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Expert Comment: Inequality, peace and conflict in South Africa today

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Wednesday 12 September 2012

Senior Lecturer in Politics Michael Holmes and Lecturer in International Relations Stefanie Kappler share their experience from South Africa as Archbishop Desmond Tutu launched Fr Michael Lapsley’s book ‘Redeeming the Past’.

There are very few people who can match the moral and political authority of Desmond Tutu, and we were very privileged to hear him deliver an absolutely electrifying speech last week. We were on a research visit to South Africa on behalf of the Hope research centre that carries the man’s name – the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies.

We had already had the opportunity to meet and talk with the Archbishop and to present him with an album of photos commemorating his visit to Liverpool and to Hope in 2007 (and thanks to Rob Smith in Reprographics for putting together the album!). But we were also invited to attend the launch of the book ‘Redeeming the Past’, by Fr. Michael Lapsley.

Fr. Lapsley’s own story is remarkable enough. He was deeply involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and lost an eye and both hands in a parcel bomb attack by the apartheid government. But he now leads the Institute for the Healing of Memory, which works in trying to help people come to terms with the traumas of South Africa’s violent past.

That violent past continues to breed violence in the present as well, and this was at the heart of the impassioned oration that Archbishop Tutu gave at the book launch. He had already been in the international news the previous week for his refusal to meet Tony Blair because of the latter’s decision to invade Iraq. But on this occasion, his focus was on the ways in which the anti-apartheid struggle impacted upon contemporary South Africa.

The recent killing of 34 striking mineworkers by the South African police at the Marikana mine near Johannesburg had shocked South Africa. The scenes caught on camera were reminiscent of atrocities committed during the apartheid era, and the Archbishop captured this sense of despair at seeing such sights again, at allowing this to “besmirch our freedom”.

Addressing the country’s political and economic leaders, he demanded “what the heck are you doing? Why the heck did we have this struggle? What the heck was it for? Is this the kind of freedom people were tortured and people were maimed for?” His speech was a searing comment on South African democracy today, as he asked “have we forgotten so soon?”

As well as touching on the Marikana “nightmare”, as he termed it, the Archbishop also highlighted failings in the country’s education system. He rounded on greed as one of the main contributory factors behind South Africa’s problems, noting "it's legal, but is it moral?"

During our research in South Africa, we certainly came across many tales which supported Archbishop Tutu’s view.  The blatant and crude injustice of political apartheid might have gone, but the more subtle structural injustice and deep inequality of the economic system still leaves South Africa as a deeply polarised ‘them-and-us’ society, even if the categories involved have changed.

As one of our research interviewees noted, most peace agreements involve messy compromises and trade-offs, and there is never any guarantee that such deals will hold together forever. In South Africa’s case, the compromises centred on creating a framework for democracy and holding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But endemic patterns of stark economic divisions were not addressed. This made perfect sense at the time of South Africa’s transition to democracy, but the persistence of economic problems such as mass unemployment, educational disadvantage, and severe poverty existing alongside great affluence and opulence is posing a new challenge for South Africa.

The Marikana miners’ dispute is an example of this. It is a symptom of the deeper malaise in South Africa, with most miners currently earning as little as £350 a month in a highly dangerous career – though of course, for others in the society, that would represent a considerable income.

However, our interviews also revealed an impressively strong civil society structure at the community level in South Africa. Even in the most adverse circumstances, communities are surprisingly resilient and engage actively in public life, albeit on their own terms. That is the real source of hope for South Africa in the future.

Archbishop Tutu ended his powerful speech with a plea: “I am eighty years old. Can’t you allow us elders to go to our graves with a smile, knowing that this is a good country? Because truly, it is a good country.” It was a rare privilege to hear him speak, and to visit this fascinating country.

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