No matter where you get your news, if you’ve been watching it for the past week, you can only have been disturbed.
Whether you were disturbed by tactical misuse of rubber bullets, by the documented murder of an unarmed man in broad daylight, by the weaponization of tear gas on civilians, by the rogue fires spread across the States burning down businesses and buildings, by the painful chants of protestors, by the loss of income for business owners and employees who were collateral damage in many cities, or by the unsafe conditions of huge crowds of people during an active pandemic…
All of our hearts are heavy.
Average Americans are not to blame for our current state of emergency – but they are certainly affected.
And as we turn toward history to find a solution, we’re reminded that only great leadership can lead us out of great turmoil.
What’s clear right now is that these problems aren’t going away without intervention.
Just like apartheid (which means “apartness” in Afrikaans) didn’t go away in South Africa…
Until Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk successfully negotiated its closure, and transitioned to a democratic system of government over a tumultuous four years, from 1990 to 1994.
Which, for the rest of the world watching, was nothing short of a miracle. The real magic was in how they did it…
A Quick History Lesson
From 1948 until 1994, South Africa’s National Government ran a violently enforced segregated country.
In many ways, it looked like the United States before the Civil Rights Act in 1968 – separate public facilities, decentralized zoning laws in neighborhoods, illegal interracial marriages, restriction of non-whites from participating in government, etc. During a period of 30 years, more than 3.5 million black South African citizens had their land sold at low prices to white farmers and were relocated to impoverished areas.
For many years, black South Africans tried everything. They peacefully protested, they organized labor strikes, they demonstrated in the streets. Oftentimes, participants were arrested for high treason.
When police opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protestors in Sharpesville, people began rising up in armed resistance, convinced that peace wouldn’t end their suffering.
Nelson Mandela was actually a leader of one of the militant wings that developed from the loss of faith in peaceful demonstrations: Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”).
He was arrested in 1961, and remained in prison until 1990.
But the war raged on.
The world took notice of South Africa’s policies, and started to make its stance clear.
The UN General Assembly denounced Apartheid in 1973. In ‘76, the UN Security Council voted to stop all arms sales to South Africa. In ‘85, the UK and the US imposed commercial and financial restrictions on South Africa.
Change started slowly… and then…
A Nobel-Prize Winning Collaboration
When de Klerk came to power in 1990, he freed Nelson Mandela.
Mandela had been in secret talks for nearly a decade with the leader and deputy director general of the National Intelligence Committee in order to build a foundation of common ground from which a new government could be built. By 1990, they were ready.
Working steadily for four years, they dismantled Apartheid. Mandela was voted President of the nation, and his party – the African National Congress – took power, keeping de Klerk on as a deputy.
And still, the work was not over. Too many had been hurt for too long by apartheid’s punitive policies.
In 1995, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was formed. Headed by Mandela, the committee operated through three branches with three distinct objectives in mind:
- Human Rights Violation Committee: designed to hear witness accounts of human rights violations between 1960 and 1994.
- Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee: designed to create proposals that restored dignity and rehabilitated displaced communities and individuals.
- Amnesty Committee: designed to understand that not every participant in the Apartheid regime was equally guilty, this committee took applications from people who wanted to receive amnesty for what would have been considered human rights violations.
Hearings began in 1996 – two years after apartheid officially ended.
Nearly 20,000 people were granted reparations. By contrast, only 849 of the 7,111 applications for amnesty were granted.
The TRC approach stands out because it was transparent, compassionate, and transitional. Its closest recent relative (in terms of major government intervention) were the Nuremberg Trials after the end of World War II. These trials banished and punished Nazis, but didn’t do much in the way of repairing the damage done to the victims of the Holocaust: restoration vs. retribution.
Now, we’re making some comparisons that may seem alarmist.
But know that people of color have been marginalized and discriminated against in America for a very long time.
American systems and legislature haven’t changed much since the umbrella of segregation was repealed, and what we’re seeing now is an uprising of those who feel their voices have not been heard.
Powerful leadership will be necessary so that those whose human rights have been violated can live in dignity and peace.
Protestors and law enforcement cannot be pitted against each other. A solution can only come through concessions and negotiations.
If you find yourself with a yearn to make a difference, take up the mantle of leadership in your community, among your friend groups, in your family. Start dialogues with your local leadership so that your voice is heard, and hold them accountable for divisive policies, rhetoric, and behavior.
No one life is more important than any other – strive to never let yourself forget that, and never let anyone else either.
Truth and reconciliation is the way forward. It’s time to heal. Open your heart. We’re all people…let’s talk.