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Eugene King
 
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The Misnomer of South African ‘Reconciliation’

20 May 2014, 12:07

“If a white man puts his arm around me voluntarily, that's brotherhood. But if you - if you hold a gun on him and make him embrace me and pretend to be friendly or brotherly toward me, then that's not brotherhood, that's hypocrisy.” – Malcolm X 

After celebrating 20 years of South Africa’s ‘democracy’ and successfully organising the 5th ‘democratic’ elections, the issue of ‘reconciliation’, especially in the South African context has been playing in my mind.

It was Nelson Mandela and his great friend Desmond Tutu who championed this idea of ‘reconciliation’ in South Africa at the dawn of ‘democracy’. At face value, the basic logic behind this project is somewhat understandable considering the history of separation and injustice that characterises South Africa’s past.

This piece serves as my personal criticism of the South African ‘reconciliation’ project, both as it has been articulated and subsequently practised in South Africa since the first ‘democratic’ elections.

My criticism here will not delve into the practicalities of what it has meant socio-economically, especially for natives post 1994, but I will try to restrict myself to a critic simply on a conceptual level.

I think it would be better if I started this piece by first dealing with the semantics, and then proceed from there with my criticism of the South African ‘reconciliation’ project.

What does ‘reconciliation’ actually mean?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘reconcile’ as:

·  To cause people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement.

·   To restore to friendship or harmony.

In other words, the basic tenet of a reconciliatory process is to restore, to bring back together what was before etc. The basic assumption is that the parties being ‘reconciled’ should or must have been somehow together before, in some sort of a ‘relationship’. This is why we would talk about a couple ‘reconciling’, families ‘reconciling’, friends ‘reconciling’ etc. True reconciliation talks about a mending of a broken relationship.

Therefore, true reconciliation presupposes some sort of a prior relationship. It would therefore be very odd for a person to talk about ‘reconciliation’ between strangers; strangers don’t reconcile, they have to acquaint one with the other.

My argument is that the idea of ‘reconciliation’ is a complete misnomer in the South African context, especially when it relates to ‘race’ relations between the descendants of Azanian natives and that of European colonial settlers.

From even a shallow run through the history of Azania, it appears very odd that we even came close to a concept of ‘reconciliation’.

If one studies the history of South Africa’s ‘race’ relations from the first time European settlers set foot in Azania in 1652 until the end of apartheid, one doesn’t even find a moment during that time of any friendship between the two groups. History is littered with wars of land dispossession, injustice and gross violations of human rights, not friendly relations.

There is no moment in the history of this country were European settlers properly met with Azanian natives; properly introduced themselves and extended a hand of friendship.

From the European invasion of the Cape in the seventeenth century, to the genocide against the Khoi people, and then further genocides and dispossession of other native groups; to the crowning of the military defeat of African people in 1910, there’s not even a moment of any ‘friendship’ between the natives and Europeans.

Even when one superficially scans through the history between 1910 and 1948, and then further from 1948 to 1994, one doesn’t find any moment where Europeans and natives actually met properly. The history only shows how Europeans arrogantly imposed themselves on the natives, and how they suppressed them initially militarily, and then later through unjust laws.

History shows that Natives have never really properly met with European settlers here, such that even in 1994 these two groups were still strangers to each other. I would also argue that even 20 years after ‘democracy’, we are all still strangers to each other.

How do we then even start talking about ‘reconciliation’? How do you even begin to ‘reconcile’ strangers?

If we are to be really honest with ourselves, what we need to do is to first meet each other properly, introduce ourselves and start a new journey. I personally believe the past twenty years have been a farce; years of very deep pretences under the guise of a ‘rainbow nation’ that is devoid of truth and justice. There can never be true friendship without justice here.

And finally, like all genuine friendships, the terms and conditions should be such that they satisfy justice, and they are also mutually beneficial. I would like to argue therefore, that the primary among the conditions of our friendship should be that the Azanian natives should first be reconciled with their land.

Follow Eugene on twitter @geno_brown 

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