South Africa’s Terrible Scar

South African flagFor the sake of the future, the legacy left by apartheid must not be ignored.

By Peter Bjel.

To “end impunity” and prosecute “the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community” is the mandate of the International Criminal Court launched in July 2002. Utilized as a last resort when national courts cannot, or will not, uncover and prosecute political leaders, its guiding principle is that impunity is unacceptable for the “gravest crimes” committed worldwide. Its successes have been measurable and its mandate has altered the international political landscape despite the fact that countries like China, Russia, and the United States have not joined the international body. Political leaders, like Liberia’s ex-President Charles G. Taylor, know that their impunity can no longer be guaranteed, and their pasts can and will return to haunt them. Had the ICC existed ten years earlier, its sights would likely have been set on another African nation with past legacies and distinct depravities that live on in the present.

Deep within the mines of legality and precedents that are at the heart of the ICC is a concept known as ‘crimes against humanity’, an echo from the Second World War and the Nazis’ crimes of genocide. It includes acts that are “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”, one of which is defined as “the crime of apartheid”. A word originating from the Dutch/Afrikaans language, it literally means “apartness”, or “apart-hood”, and is also the name of a national policy and ideology that imbued postwar South Africa until 1994. Untold millions of people across its ethnic mosaic were affected by it.

Last December saw the death of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist jailed for 27 years who became South Africa’s first true President democratically elected by people of all colors. His freedom from prison and election represent heavy blows against the deeply institutionalized apartheid that was an official policy of the nation for almost five decades. All over the world he was honored with flags flown at half mast, but Mandela’s passing does not demarcate the conclusion to the story of the nation’s struggle.

Apartheid’s terrible legacy will indefinitely be a feature of the nation’s future. Abolished less than 20 years ago, official apartheid is in living memory for almost all South Africans of voting age. South Africa’s contemporary democratic tradition and institutions were developed and utilized exclusively by the country’s white elites for many years. Non-whites, however, can only draw on a heritage and experience of repression, mistrust, and systematic marginalization of varying intensities. This contrast is at the heart of South Africa’s socio-economic and political problems. Understanding the nation’s present and future is impossible without …

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