- Deon Snyman is COO of the Restitution Foundation and an ally of Khulumani in our struggles for justice. He was invited to speak on reconciliation at the Claremont Mosque on 15 December 2017, in anticipation of National Reconciliation Day.
Tomorrow we as South Africans celebrate Reconciliation Day. Many wonder if there is anything to celebrate.
In 1994, when the oppressed people identified with the rainbow nation concept, there was an expectation that there will be a new beginning where everyone will share equally in the wealth and opportunities of the country.
It was expected that those who gained unjustly through generational benefits and cumulative privilege would consider their ways. That they would take responsibility for their role in the past through acknowledgement and a commitment to restitution.
There was a real hope that together we will create something new, a better life for all.
It did not happen.
Yes, it is true that much charity work has been and is done by those who benefitted from colonialism and apartheid. And yes, there is always a place for charity. But what was required from white people after 1994 was justice.
There is a big difference between charity and justice.
Charity makes the giver feel good and many times perpetuates dysfunctional power relations.
Justice requires taking responsibility for abuse, and in so, doing making yourself vulnerable. It disrupts the dysfunctional power relationship and create the opportunity for something new. Something better.
Now-a-days very few South Africans speak about the rainbow nation. It is as if the rainbow has evaporated. Not because we had very little rain in Cape Town but rather because the oppressed feels the perpetrators have not taken responsibility for their role in the past, and awfully, they’ve continued with some of their old patterns into the present.
We will celebrate reconciliation day at a time when the word reconciliation has become a very loaded term. In many circles a very unpopular term. A swear word.
Many people are very angry towards white South Africans who continues to benefit from cumulative advantage from generational privilege without acknowledgement and without taking responsibility, or being prepared to really change.
There is almost no commitment to do restitution.
Is there then, any hope for the revival of the reconciliation project?
One of the most tragic news stories of the past year is the 141 deaths of the former Life Esidimeni patients.
Many of us followed the arbitration hearings chaired by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke.
We were shocked to see how the different government officials declined to take responsibility and shifted the blame. Their half-hearted apologies sounded hollow and further angered the family members of the victims.
The last witness of the year was Dr Barney Selebano, the suspended Head of the Gauteng Department of Health under whose watch the tragedy occurred.
At first Dr Selebano did not want to testify. After being successfully subpoenaed, he had no option but to testify.
During his testimony it seemed as if he, like the other government witnesses, would not take responsibility.
He stated that it was not his job to identify NGOs or make sure they were safe for mentally ill patients. He stated that although he did sign the letter notifying Life Esidimeni that its contract was being terminated, yet he insisted he didn't take the decision.
Justice Moseneke and the different lawyers asked pertinent questions and challenged his stand on accountability. They gave him a very hard time.
At the end of his testimony Judge Moseneke gave Dr Selebano the opportunity to make a final statement.
Dr Selebano then addressed the families:
Judge, out of respect for the families I am standing up while I speak but I want to kneel in front of the family of the victims. I bow my head while I speak, not because I am afraid to look the families in the eye but because of my humility in front of them and my respect for them. I am speaking from my heart. I have not prepared a written speech. I am not a hero when I speak. I will never be a hero. My Department and I created a big, big mess. I am so very, very sorry. We betrayed the trust people put in us. We were trusted to take care of the most vulnerable in our society. We betrayed that trust. We failed the patients. People do not trust us anymore. People think we do not care. I know you are angry at me. Your anger is justified. I hear you use harsh language when you speak of me. It is justified. I fully understand if you do not want to forgive me. The scandal has cancelled all the good I have done in my life. I embarrassed myself and my family. The catastrophe is a permanent necklace around my neck. At my old age the necklace will still be there, it won’t go away. The necklace is painful, and it embarrasses all the people around me. I can’t sleep at night. In the nights I think about the pain of the families. I wonder what they think of me. I have decided that I want to visit all the families. I will stand at the gate of their homes. If they chase me I will after some time, go back. If they then ask me what I want, I will say I beg your forgiveness.
During Selebano’s statement it became evident that the atmosphere in the room changed.
Some family members started to cry bitterly.
The judge wiped tears from his face.
One family member of the deceased came and prayed for Dr Selebano.
For the first time during the arbitration hearing the people present experienced signs of remorse.
It enabled some family members to start humanising the perpetrator.
When witnessing the testimony of Dr Selebano I realised it was role modelling what needs to happen in South Africa for reconciliation to be taken seriously again.
Judge Moseneke and the lawyers representing the families set an example how the victims of colonialism and apartheid should maintain the pressure and hold the beneficiaries accountable.
The beneficiaries of colonialism and apartheid would act wisely to model their behaviour on the final statement of Dr Selebano.
For the past 12 years it has been my primary responsibility as a staff member of the Restitution Foundation, to mobilise white South Africans to do restitution. Looking back, I realise that I have failed dismally.
I do think voluntary restitution in South Africa is only possible when people, in the words of Dr Selebano, realise that they have created a big, big mess and that they are responsible for it. The lack of a commitment to voluntary restitution in our country is l think due to lack of taking responsibility for the mess created.
When voluntary commitment to restitution is not forthcoming, those dishonoured by colonial and apartheid abuse should draw inspiration from the legal people at the Esidimeni hearings and maintain the pressure in the hope that it would lead to transformed behaviour.
When transformed behaviour is not forthcoming, restitution should, in the interest of justice be legislated.
The media reported that although some people were touched by Dr Selebano’s response many people were not. It is a stark reminder that perpetrators should never have unrealistic expectations when they start showing remorse for their unjust behaviour.
The authenticity of Dr Selebano’s response will be judged by his saying sorry translated into doing sorry or put differently, by doing restitution.
It is an enormous task and in many ways an impossible one. How can you ever bring life back to people who have died? Dr Selebano’s only option is to receive guidance from those affected by his actions and to do everything in his ability to do as much as possible.
Similarly, the sincerity of the remorse of those who benefitted from colonialism and apartheid would also be judged by the commitment to do restitution. It is also an enormous and in many ways an overwhelming task which can only become possible through the assertiveness and direction of the victims.
The question then is if it is possible to ever again truly celebrate reconciliation day in South Africa.
My answer is that it will require a lot of hard work from those who were responsible for the root causes of the conflict. Only when the root causes of the conflict are sufficiently addressed through a commitment to restitution will it be possible to live in real peace with each other.
Although many people might rightfully feel very pessimistic about reconciliation in SA the closing statement of Dr Selebano should serve as motivation that we should not give up hope. We should never lose the dream. Our dream should be realistic though and based on the realisation that very hard work is required for the dream to materialise. And perhaps, just perhaps our dream might become true.
I thank you.