The Complexity of Reconciliation

IMG_2736A while back, I blogged about our need for more sophisticated thinking.  Well, during my recent visit to South Africa, I had some experiences that uncovered some of my simplistic notions about things like justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, and progress.  In the 80s and 90s, it was all too easy for the world to look at the evils of apartheid, and judge white South Africans guilty, and isolate the nation as much as possible until it made the necessary changes to usher in democracy.  And once Nelson Mandela was released from prison and elected to take the new government forward, it was all too easy to celebrate and look on and think, “Well, it’s good to see that problem is behind us.  Now we can be enlightened friends with each other.”

Not so fast.  The black majority may have the votes, and the control of the political systems, but who has control of the economy?  Who owns the land?  Who owns the businesses?  Who owns the cultural power?  Oh, right, it’s still largely white people.

South Africa isn’t like the rest of Africa under colonialism – it’s not like all the white colonizers can just pull up stakes and go back to their home country.  The white presence there had been there for several generations over hundreds of years, as had a number of other non-black (or “Colored” as they are referred to in South Africa – this is not an offensive term there) immigrant communities (especially in the Western Cape).   Where exactly were they supposed to return to?  South Africa is home for them, whether they were the minority oppressors or not.

So what do you do in a post-apartheid era?  Take property and businesses away from whites and give them to blacks – like an idealistic Communist redistribution of wealth sort of thing?  Try to take social standing away from whites?  Incentivize small business ownership by blacks?  How?  Should there be tangible reparations?  If so, what?

Add this to the complexity, while South Africa under apartheid was terribly unjust, violent, and unhealthy in many ways, they were able to build an economic and physical infrastructure that is unmatched in the rest of the continent – the roads, the communications systems, and the business environment are all pretty darn solid, which can’t be said elsewhere.  It wasn’t apartheid that built those things, but you do have to ask what things would have looked like under a different system.  The ends don’t justify the means, mind you, but again, it adds a lot of nuance to an already sticky situation.

Want even more complexity?  Less than twenty years after being given freedom themselves, there was a round of xenophobic violence in Johannesburg, perpetrated by groups of black South Africans against immigrant communities.  It seems that gaining power can be complicated.

The politics of this country will continue to be messy for some time, as will the power dynamics.  And if the post-civil rights movement era in the United States is any indication, overt and subtle forms of racism will be difficult to purge.  It’s for this reason that I sincerely hope that I’m not misunderstood here as being overly critical of the people of South Africa – there are many who are trying very hard to get things straight.

I think the amazing intricacies of culture, politics, social change, and human relationship has been one of the biggest lessons for me from my trip around the world.  While I might hope for quick, cut and dried kinds of answers to problems, life just doesn’t work that way.  My idealism doesn’t change that.  Only a long-term application of imperfect effort will.  That’s frustrating, but it’s also how life really works.  Reconciliation is worth it, though.

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  1. On business development for black, if that’s a route that is going to be taken, there needs to be more done. Just this week, they announced that 1/3 of new small businesses in Soweto closed. I didn’t hear the whole piece, but some kind of entrepreneurial coaching is going to be needed to help make up the massive gap that currently exists. More updates from Pretoria at 3.

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