of the geopolitical climate of the time. Anton Lubowksi’s unsolved assassination is one of many examples of the ever-present sting of apartheid — the wound that lives on in communities across South Africa, Namibia and beyond.
The common refrain from the sidelines to “forget about it” or “get over it” isn’t only incredibly ignorant, but perhaps it is incredibly cruel too. It’s a call to pretend that justice has been done, when it remains urgent and necessary for families across South Africa. It is also a call to pretend that the sting of apartheid exists only for a few disgruntled people, instead of something that exists in every one of us.
Gabrielle Lubowski’s moving story of her husband’s murder by faceless operatives is one of the many narratives that make up this sting. Apartheid’s spectre lives on in a multitude of heart-breaking stories ranging from the family in District Six that can’t make ends meet, to the abusive white father who is haunted by the Border Wars. So many people demand justice — economic and otherwise. So many people — black and white — need help and healing.
Yet we spend so much time pretending.
Some pretend that things are okay, and that we’re on the right track. They pretend the past hasn’t produced a nation of angry men, even when our public and private spaces often turn into war zones that are unsafe for women and children. These South Africans dream up vast visions of a present that doesn’t exist — a safe, non-racist, non-sexist community of diverse people.
There are other South Africans who pretend that things are much worse than before. They’ll lament the good old days and shake their heads as they read the newspaper. They screech at crime, but forget about the years when political violence prevented people from leaving their homes. They screech about human rights, but forget about the doors that were pushed down by bulky police operatives during the height of apartheid.
We can’t even recognise that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Things aren’t okay, but they aren’t much worse either. The government still doesn’t seem to care about Lubowski’s murder. And the government still thinks it can ignore the law when it wants to. South Africa still has one big political majority — the names and faces have changed, but the uninspiring majoritarian politics remain the same.
And we still seem to be a society that places very little import on human life. We’d even let a dictator accused of orchestrating systematic ethnic cleansing get away.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.