Desmond Tutu captured in 2005 during his visit to Cali, where his lecture filled the auditorium of the Universidad Javeriana.
Photo: Private archive of María Eugenia Garcés-Campagna
If the words free and democratic had been applied to pre-1994 South Africa, it would be totally inappropriate and a mockery. These words could not have been used. (We recommend: This was the funeral service for Desmond Tutu in Cape Town).
As they say, one day at the time of apartheid, Zambia, a littoral country, sent one of its ministers to South Africa and he introduced himself as in charge of naval affairs. However, the South Africans commented: “But how can they have a minister for naval affairs when their country is landlocked and has no outlet to the sea?” To this the Zambian minister replied: “Ah, but you in South Africa have a Minister of Justice.” Yes, those were the times when the words “free” and “democratic” could not be applied to South Africa … (Here you can understand why Desmond Tutu was so important).
Dear friends, what seemed totally impossible, unlikely, that South Africa could rid itself of the atrocious scourge of the apartheid, it finally happened. So we are here to tell you: “Hey, here in Colombia you can achieve peace.”
Many people refer to the events in South Africa, which culminated in the establishment of a democratic plan, as nothing short of a miracle. This statement has its content of truth because it recognizes that with that background, with our history, this could not have happened or there would have been a greater bloodshed than it actually did.
It is important that we realize that before 1994 the situation was dire… Every aspect of life was separate. Everything was established according to the color of the skin: the place of the house, the school and the church that he attended and the place where he was buried. There was a social, political and economic pyramid. At the top were whites, followed by Indians, then people of color, and finally the bottom, who were blacks and provided cheap labor. Everything was done without subtlety. The policy was to keep the black person in their place. You can imagine the deep resentment, anger and bitterness that this generated. Can you imagine what it can feel like when we can’t even be second-class citizens in the land that gave us birth?
Our people resisted non-violently, but they were received with intransigence and brutality. An example of this was the murder in Sharpeville in 1960 of unarmed protesters who opposed the road bill. Most were shot in the back as they ran away from the area. Therefore, the liberation movements adopted armed struggle, and during this struggle both sides committed atrocities.
Most whites were determined to cling to a high-standard way of life, and many were willing to defend it until the last drop of blood was shed. Other whites supported the fight against the apartheid.
Blacks said that they too were human beings with inalienable rights and that they could no longer bow under the yoke of oppression and racist injustice. During the liberation struggle, human rights were violated and many people were killed, others tortured and many imprisoned. When you asked most people how the problem in South Africa would be solved, almost everyone agreed that the country would be devastated by a brutal massacre and a bloodbath.
Colombian friends, I want to remind you that when the first elections in 1994 were to be held, violence had already become endemic. It seemed that the dire predictions of the bloodbath were going to come true …
But later, instead of the dreaded catastrophe, the world watched with relief and surprise, and even fear, as long lines of South Africans of all races made their way to the polling stations, on that magical day of April 27, 1994, when we voted for the first time in free and democratic elections. The miracle had happened.
The two parties, the government of apartheid and the liberation movements, they realized that neither party would defeat the adversary. However, although this situation was understood, an agreement would not be reached automatically. Both could have continued the fight to a standstill in a war of attrition that neither could win. The presence of courageous leaders, on both sides, willing to risk having a shred of faith in the other, allowed a sterile stalemate to turn into a golden opportunity for freedom.
These brave leaders decided that they were going to sit down and talk, rather than fight and fight. It took courage and a willingness to take risks. Until that moment, the “other” was the enemy, the terrorist, the violent, described in stereotypes, and who did not consider himself as an individual.
When war is waged, where human beings are mutilated and killed, the adversary is generally thought of as the devil, humanity is stripped from him and thus one feels free to do anything with that enemy.
We were fortunate to have two leaders (Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela) who had enough credibility and political power to trust their constituencies. It was not simply a Sunday walk, but when they finally sat down to talk they were pleasantly surprised to discover that their former enemies were human beings, with the same aspirations and anxieties. Similarly, whites who had received so much negative propaganda were surprised to find that their black compatriots were brilliant. They had toyed with the idea of isolating them, but eventually their luck was reversed.
Two of the main negotiators, one Afrikaner (South African of white origin) and the other black, found that they both enjoyed fishing and cooking, so many thorny and difficult issues were resolved while they were in these activities. They realized that further progress was being made not through intransigence, but through a willingness to compromise and achieve gains for both parties. They established a minimum number of non-negotiable issues and preconditions. And meanwhile, we prayed.
Those who negotiated our transition from repression to freedom decided, out of mercy, to deal with our horrendous past. They knew that the Nuremberg tribunal option was not really because of what happened in Nuremberg, but because the Allies defeated the Nazis and could impose justice on the victor. If our negotiators had accepted this option, it is very certain that the whole process would have collapsed. In addition, they rejected the option of a general amnesty, because it indicated that the perpetrators forgave themselves for what only they knew and this victimized the victims, for the second time.
Instead, an alternative path was chosen, one of individual amnesty, in return for the full confession of all the facts related to the act committed. Restorative justice was then chosen instead of justice that only penalizes. The objective was to heal and not so much to punish. This was based on an African concept (Ubuntu), according to which a person is a person through other people. When you become dehumanized, I also dehumanize myself, because my humanity is contained in yours.
We were baffled by the revelations of the depravity of which we are capable as human beings, of the levels so low to which we can fall. But to our surprise, we rejoiced in our capacity for kindness, in many cases when the victims were magnanimous in forgiving those who made them suffer so painfully. Thus, we chose the path of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than the path of punishment and revenge.
* Edition of Diego Arias. This symposium was convened by the Alvaralice Foundation, the Javeriana University, the Paz y Bien Foundation and the Excellence in Justice Corporation. It took place in Cali between February 10 and 13, 2005.
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Desmond Tutu and his speech in Cali: “My humanity is contained in that of the other”