Engaging the Oppressor.

AuthorBashi, Sari
PositionSpecial Issue on Human Rights Activists Engagement with Oppressors

Introduction--South Africa

It was June 1995, one year after South Africa's first democratic elections brought anti-Apartheid activist and guerilla fighter Nelson Mandela to power. After being barred from the World Cup in 1987 and 1991, South Africa was hosting the world Rugby championship. Its national team, the Springboks, a symbol of white Afrikaner domination, had made it to the final round, fielding a lone black player, Chester Williams. Mandela had spent twenty-seven years in prison, many of them under brutal conditions on the beautiful but isolated Robben Island, where race classifications dictated even the food rations he received--as a black man, he received one ounce less meat and a half-ounce less sugar than Indian and colored prisoners. (1) In a now-famous gesture that June day, Mandela walked onto the field at Johannesburg's Ellis Stadium at half-time wearing the Springbok uniform, and when the South African team won the championship, he returned to the field and raised his green cap in a victory gesture. The message was clear: there is a place for everyone in the new South Africa, former oppressor and formerly oppressed. We will rebuild this country together.

It was admirable to embrace one's oppressor after he had lost his monopoly on power. But Mandela's inclusiveness began long before South Africa's democratic transition. In 1964, at the height of oppression by the Afrikaner ruling government, Mandela was on trial for sabotage. He faced the death penalty at the hands of a white judge. Throughout South Africa, security forces were using torture, extrajudicial executions, and racist laws to maintain a brutal form of racial supremacy that dispossessed blacks of their land and relegated them to far-flung "townships," to be admitted into white urban centers only as laborers bearing passes. In a speech at his trial, Mandela, the co-founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), enumerated the devastating effects of white domination on black lives: death, poverty, poor education, family separation, illness, and others. He then addressed the fears of the Afrikaner minority against whose government he had planned a sabotage campaign:

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy ....(2) Mandela's extraordinary personal qualities notwithstanding, his insistence on addressing the fears of his white oppressors--an almost absurd posture, given their overwhelming power over him--was an integral feature of the political movement of which he was part. The ANC adopted a robust approach to engaging the white minority, an approach that bordered on radical empathy: even in the darkest days of oppression, it clearly and persistently promoted a vision of equality and respect for whites, too, in a post-Apartheid South Africa.

The South African case invites a broader inquiry into the question of how activists for justice and human rights talk to and about the oppressor. The first part of this article will explore the ways in which the ANC and its allies spoke to and about the white minority during the period of Apartheid. What underlay the ANC's commitment not just to non-racialism but also to actively reassuring the white minority, even as that minority brutally and often fatally oppressed the black majority? How did the ANC continue to address the fears of the oppressor, even as it launched an armed struggle against the white government and, at various points in time, made strategic decisions to exclude whites from its membership? To what extent did the ANC's articulation of a vision that included a role for whites contribute to its ability to build a broad-based movement, garner international solidarity, and ultimately, reduce the perceived cost of ceding power for whites? What substantive compromises did that engagement require of the ANC leadership, and what is the legacy of those compromises? Much has been written about the ANC's engagement of the white minority during negotiations to end Apartheid, and as part of a process of reconciliation after democracy was established. (3) In contrast, this article focuses on the approach of activists to whites during the decades of Apartheid in which the government refused to talk directly to the ANC and reconciliation was a distant dream.

The second part of this article will briefly explore insights from the South African experience that might be useful in other contexts, especially Israel/Palestine. I will explore tactical, strategic, and moral benefits that robust engagement with the oppressor may confer. I will also address objections to paying too much attention to the fears and concerns of the dominant group. (4)

I offer a note on definitions: By "oppressor" I refer to groups or institutions in power that violate the rights of others--those who abuse authority. In doing so, I do not imply that every member of a dominant group is guilty of oppression. I do suggest that members of dominant groups bear responsibility for abuses committed by those who claim to represent them. When I use the word "engage" I mean how we talk to and about a group or authority, but not necessarily directly, including communications through public statements, songs, slogans, and writing. "Empathy" means the ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, and, in this context, I define "radical empathy" as the ability to imagine yourself in the situation of someone who is actually hurting you. It is radical, because it is so difficult.

Engaging the White Minority: A Case of Radical Empathy

Apartheid, the system of racial domination formally in place in South Africa from 1948 to 1994, fell after geopolitical forces created an opening--and perhaps a necessity--for an end to white supremacist rule. The collapse of the former Soviet Union weakened the trump card that the whites-only South African government had held vis-a-vis the United States and Europe, namely that majority rule by Africans would bring Communist forces into power, given the affiliations between the ANC and the South African Communist party. The Soviet Union's collapse also deprived the ANC of its primary financial and military backer, motivating it to negotiate a resolution. External pressure strengthened internal pressure within South Africa for change. The South African economy, predicated on the exploitation of unskilled and disenfranchised workers for mineral extraction, farming, and service provision, had become unsustainable, and the business community saw its future outside the Apartheid regime. Violent resistance to the Apartheid regime grew, and the government's ability to control the streets deteriorated. (5) These and other factors created space to end a horrific system of racial domination.

Yet majority rule would have been an unlikely outcome without the efforts of anti-Apartheid activists who worked for decades to build a movement and position it to seize the opportunity for change. Mass mobilization of activists on the ground had contributed to making South Africa ungovernable. The armed wing of the ANC, the MK, put pressure on the government through acts of sabotage and, to a lesser extent, violence against people. Decades of organizing by the ANC leadership in exile and mobilization of a global solidarity movement created diplomatic pressure on the ruling National party to cede power. The release of political prisoners and the unbanning of opposition political parties led to a spiral of changes that culminated in direct negotiations between the ANC and the government, mass protests and escalating violence on the streets, a whites-only referendum in favor of changing the system, and, ultimately, democratic elections in 1994.

The 1994 elections were the realization of a founding credo of the ANC, one that would define and distinguish its political program from that of its political rivals: nonracialism. At a time when the South African government cultivated tribal identities and promoted a program of so-called separate development for the various ethnic groups, with whites at the top of the hierarchy, the ANC and its allies promoted its diametric opposite: a universalist approach to citizenship, in which South Africans of all races would enjoy equal rights.

That vision took account of historical injustice but also outlined a role for whites in South Africa with some detail. In 1943, the ANC and its partners compiled the African Claims document in response to the 1941 Atlantic Charter, which outlined the war aims of the World War II Allies. The document calls for a repeal of discriminatory legislation and practices, fair and just redistribution of land that whites took from Africans and policies to redress additional wrongs. (6) One of the authors, ANC president Alfred Xuma, wrote in the preface that the struggle would continue until "freedom, right and justice are won for all races and colours." (7) The ANC and its partners further developed that vision in 1955, when they convened the Congress of the People, a participatory process in which black, colored, Indian, and white activists compiled and collected community...

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