Let’s talk about collective guilt

For someone advocating for the silence of white South Africans, Samantha Vice is surprisingly vocal. I disagree with her fundamental point that whites should not participate in public debate.

I believe that it is precisely because[itals] whites have been privileged beyond their own comprehension that they should actively participate in public debate. In contrast to Vice, my view of white South Africans is that they are not vocal enough[itals] in the political sphere. Vice seems to inhabit a different South Africa than the South Africa I know.

In my experience, white South Africans seem more interested in rugby and in how they spend their leisure time than in fulfilling their civic duty of participating in politics. When they do comment on politics it is often in the form of inane comments on the internet made anonymously or reactionary comments around the braai — comments that often make me ashamed of being South African. So the possibility that, ironically, Vice’s ideas can trigger more intelligent debate on the important topic of collective guilt, is a possibility I find very exciting.

In Vice’s view the best response to guilt is to become politically or socially active by financially supporting worthy causes or to make reparations. Vice’s most controversial suggestion is that “we should allow space for forms of expiation and self-improvement that do not demand a public gesture or political activity”. So she does not want us to talk, she wants our money to talk for us. I am of the view that this will lead to a further political dumbing down of the white population. It is through talking that one learns how to talk and it is through listening that one learns to understand. Understanding cannot be furthered by a crude money transaction.

And in many ways it is more difficult to talk than to pay. Repairing the past means taking the time and energy to engage in conversation. This does not mean that I am against the idea of financial reparations. I am of the view that victims of apartheid are entitled to reparations. After all, international law demands the payment of reparations for serious human rights violations. But much as a parent cannot compensate for love and affection by giving a child a gift, financial payment cannot be a substitute for talk and debate.

The idea of collective guilt is inherently controversial. Generally speaking, white South Africans lack consciousness of the notion of collective guilt and that such consciousness and the experience and feeling of collective guilt can be useful, even necessary, for the successful ongoing project of transition and reconciliation. When I introduced a module on collective guilt in a class on transitional justice at Wits University a few years ago, many of the white students in my class were surprised to hear that they could possibly be held accountable for the actions (or omissions) of their parents and ancestors, or that there could be any expectation of them feeling guilty for the actions of their ancestors. It was clear that by far the majority of students have never thought of guilt or of apartheid in these terms.

It could be argued that since white South Africans, and specifically Afrikaners, were never given collective amnesty, it is even more important for white South Africans to have an awareness of collective guilt.

Whereas the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did much to create awareness of the acts of individual perpetrators in South Africa, the limited mandate of the TRC did not allow it to adequately address collective guilt. The commission did however make the following statement:

“The emergence of responsible society— presupposes the acceptance of individual responsibility by all those who supported the system of apartheid (or simply allowed it to continue to function) and those who did not oppose violations during the political conflicts of the past.”

A few years after World War II, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote a famous essay entitled The Question of German Guilt. In this essay he distinguished between four forms of guilt: criminal guilt, political guilt, moral guilt and metaphysical guilt.

All four forms of guilt described by Jaspers can have a collective dimension. And all four forms of guilt are relevant in the South African context. Whereas only select groups of South Africans are guilty of collective criminal guilt, white South Africans who benefitted from the apartheid system and those who still reap its benefits bear criminal guilt, moral guilt, political guilt and metaphysical guilt. Moral guilt stems from the fact that the atrocities committed during apartheid weigh on the conscience of white South Africans.

Professor George Fletcher has written of the “climate of moral degeneracy” produced by the collective. All white South Africans who were privileged during apartheid contributed to this climate of moral degeneracy. Political guilt flows from the fact that white South Africans form part of a particular political community. Jaspers views metaphysical guilt as arising from a sense of solidarity with other human beings. Metaphysical guilt stems from the fact that very few white South Africans risked their lives to save or help those disadvantaged by apartheid.

Hannah Arendt contributed to this debate. In an article entitled Organised Guilt and Universal Responsibility, she wrote that she was ashamed of being human. She wrote of guilt as “this elemental shame, which many people of the most various nationalities share with one another today, is what finally is left of international solidarity”. Arendt felt that people shared in each other’s guilt – at least those people who had a sense of the oneness of humanity. Guilt involved the recognition that the unity of all people had been violated — and violated by human beings much like ourselves.

It is the metaphysical guilt Arendt refers to that white South Africans such as I should accept. It is a guilt that we carry with us and cannot undo or unthink.

Vice and I agree on the existence of guilt and the importance of guilt. We disagree about the appropriate response to such guilt. I am of the opinion that white South Africans should not just acknowledge their guilt by talking but should be as demonstrative as possible in confronting the past. They should not just talk but scream, shout and cry out against anything resembling the wrongs of the past. If necessary, they should even kneel and wash feet.

Dr Mia Swart is an assistant professor of public international law and global justice at Leiden University.

Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions. View our special report.


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