The South African model

The world can learn from South Africa's ideal of nonracial democracy | Aeon  Essays
Nelson Mandela with students at a non-segregated high school in Gauteng, South Africa, in 1995. Photo by Ian Berry/Magnum

What the United States and other settler societies can learn from South Africa’s push to create a nonracial democracy

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University in New York City and executive director of the Makere Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda. His books include Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (2009) and Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (2020)

Edited bySam Haselby

In the course of the struggle against apartheid, South Africans did something remarkable: they tried, with incomplete success, to destroy the settler and the native by reconfiguring both as survivors. They did so by adopting a response to extreme violence that defied the logic of Nuremberg – the logic of separating perpetrators from victims, punishing the perpetrators, and creating separate spheres in which the two could live without harming each other in an ongoing cycle of violence. By thinking of extreme violence as a political rather than criminal act, South Africans were able to shift focus from individual transgressions of law to the issues that drove the violence and the needs of the people who survived it. Instead of going to court, they sat around the conference table. Rather than turn to a trial to produce truth and punish offenders, they negotiated reforms to make the political system more inclusive, recognising that perpetrators as well had to be brought into the political fold.

Above all, South Africans came to recognise that political identities are not permanent or natural. Activists overcame differences of race imposed on them – differences marked as African, Coloured, Indian, and white – to join in a single cause of breaking down apartheid. Afrikaners, once champions of apartheid, became part of the movement against it. These groups had been formed under colonialism as distinct and often rivalrous, their interests said to be naturally divergent. Because of the racial difference imputed to them, they were subject to different laws and granted different opportunities to participate in the political community, or sometimes no opportunity at all. But in response to apartheid, these people learned to think anew their political relation to each other: not as others or rivals but as equals in law.

In other words, South Africa attempted to decolonise, by breaking down the colonial distinction between settlers and natives and inviting them to participate in the same political community, with settlers reconfigured as immigrants. This attempt was partial. Colonial authorities created, and both colonial and apartheid authorities exploited, two kinds of distinction between settlers and natives: racial distinction and tribal distinction. The struggle against apartheid, and the new South Africa that followed, have made inroads against the politicisation of race. Yet today tribe remains a supposed African tradition. Thus settler and native identities have been dismantled in some respects and retained in others.

The South African case diverges instructively from that of the United States. The two countries have similar colonial histories, but only one has attempted to decolonise. Both are federations of colonised territories; the US formed from the union of the British colonies during the revolution, South Africa in the early 20th century from the union of the Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal and other British dominions, some of which previously had been under Dutch or Boer control. The great majority of the territory circumscribed by each federation was set aside for settlers.

What defined settlers in both countries was not the colour of their skin, although in most settler colonies the upper echelons of the power structure were and remain overwhelmingly occupied by white-skinned people. (An exception is Liberia.) The settler also was not defined by language, culture, religion, gender or socioeconomic status, however these are conceived; nor by length of residency, immigration status or even citizenship status. There were British settlers in South Africa, as well as Afrikaners; white European settlers in America, some who came involuntarily, as indentured servants, as well as enslaved and free Blacks. What defined the settler was the law to which she was subject. Call it civil law. Equal subjection to civil law does not mean equality of subjects; settlers were not and are not treated equally. The law may be discriminatory: it may be designed in ways that make it more useful to certain individuals than to others and more useful to certain communities than to others. But all of these individuals and communities are equally subject to the civil law…

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