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South Africa-Kenya: The proper course of justice

Thursday 13 October 2022



The proper course of justice

By Esther A. Armah

Existing models of racial healing center whiteness and demand the emotional labor of Black folk, fetishizing reconciliation but forsaking justice.

Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa. Image credit @flowcomm via Flickr CC BY 2.0

I am ushered into Archbishop Tutu’s office in Cape Town. He prays before our interview. It is November 1997 and I am in Cape Town, South Africa. I report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the body set up following South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. The commission’s focus: tell the full truth about the atrocities committed during apartheid, and in return, get amnesty, and be forgiven.

Covering the TRC, I, like the global media, watch this wrenching truth-telling process—outpouring of Black trauma resulting from white legislated violence. It is here that I explore and develop “the language of whiteness,” and name two of its pillars, “emotional patriarchy” and “racialized emotionality.” These first two pillars become integral parts of unlearning this language of whiteness.

Naming these two pillars occurs after two encounters: the first is a pivotal interview with Desmond Tutu; the second is after listening to the TRC testimony of Ntsiki Biko, the widow of Steve Biko.

I ask Archbishop Tutu about this process of forgiveness between white and Black people. “South Africa will be a Mecca for whites, just like Kenya!” declares Tutu. I ask him why there’s so much focus on how white people feel. His answer is evasive. I ask again. And again. I ask why there is so much focus on how white people feel in a nation healing from so much horror and harm perpetrated against Black bodies by a system that enshrined the false superiority of whiteness. He gets uncomfortable and then angry.

He tells me that when it comes to repair, Black South Africans shouldn’t ask for too much. I ask him what “too much” means given the extent, weight, and depth of pain caused to Black South Africans and their families. He goes on to explain that if someone needs particular assistance—say, a wheelchair—because of apartheid violence, then the person could get that. The TRC would find someone to help them with that. I am struck by how limited the language of repair is, but also how individual it is. Even though the TRC body is about forgiving an entire people, the repair seems to be about forgetting that an entire people had been subject to apartheid.

I continue to ask about Black people’s needs, and their healing. Tutu then says, “The whites are beginning to take this offer of forgiveness for granted.” I am especially struck by this. The interview comes to an end—honestly, it was cut short by Archbishop Tutu’s team. I leave with a sharpened focus on this centralizing and soothing of whiteness and a neglect of Blackness.

Archbishop Tutu mentioned Kenya. A mecca for whites just like Kenya, he said. Kenya fought the British for its independence. During colonial rule in Kenya, the British committed violent atrocities. They tortured, raped, and murdered. They imprisoned 1.5 million Kikuyu—an entire population—in a violent attempt to suppress the growing battle for independence. Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya’s first post-independence president. After Kenya gained its independence, in 1964, Kenyatta would tell the British, let’s forgive and forget. There are archival images, articles, and interviews of him reassuring white Britons that Kenya forgives them, and that this land continues to be their home.

I have a familial connection in Kenya. My dad was an advisor to Jomo Kenyatta. He too was an advocate of reconciliation. Kenyatta’s notion rejected the freedom fighters’ sacrifice and struggle, sidelining their efforts. In our home in Ghana, there are black-and-white images of my dad with Kenyatta. Years later, I traveled to Kenya on an assignment that deepened my understanding of a history of racial healing that firmly centers whiteness.

Nelson Mandela would echo Jomo Kenyatta’s words of forgiveness. “Let bygones be bygones. Let what has happened pass as something unfortunate which we must forget,” he said, speaking of South Africa’s future in one of several interviews following his release from 27 years in prison.

What was Mandela asking South Africa to forget, to forgive? The laws enshrining false notions of white superiority and Black inferiorityThat included laws such as the Native (Urban) Areas Act of 1923, which created what became exclusive African slums. The 1926 Color Bar Act, which banned Africans from practicing skilled trades and forced a poverty that Black South Africans continue to struggle with today. The 1936 Representation of Natives Act, which removed Black voters from the common voters’ roll in Cape Town, thereby denouncing their citizenhood.

What Mandela was asking to let pass was the water cannons, the truncheons, the torture, and the killing and terrorizing of children, robbing them of their innocence, their childhood, making violence their normal. There was the killing and raping of women, the murder of men’s souls, the murder of men’s bodies. There was the emasculation of Black men, the humiliation of Black women, the wholesale thievery of land. There was racializing and dehumanizing Black bodies and then targeting them with ongoing violence.

Forgiveness, then, took on a color, a context, a direction, and a meaning. Apartheid was terrorism and white supremacy. Forgiveness was Black emotional labor, and it was absolution for whiteness. It was a one-and-done healing scenario. It did not account for legacy, and didn’t center those who had been harmed and what was necessary for their healing. That meant white people did no emotional work, but received amnesty and forgiveness.

It is in my realization of this context of forgiveness that I coined the term racialized emotionality—describing a world where we racialize emotions, where we insert color, context, and consequence to emotions, and where doing so changes how we see those bodies in whom the emotions have been racialized.

Years later, I connected this history of racial healing, of emotional labor by Black folk in service of white supremacist violence, to the US and the UK.

South Africa’s racial healing model, one that is emulated and lauded by countries all over the world, was not constructed centering—or really even fully acknowledging—Black and Brown people and the breadth and depth of the harm done to them and their communities. Because of that, this was not a roadmap for racial healing. It was political, it was structural, and it was inequitable. It was an unfinished journey.

No national or global conversation about forgiveness centered Black people forgiving themselves and one another for what they had endured, for what they became, for how this shaped how they loved, for the self-hate that survival may have triggered, and for the toll that eternally fighting took on their sense of self.

One of the most powerful examples is the treatment of Winnie Mandela. South African writer Sisonke Msimang wrote, “This was a nation with a narrative of forgiveness, but it wouldn’t forgive Winnie Mandela.” There was public humiliation and global castigation of a Black woman, while former president FW De Klerk, a white man, shared a Nobel Peace Prize.

In saying let bygones be bygones, what Nelson Mandela and the TRC did was ask Black people to prioritize the fears, insecurities, and feelings of white folk over their own sacrifices, stories and struggles. And the world applauded, in awe of this capacity for forgiveness, and turned Mandela into an icon of forgiveness.

This model of racial healing—both in South Africa and in Kenya—is an emotional apartheid. It separates white and Black people. It timelines and deadlines the trauma for those harmed, treating the emotional as if it were an economy, to be moved and manipulated. It is this inequity that strengthens already existing labor disparities around race. From physical labor to emotional labor by Black people in service of whiteness, this was emotional injustice. And in this time, we cannot take that approach if we are to achieve a racial healing that serves a full humanity.

A pivotal exchange with Ntsiki Biko created the term “emotional justice” and, for me, solidifies the need, the work, and the roadmap. She stood before the world’s predominantly white media and invited them to better understand what happened to her husband, Steve Biko. She told them that, for her, there was no question of forgiveness.

Ten former members of the security branch of the South Africa police sought amnesty for Steve Biko’s death. They said that Steve Biko, in the presence of the white policemen, had “gone berserk” during a “scuffle,” which led to his death.

Addressing the Truth and Reconciliation hearing, one said: “Your honor, we have said that during the scuffle, he bumped his head against the wall.”

“Scuffle” and “bumped”? The so-called scuffle was a 22-hour interrogation involving ten officers. Biko was shackled, and his legs were put in leg irons. The “bump” resulted in a battered and bruised body, left naked, and then transported to Pretoria, rather than given medical treatment. It was that naked Black body they then put in a cell and left to die.

The TRC’s process required the full truth to be told. Those who took the stand regarding Steve Biko’s death didn’t do that. They prettied up brutality, justified terror, minimalized violence, and expected forgiveness.

Ntsiki Biko said, “There is a lot of talk about reconciliation. What I want is for the proper course of justice to be done.” Mrs. Biko and other families sued the government, rejecting the TRC’s process and demanding justice for their loved ones.

It is listening to Ntsiki Biko, her call for justice even when connected to a process that was deeply emotional, that I begin to think in a more structural way about the emotionality and Blackness as integral parts of a justice project.

Effective racial healing—through which Black and white people come to fuller humanity—cannot be achieved by centering the needs, the fears, and the feelings of those who have caused the harm. Because when we do that, we are using the emotional as an instrument to entrench what is unjust. That teaches the perpetrator entitlement, and it teaches those harmed to sideline themselves.

Adapted from Emotional Justice: a roadmap for racial healing. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers)

Esther A. Armah is an international award-winning journalist, playwright, and author of Emotional Justice: a roadmap for racial healing.





South Africa

Apartheid Reparations

By Sean Jacobs

Not all Black South Africans bought the forgiveness line of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They’re suing US corporations who aided Apartheid.

Oliver Tambo, ANC acting president, addressing the UN Apartheid Committee in April 1973 (UN Photo).

The left-leaning independent news show, Democracy Now!, in New York City last week reported on the historical case in a New York City court brought by black victims of white minority rule in South Africa (not everyone bought the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s line), against several international corporations accused of aiding the Apartheid regime during the years they did business in apartheid South Africa. The victims’ lawyers are seeking up to $400 billion in compensation. The South African government and elite opinion are opposed to the case going ahead. The companies include Daimler AG, General Motors, Ford Motor Company and IBM. “They are accused in a class-action lawsuit of complicity in human rights abuses during the years they did business in apartheid South Africa.” Watch for a 2008 appearance by the late Dennis Brutus. You can also read the transcript below

Sean Jacobs, Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country, is on the faculty of The New School and a Shuttleworth Fellow.



Federal Appeals Court Hears Arguments in Landmark Apartheid Reparations Case

January 12, 2010

Watch Full Show here 28:07

South Africa
Dennis Brutus


Michael Hausfeld
one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Marjorie Jobson
National Director of the Khulumani Support Group that is filing the lawsuit.

A landmark case against several international corporations accused of aiding South Africa’s apartheid regime is underway. The companies include Daimler AG, General Motors, Ford Motor Company and IBM. They are accused in a class-action lawsuit of complicity in human rights abuses during the years they did business in apartheid South Africa. The suit was filed several years ago by black victims of white minority rule. Their lawyers are seeking up to $400 billion in compensation. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A landmark case against several international corporations accused of aiding South Africa’s apartheid regime is underway. The companies include Daimler AG, General Motors, Ford Motor Company and IBM. They’re accused in a class-action lawsuit of complicity in human rights abuses during the years they did business in apartheid South Africa. The suit was filed several years ago by black victims of white minority rule. Their lawyers are seeking up to $400 billion in compensation.

A federal court in New York heard an appeal by the corporations seeking to dismiss the suit. They argue that US courts have no jurisdiction in the case. In 2009, after years of litigation, a US court ruled the case could go ahead under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreigners to file cases against companies for crimes committed abroad.

For more, I’m joined here in the studio by Michael Hausfeld, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. We’re also joined from South Africa by Marjorie Jobson. She’s the national director of the Khulumani Support Group that’s filing the lawsuit. She joins us by Democracy Now! via stream from Pretoria.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! First, Michael Hausfeld, explain exactly who you’re suing and why.

MICHAEL HAUSFELD: The lawsuit is being brought by black South Africans who were abused by the military and security forces of apartheid South Africa against a number of companies that provided the tools to the military and security for them to perpetrate the abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how this case came about and why it is in a US court.

MICHAEL HAUSFELD: It came about because, after the turn of the century, there was a rising awareness that corporations were never part of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa. Despite being invited by the commissioners, companies refused to testify as to what their role was in regard to apartheid and its enforcement. A number of groups approached us and asked if we would investigate whether there was the possibility of bringing a claim against those companies for that complicity.

There is a law in United States called the Alien Tort Statute, which essentially seeks to codify customary international law, which rises above national law, which protects basic human dignities. It’s the right to be free from genocide, to be free from prolonged arbitrary detention, to be free from torture, to be free from officially enforced rape. And it allows non-US citizens to bring cases against non-US citizens in a US court, because what’s involved is a violation of the law of, literally, the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go right now to Marjorie Jobson, who’s national director of the Khulumani Support Group. You have filed the suit. You’re also an associate of the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Pretoria. Explain exactly who you are representing.

MARJORIE JOBSON: Thank you very much.

We are a membership-based organization, presently with 58,000 individual victims of gross human rights violations on our database. And all of our members are part of the struggle to secure reparations. It’s basically a struggle to end impunity. We have other cases against impunity, but we think in this case we’re against the impunity of corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: And why the corporations that I have just named, like Daimler AG, like Ford Motor Corporation?

MARJORIE JOBSON: Well, the remaining five companies in our lawsuits are the ones that we’ve been able to retain on the basis that the equipments that they produced and sold to the South African apartheid regime was directly used in suppressing the uprising against apartheid. It was the armored vehicles that patrolled the townships. It was the weapons and ammunition that were used by the soldiers in those armored vehicles to put down resistance. And it was also the software and the hardware produced by IBM that was used to track and monitor the movements of black activists and also to denationalize most of the black South African population, who were denied South African citizenship and had to become members of homelands, often of homelands that they had never ever visited.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip of Dennis Brutus, the late South African poet and activist who died just a few weeks ago in Cape Town. He was eighty-five years old. He spent many years promoting reparations to black South Africans from corporations that benefited from apartheid. Dennis Brutus was a frequent guest on Democracy Now! for years. This is from an interview I did with him in 2008, where he talked about how multinational companies benefited from apartheid.

DENNIS BRUTUS: I grew up in Port Elizabeth, for instance, which was the headquarters both of Ford and GM, and they were using black labor, but it was very cheap black labor, because there was a law in South Africa which said (a) blacks are not allowed to join trade unions, and (b) they’re not allowed to strike, so that they were forced to accept whatever wages they were given. They lived in ghettos, in some cases, near where I lived, actually in the boxes in which the parts had been shipped from the US to be assembled in South Africa. So you had a whole township called Kwaford, meaning the place of Ford, and it was all Ford boxes with the name “Ford” on them, because they were addressed to Ford in Port Elizabeth.

Now, what is striking is that when I appeared before the GM stockholders’ meeting in Detroit and I raised the question on behalf of the American churches, “What do you pay the blacks in South Africa?” the stockholders voted they didn’t want to be told, a 98 percent vote which said, “We don’t want to be told.” So, obviously, the complicity was both at the top executive level, but also with the stockholders.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dennis Brutus. It was very interesting. That day, we were broadcasting out of the firehouse in downtown New York, and we just walked out of the firehouse and went over to the courthouse, where we thought the trial was going to take place that day, but it had been continued.

Now, let me ask first, Marjorie Jobson, during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wasn’t there a part of those proceedings that involved holding corporations accountable, not just people coming forward and if they told the whole story of how they murdered or tortured someone, they would be granted amnesty, if they told the full truth, but also a section on corporations? And what happened with that?

MARJORIE JOBSON: Well, it was three — actually three days were dedicated to what was called the business hearings of the TRC. It was limited to three days because they only received written submissions from fifty-five South African companies. They received no submission at all from any multinational who had operated in South Africa under apartheid.

And what was very troubling about that hearing was that the South African companies argued that they themselves had been victims of apartheid, rather than beneficiaries of the apartheid laws that provided the kinds of things that Dennis Brutus referred to in that interview — I mean, the low wages, the poor living conditions, the single-sex hostels where the removal of people into homelands so that they could only come to townships on contracts and live in single-sex hostels for the year and go home three weeks a year, and all of those horrendous things that were constructed by corporations — South African companies, international companies — in collision with the South African government. And not a single company admitted any complicity for those kinds of [inaudible].

And so, basically, when Judge Scheindlin gave her opinion in April last year, we were really heartened to see that she said that this takes forward the unfinished business of the TRC, particularly in relation to the role of corporations during apartheid. And, I mean, this is being so closely watched, because there’s such a deep sense of injustice amongst people at this impunity the companies are seeking.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Marjorie Jobson in Pretoria. She is director of the Khulumani Support Group that’s filing a lawsuit here in New York. Now, Jacob Zuma, shortly after he took office as president in South Africa, supported this lawsuit. Thabo Mbeki, the previous president, did not, saying it would discourage foreign investors. Your response to that, Marjorie Jobson?

MARJORIE JOBSON: Well, we’re very grateful for the new situation, the new spirit in the land, the sense that President Zuma has a much wider sense of what the desperate situation is of people who, in particular, were victimized. And we did not have the ear of the former president and many of his cabinet, who had basically lived more than twenty years in exile and hadn’t firsthand known the struggle. It’s different having President Zuma in place.

But what we also know is that the fact that our case has been refined and amended in the process of this seven years of trying to bring it to trial has also been a help to the South African government, because some of their concerns around the size of compensation that we’ve been asking for have really been relayed, and they no longer feel that it can present a threat to foreign investment in South Africa. In fact, they actually state that the nature of these crimes is so serious that this really needs its day in court.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hausfeld, I want to read a quote to you, a comment by Princeton Lyman, who served as US ambassador to South Africa from 1992 to 1995. He’s now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote an op-ed about this lawsuit in the New York Times last week called “Paying the Price for Apartheid.” He writes, quote, “Perhaps the most fundamental moral and practical question is how the victims of the deep wrongs of apartheid should be compensated. Unfortunately, for these victims, this [lawsuit] is not the way.”

He goes on to conclude, quote, “This suit may have helped publicize the country’s unmet needs and delayed justice, and it may spur the outside world to do more. But it cannot address South Africa’s real needs, and if it results in yet another token payment to a few thousand people, it will make the aftertaste of apartheid even more bitter.”

Michael Hausfeld, your response?

MICHAEL HAUSFELD: What’s ignored is the responsibility of companies who can affect individual lives as much and as deeply as any government. You have an issue as to who is a corporation and what are its responsibilities, not just to shareholders, but to the community which it serves and in which it does business. If companies can affect lives in ways that make those lives worse, so that people are suppressed or terrorized, as we contend the apartheid regime was towards its black South Africans, then anyone who provided the tools to enforce that suppression and terrorism should be responsible.

If you leave that question unanswered, because you cannot fully provide a complete measure of justice to victims, then not only are you depriving the victims of an opportunity for justice, but you are providing corporations or types of citizens a means by which they can claim immunity from any — from responsibility for what they do.

AMY GOODMAN: Marjorie Jobson, before you go, speaking to you in Pretoria, what has been the response to this lawsuit? Is it getting much coverage in South Africa? And if you could describe particularly the people you represent — I know it’s a class-action suit — but to give us an example directly of how an individual life was affected.

MARJORIE JOBSON: Well, one of the most serious issues of many of our members is the fact that their husbands, their fathers and their sons were forcibly disappeared and, we suspect, that were killed extrajudicially. And hundreds of those cases have never been resolved. People have never been able to secure benefits. Many people had insurance programs, but because the case has never been concluded, they cannot access any benefits. That’s very typical of the desperate situation people are in.

The levels of unemployment in South Africa are enormous. Inequality is growing. Sixty-seven percent of the ruling party’s membership is unemployed. And so, I mean, poverty and deprivation is the reality for most of our members.

And it’s really that that we think that companies have a duty to redress and that if we are going to ever achieve reconciliation in South Africa, it will mean that there has to be a bridging of this enormous and growing gulf between people who have the means to assist those who have nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Michael Hausfeld, what happens now with the suit? You argued yesterday. What’s the timetable?

MICHAEL HAUSFELD: Normally, the Second Circuit will take anywhere from four to six months to render its decision. And then, depending on the decision, the case can either proceed at a district court level or there may be a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the decision.

AMY GOODMAN: You have some heavy artillery aimed against you. I imagine the courthouse is quite full on the other side representing these very powerful corporations.

MICHAEL HAUSFELD: Yes, and those corporations that stand behind those corporations, because chambers of commerce throughout the world feel that what this case may do is set principles of corporate responsibility that can be imposed worldwide.

AMY GOODMAN: So why did you take it on?

MICHAEL HAUSFELD: For that very reason, because if you don’t establish the principle, then although you may not be able to get complete justice for the victims in South Africa today, you are basically ascribing to eternity the fact that no one in the future will ever be able to do that and companies can act with, as Marjorie said, both impunity and immunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Hausfeld, I want to thank you very much for being with us, and also Marjorie Jobson, national director of the Khulumani Support Group filing the lawsuit, also an associate with the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Pretoria, which is where she was speaking to us from.