A member of South Africa's opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), wears a red shirt and chants outside the US embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, on June 8, 2020. 

What South Africa can teach the US about racial justice and reconciliation

"If you want to change, it has to start with an acknowledgment," says Stan Henkeman, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.

The World

Protests against police brutality and racism are erupting all over the globe. That includes in some African nations, where thousands have been calling for justice for George Floyd.

In South Africa, it’s a reminder of its own complicated history of police violence. Twenty years ago, the end of apartheid was marked by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was set up by the South African government after decades of institutionalized racism under apartheid. The commission gave thousands of people a chance to testify to the racism they experienced or perpetrated. 

At the funeral Tuesday for George Floyd, the black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas called for reconciliation for black people in the US. 

South Africa's commission was headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“We are a wounded people, because of the conflict of the past,” Tutu said at the commission’s first meeting. “No matter which side we stood, we all stand in need of healing. We on the commission are no super-human exceptions.”

Stan Henkeman is the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa. He spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about what the US might learn from South Africa as it reckons with centuries’ worth of racial discrimination and inequality.

Related: South Africa's imperfect progress, 20 years after the Truth & Reconciliation Commission

Marco Werman: Coming out of apartheid in the early 1990s, there were so many raw emotions after years of oppression. There was the specter of South Africa falling apart, even a race war. How did South Africa even get people to agree that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the right way to go? How do you get people — black, white, different social classes — to buy into this?

Stan Henkeman: I think the first thing to say is that there was the [Nelson] Mandela factor. And Mandela proved to be the one person that every South African, irrespective of their background, was able to identify with. The second thing is to understand that the majority of South Africans are not white. And so you can imagine the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was very appealing to them because there was so much suffering. And people just saw this as an opportunity to expose what had been happening, but also to close a chapter, a painful chapter of honesty. 

Having said that, the buy-in from the white community was not as enthusiastic. In fact, there were a number of white people who saw this as a witch hunt. 

So how did you approach that imbalance? And did you eventually get more buy-in from the white population of South Africa?

You know, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an outflow of an act of parliament to promote national reconciliation. White people, generally, even though their political parties agreed to it, were still skeptical. But as the commission progressed, the fact that it was transparent, it was on TV screens on a daily basis — I think that kind of helped make people understand that this is a genuine attempt to try and understand what happened.

Related: Concerns of structural racism are 'deeply existential,' UN special rapporteur says

And what were the stated objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission once it started? 

The process was quite organized. There were three aspects to the commission. The one committee was the committee that investigated gross human rights violations. And the emphasis was on gross human rights violations because you can imagine every disadvantage South African had their human rights violated. Then there was a second committee that looked at the issue of amnesty, and that was always going to be a thorny one. And then the third committee had to look at reparations.

My sense is that the whole process was very highly charged and was very emotional for a lot of people, almost like a confessional of sins and victimization. Was there a prosecutorial aspect to any of this?

The only committee that kind of acted like a court was the amnesty committee. And what was really interesting was the fact that people who applied for amnesty did not have to do a public apology. I imagine that angered a number of people, but the idea was a way to get people to come and tell their side of the story. More than 7,000 people applied for amnesty, but only 1,700 received amnesty. Now, this is where a question comes in about prosecutions. And this is one area where I think that many South Africans would say we have failed because the prosecuting agencies did not follow through on the thousands of people who did not qualify for amnesty.

Related: 20 years on, South Africa's remarkable constitution remains unfulfilled

The world looks at South Africa today, and apartheid, they see, is over. But now there is a profound class difference in South Africa that isn't all about race. When you look at that reality, do you think it's a failure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

It is a bit unfair to blame the TRC for the problems of our country. I think the first thing we need to say about the TRC is that it was not going to be the silver bullet that's going to solve the problem and that's going to reconcile the country. It was the beginning of a process. And if you listen to people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others, that's exactly how they understood it. Sadly, the rest of the country didn't necessarily understand it in the same way.

If we look at the young people today, especially black, young people who are still experiencing the struggles of poverty, unemployment, and exclusion that their parents went through, they are extremely critical of the TRC. In fact, they call the TRC a whitewash of white atrocities.

I'm curious to know, Mr. Henkeman, as you look at what's going on here in the US, what would you say America has to reckon here and what can Americans learn from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

You know, if you want to change, it has to start with an acknowledgment. And I think that that's probably where America has to start. Acknowledge the pain, how that pain gets transmitted generationally. And what happened to somebody in the 60s or even earlier affects young people today. And once that acknowledgment happens, then there should be a conversation. I'm not sure whether the US is ready for that conversation, because in South Africa, we have a black majority government. So there is a level of openness.

Now, whether they listen to us is another story, but at least there's a willingness to have the conversation. I'm not sure how successful that will be in the States, because you can bring all the changes that you want, but if there's no shift in attitude, in [the] worldview that we hold about other people, in people's place in society — if that doesn't shift, you know, you can make all these cosmetic changes, you will just have a perpetuation of the status quo.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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