Institutionalising reconciliation is an urgent priority

FANIE DU TOIT

Note from the Executive Director.

South Africa owes the University of the Free State a debt of gratitude. It seems to possess the uncanny ability, time and again, to make South Africans confront our racial demons. Brawls in parking lots, apartheid-era separate entrances for black and white students, the ignoble Reitz hostel saga, and now the appointment of a black vice-chancellor who promptly pardons white students accused of apparent racist crimes. These events have not only kept the University in the public eye, but assisted South Africans in taking stock of racial reconciliation at regular intervals.

If the response triggered by Vice-Chancellor Jonathan Jansen’s inaugural speech is anything to go by, South Africans indeed have a lot to talk about in this regard. Events like these suggest that South Africans may as well inhabit parallel universes, and they expose our inability to articulate the issues that are really at stake.

There remains a staggering dislocation, not only between different groups, but also between leaders and those who are supposed to follow. There has also been a dangerous escalation of frustration at street level, where the inability to listen and to be heard are felt most intensely.

Our challenge now is to find new ways to have meaningful conversations across the chasms of race and class. Metaphors that carried us through the political transition seem to have lost currency. We are in a new era, with new challenges, new heroes and villains, and new divides, even if the old enemy – race – is still prevalent. We need a new language – not only to bind us at national level, but more importantly as communities, institutions, social movements and interest groups. In short, we need to find ways to give new content to reconciliation, to bring it down to the everyday experiences of South Africans, including those at the University of the Free State.

Jansen’s inaugural speech suggests that he had this in mind: a local solution to institutional racism, social exclusion and macho subculture in which the Free State and a number of other tertiary institutions have been steeped for decades. Jansen did two striking things. First, he acknowledged institutional complicity in the Reitz saga and, on behalf of the university, asked the victims for their forgiveness. This was, he said, not a case of ‘a few bad apples’, but the result of decades of tacit condoning of such dehumanising practices and subcultures. For these sins of omission, Jansen apologised to the victims on behalf of the community of which he was about to lead.

Secondly, he turned to the accused students, who faced both expulsion and a series of charges in court. To them, Jansen offered a reprieve, in the spirit of building an inclusive and reconciliatory institution.

Reactions to Jansen’s announcements were as severe as they were swift. The minister of higher education, cabinet, the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), MK veterans and Cosatu all expressed profound opposition. The ANCYL president in the Free State, Thebe Meeko, charged that Jansen should be ‘shot and killed because he was a racist’ – though national ANCYL leader Julius Malema proclaimed his support for the embattled rector the following day. These confusing statements aside, numbers of prominent and less prominent South Africans felt that Jansen had overstepped his mark. Rumours began circulating of Jansen’s imminent resignation, prompting the University Council to come to his aid. In the end Malema’s confounding declaration was probably more telling. Jansen, it seems, will live to tell the tale.

Jansen’s critics made the important point that South Africa, by now, is a maturing democracy with rules, regulations and well-entrenched constitutional values, including that of non-racism. Offences should be punished without fear or favour. This means that no one, not even a well-meaning black rector, should (or can) pardon racist offences. Mary Metcalfe, director-general of higher education and training, questioned the implications of Jansen’s decision for other cases of student misconduct. In a letter to Jansen, she asked, ‘Is it just this misconduct that will be forgiven because of institutional culture? Have other students been expelled who might have equal claim to pardon?’ The implication for a maturing democracy is clear: amnesties cannot be granted indefinitely with claims that they are grounded in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). At some point the rule of law needs to take precedence.

The question, however, is to what extent South Africa has in fact matured as a democracy, and whether exceptional acts of grace are, in fact, still required to unchain us from our past.

This dilemma is also evident in government’s Special Dispensation for Presidential Pardons. Recently, government moved to pardon 200 apartheid-era offenders – this whilst formally rejecting the options of consulting with victims and publishing its findings. Only a last-minute court interdict obtained by a coalition of NGOs stopped government from rushing these pardons through on the grounds that the twin principles required for amnesty through the TRC – victim accountability and transparency – were being contravened.

Here too, the notion surfaced that South Africa’s past lingers on, and that from time to time exceptional acts of grace and inclusion are needed to overcome the persistent divisions that bedevil efforts to create a ‘better life for all’. However, the presidential pardons process also shows how such attempts at reconciliation can go wrong when not crafted with enough care. Two considerations emerge: how to achieve transparent decision-making, and how best to restore the dignity of victims.

Although the TRC may now be a fading memory, its emphasis on victim hearings and transparency remains an important lesson. The issue of timing, too, is crucial. Consider what might have happened if, as has now been requested by the Reitz students, a reconciliation process between perpetrators and victims had taken place before any official decision or announcement in this regard. If successful, the outcomes of such a process may well have proved less divisive than those we have seen.

At the same time, spare a thought for ANCYL members in the Free State after the utterances of Meeko and Malema: laugh or cry, shoot the rector or hug him? What are members to make of these contradictory messages from their leadership?

The challenge of communication looms at so many levels, of talking to each other in ways that will make sense across divides of race and class. This includes meaningful communication between white students and black workers, a previously white university and its black rector, and also between affluent and well-connected political leaders and their bewildered followers.

Sometimes we are over-eager in our enthusiasm to bridge these divides. When this happens, we are in danger of losing sight of the victims in the process, by acting and speaking on their behalf, but not with their consent. At the same time we cannot sit still. We need to find ways to urgently address and engage one another in universities and every other sphere – to learn to talk to each other in ways that can be understood on both sides of the most serious social fault lines. In this process we will inevitably make mistakes, but we must not stop trying. Our most cherished national goals depend on finding ways across these barriers. Jansen’s larger mission should therefore be shared by us all.

Fanie du Toit is executive director of the IJR.

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