/ 9 November 1990

Let’s break our habit of violence with just laws

There is a lot of forgetting to do in South Africa. Yet it should not begin before we face what we are in relation to what we wish to become. Progressive forces in our country are pledged to one of the extraordinary events in world social history: the complete reversal of everything that, for centuries, has ordered the lives of all our people, under all the successive governmental avatars of racism – conquest, colonialism, white republicanism -and has culminated, again and again, in violence. 

We know we have to face the kind of legacy, in terms of human relations, apartheid is leaving us. There is, there will be, an aftermath which can’t be tackled without majority rule under a Bill of Rights, but which won’t evanesce because of these legal victories over oppression. Just as there are people physically maimed by the struggle between white power and black liberation, there is psychological, behavioural damage that all of us in South Africa have been subject to in some degree, whether we know it or not, whether we are whites who have shut eyes and electronically controlled gates on what was happening to blacks, or whether we are blacks who have been transported and dumped where the government wished, tear-gassed and shot, detained, forced into exile or have left to join the liberation army which came into being when no other choice remained. 

Violence has become the South African way of life. Violence has been with us a long, long time as a pure expression of racism. In its latest avatars, it is still surely a manipulation of that same racism: an end product of old colonialist ideas of divide and rule in the sophisticated Verwoerdian version of grab and rule – take the land and make kinglets of those given a backing of white government’s power in ethnic enclaves. But more of that later. Does violence imply hate? Personally, I’m prepared to say that hatred towards whites and in the extreme conditions of racism in South Africa – has been and is rare among South African blacks. Like you, I have lived here all my life, I have been in many situations where hate could have revealed itself, I have talked in open mood with many people, when we have been sober and when we have 1100 our inhibitions loosened by a drink or two: I have seen and read much – and, yes, I’ve met bitterness, hard words, but hate – so unmistakable, so frightening, has not been there. 

Hate kills. It is ugly to have to quantify deaths. But how many white civilians have been killed by black freedom fighters between 1990 and the time when the liberation movement resorted to arms in 1961 Sixty-six. The precise figure comes from no less an authority than Major-General Herman Stadler, given in August 1990. The figure for black civilians killed by whites, beginning, if you like, with the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, runs into thou¬ sands; no one really knows how many, counting deaths in detention along with those brought about by direct police action. 

But the habit of violence has been instilled, and this is a problem we know will be inherited by a new South Africa. The vocabulary of violence has become the common speech of both black and white. Among whites, with the phenomenon of no less than 70 white extremist organisations (some consisting of a handful of people, others of considerable numbers) I would say that hate is the motive of violence. We have seen the disgusting banners these people hold up. We have heard the venom towards blacks shouted under the sign of a new version of the swastika. 

But apart from this white minority, I believe destructive emotions among whites stop short of hate. For fear does not always go inextricably with hate. And the prevailing emotion among whites is fear; fear of retribution for all that has been done to blacks by whites’ forefathers, by governments for whom they themselves have voted; for all that they themselves have done by their own actions and- for their silence, their turning away with closed eyes. Fear of losing privilege; if they can be convinced that they won’t lose their lives, they yet see themselves about to be skinned of their privileges of being white. But subconsciously they understand hate as the useless emotion it is- even if this is understood only in terms of what it could do for them now: precisely nothing. 

Much is made, in the outside world and at home, among those in opposition to real change or determined to manage it for their own ends, of cultural differences as a source of violence between blacks and whites in South Africa. But if we turn away from the obsession with group categories and the neglect of every¬ day, individual relationships upon which, in the end, human relationships depend, we find that ways of life, mores and manners, forced upon us by apartheid laws, down to the details of which toilet we could use, and, by custom, to the grading of butchers’ meat between general cuts, ”servants’ meat” and ”pets’ meat” these ways of life that we’ve been born to have created differences between black and white that are neither the product of any separate tradition, religion etc, nor a matter of ethnic temperament. 

It is racist politics and laws which have caused morbid mutations, in favour of violence, in our behaviour. We must recognise this. Race has become a catch-all for every form of personal conflict, at home, in the work-place, in the street. All ordinary, individual human failings become attributable to the race of the culprit in societies where people are defined by colour. All of us, black and white, are caught out at some time in this kind of conditioned thinking. Part of the anxiety among whites to have minority rights- group rights- written into a new constitution despite (or in my view, in contradiction of) a Bill of Rights to guard the individual, comes from these morbid mutations which have come about among us. Whites surely need to realise that group rights would categorise them still within the dead apartheid structure, single them out, perpetuate the memory of racism and lead to the possibility of continuing violence? 

The perceptions of others about violence in general in the contemporary world may give us, some helpful perspectives. At a recent conference, in Norway it became clear that we delegates fell into two distinct categories of priority in dealing with violent conflict. There were those subjectivists who believe that a spiritual change of heart is the basis of peaceful resolution, and those, the objectivists -among whom I numbered – who believe that the basis has to be just economic conditions. Vaclev Havel said violent hatred” … is a diabolical at¬ tribute of the fallen angel; a state of the spirit that aspires to be God, that may even think it is God, and cannot be”. Love one another or perish. But can you love me while I have a full stomach and you are hungry? The American economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, said: ”Hard, visible circumstance defines reality. Out of poverty comes conflict.” And Elena Bonner said: ”Moral concepts are lovely, but the key is governing things by just law.” 

I believe we must create material justice be· fore we can hope to eliminate the kind of violence that has become a tragic habit in South Africa. Given that base, I believe there is a good chance of decent relations between black · and black, black and white in our country, · whatever languages they speak, whatever 1 their ethnic origins may be. For I can think of 1 no other country in Africa where, in spite of · our extraordinary racism, a comparable proportion of people of all races have committed themselves to the black struggle for freedom, recognising it as their own. Now we need a politic that will nurture material justice before, we can hope to live in peace.

This is an extract from Nadine Gordimer’s keynote address to the Weekly Mail Book Week.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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