The TRC and Apartheid Beneficiaries in a New Dispensation

The TRC and Apartheid Beneficiaries in a New Dispensation


Reconciliation requires a commitment, especially by those who have benefited and continue to benefit from past discrimination, to the transformation of unjust inequalities and dehumanising poverty.

TRC Report, Vol. 5, Ch. 9

The challenge is clear, but how do we make this requirement for reconciliation a reality? How do we bridge the gap between the transformation ideal advocated in the TRC Report and the harmful lack of commitment shown by many apartheid beneficiaries?

Before I begin to address these difficult questions, let me briefly clarify the limited focus of my response. When I use the term "apartheid beneficiaries" I have mainly white South Africans in mind, since this is the group that benefited most obviously and extensively from systematic past discrimination. I also prefer to speak from my own experience as a white South African, leaving it to those who benefited, for example, from the post-1983 Tricameral Parliament or the homelands system, to face their responsibility.

Furthermore, my experience as a thirtysomething, white South African is of course not restricted to being a beneficiary of apartheid. There was a time when I voted for the National Party, at other times I was a bystander, and through my membership of a certain family and the Afrikaner ethnic group I am linked to a range of perpetrators. When, at last, I joined the opposition to apartheid I did not do enough. But again I leave these complications aside and focus on the question: How can (my) benefits from apartheid be translated from an unwelcome burden into triggers for transformation?

Obvious benefits, absent beneficiaries?

The system of apartheid was designed to benefit whites and disadvantage black South Africans. At the TRC's business sector hearing in Johannesburg on 11 November 1997, professor of Economics, Sampie Terreblanche, listed a number of reasons why "political supremacy and racial capitalism impoverished Africans and enriched whites undeservedly":

Firstly the Africans were deprived of a large part of land on which they conducted successful traditional farming for centuries.

Secondly, for decades, millions of Africans were paid exploitative wages, in all sectors of the economy but mainly in gold mining and agriculture.

Thirdly, a great variety of discriminative legislation not only deprived Africans from the opportunity to acquire skills, but also compelled and humiliated them to do really unskilled work at very low wages.

Fourthly, perhaps the greatest disadvantage which the prevailing power structures had for Africans is that these structures deprived them from opportunities to accumulate human capital, the most important form of capital in the twentieth century. For the first three quarters of the century, social spending, on education, pensions etcetera, on Africans, was per capita more or less ten to eight times smaller than on whites. In 1970, the per capita spending on white education was twenty times higher than the per capita spending on Africans.

Fifthly, the fact that a legal right to own property and to conduct a business was strongly restricted in the case of Africans also deprived them of the opportunity to accumulate property and to develop entrepreneurial and professional capabilities. The position of whites was again the complete opposite. They enjoyed property rights, they deprived Africans from their land, they had access to capital and the opportunity to develop business organisations, entrepreneurial capabilities etc.1

This past of systematic discrimination continues to haunt the present. The legacy of racial discrimination is painfully evident in the privileged lives of most whites and the acute deprivation experienced by most blacks. However, despite our obvious privileging by apartheid, many whites apparently find it difficult to face the facts of being apartheid beneficiaries.

Many – especially among the young, post-1990 generation – display a shocking lack of historical awareness. They prefer to see their own and their parents' educational achievements ("human capital"), good health, and wealth as purely the product of hard work, as something they deserve. Thus they conveniently forget or underestimate the role of a midwife called apartheid.

Given this lack of historical awareness in the white community, given a widespread denial of systematic past privileging, it is not surprising that current attempts at correcting past injustices, such as affirmative action or employment equity, are often distorted and resisted in principle.2 Thus one finds the disturbing phenomenon of apartheid beneficiaries loudly bemoaning their fate as "victims" of "reverse discrimination". Coupled with this forgetfulness and exaggerated or false sense of victimhood, comes a deep-seated restitutional reluctance. As I heard someone say: "I will contribute money to this educational fund, but only if it is not about restitution".

It appears therefore that we are faced with a difficult problem: on the one hand the benefits of apartheid are clearly not past, but, on the other hand, the silence of apartheid beneficiaries are deafening; the ongoing suffering of the systematically disadvantaged is undeniable, but many whites continue to deny their responsibility arising from systematic past privileging. And this denial rubs salt into the wounds of the disadvantaged!

So, how on earth can we get people to honestly face the reality of being an apartheid beneficiary, and, perhaps even more importantly, how can we motivate those who benefited and continue to benefit from apartheid to become and stay involved in genuine transformation?

These are huge, complex questions, but a creative response must surely include ways to transform the destructive belief that the label "apartheid beneficiary" is an unwelcome, untrue, unfair burden. Based on my journey of deep personal change and a decade of teaching mainly white, middle class students, I therefore outline three ways to deal with the burden of being a beneficiary of apartheid.

Translating apartheid benefits into triggers for transformation

Clarify the "burden"

First, we have to deal with the problem that the benefits of apartheid appear to be less visible to beneficiaries than to those who don't have them. Apartheid benefits are like bad breath, those who have it tend not to smell it. As a beneficiary I thus tend to take for granted my good education, my ownership of a house in town and my access to a family holiday home near the beach, my inheritance from parents, my relatively high income and low risk of unemployment. While individual effort and skill must be acknowledged, it is important to unmask a false, overconfident sense of entitlement, to help white South Africans see how much of what we have is built on unfair, systematic privileging. This kind of insight is indeed unsettling and humbling, but it is true. Facing the truth about systematic benefits for whites under segregation and especially under apartheid demands the re-education of those of us who grew up on a diet of the Great Trek, European history and the Total Onslaught.

Clarifying the burden thus involves ongoing historical education. At least the basic historical facts, such as those mentioned by prof. Terreblanche, should be made much more accessible and available.

Second, the moral weight of being an apartheid beneficiary needs to be clarified. Even though the system of apartheid has rightly been declared as a crime against humanity, this does not mean that those who have and continue to benefit from this massive crime are criminals. If being a beneficiary of apartheid implies being branded as a buddy of Benzien, Eugene de Kock and co., then this label indeed becomes an overwhelming, unfair burden. It is therefore important to emphasize that being a beneficiary is not the outcome of individual choice, nor intentional action. It is the product of group privilege. Even those whites who opposed apartheid are beneficiaries, because they were also members of a group that was systematically, unjustly privileged in terms of access to land, capital etc.

Perhaps we need to develop a different language of "responsibility" to prevent understandable resistance among ordinary, law-abiding whites, especially among the post-1990 generation, to being criminalized for benefits they had little control over. Perhaps we could speak of our "response-ability" as beneficiaries, for what we do have control over is how we respond to the past. We have a choice about what we do with our benefits in response to the ongoing suffering of the previously disadvantaged.

Beneficiaries cannot change the facts about systematic past privileging, but we can diminish the destructive impact of past disadvantages on the present and the future. Most beneficiaries are not "responsible" in the dominant, legal sense of intentionally causing disadvantages. But if we as beneficiaries continue blindly as if we are only individuals, with no obligations arising from past benefits associated with group membership, we are adding insult to the injuries of the disadvantaged and their children.

In this regard I am haunted by an image used by Archbishop Tutu in his Foreword to the TRC Report. "[T]he greatest sadness we have encountered in the Commission", he wrote, "has been the reluctance of white leaders to urge their followers to respond to the remarkable generosity of spirit shown by the victims. This reluctance, indeed this hostility, to the Commission has been like spitting in the face of victims."5

This deeply disturbing lament highlights the weighty "response-ability" of former followers and/or beneficiaries: our response to past violations and privileging has the ability to harm or to heal, to cause or prevent further violations, to humiliate or to humanize.

Transfigure the burden

There is a different, more radical response to the burden under consideration here. This response goes deeper than my previous focus on unfair monetary and human capital gains for whites under apartheid and the moral and political obligations arising from these gains. For ultimately the acceptance or rejection of the burden of being an apartheid beneficiary is for me a question of identity. It is not only about money, land, education, it is about who I am and who we want to be in the new dispensation.

In preparing this talk I asked a twentysomething, white South African whether we as whites should acknowledge that we are beneficiaries of apartheid. She responded immediately with this profound question: "But how can we be at home here if we do not accept that we are beneficiaries?" This is the heart of the matter. For I have found that if one faces the painful truth and the accompanying obligations of being, amongst other things, an apartheid beneficiary, then the heaviness is lifted. In fact, a burden gradually becomes not only bearable, but even liberating.

The burden of being an apartheid beneficiary thus has the potential to be a doorway to ones homecoming in post-apartheid South Africa. For in dealing honestly with an unjust past that is not past, in living with integrity as a white person in a new dispensation – with ears, eyes and heart open to fellow citizens – one comes home to an important part of oneself. And in the process of ploughing back tainted privileges one becomes part, one feels part, of building a proud country that is truly "a home for all her sons and daughters" (Luthuli).

Bracket the burden?

The above-mentioned clarification of the beneficiary burden is unlikely to break through everyone's emotional resistance to being linked to an evil system. And it will take time for all to discover the liberating homecoming potential of accepting one's obligation and response-ability as a beneficiary. Therefore, we might also have to consider a more indirect approach in which the burden of being an apartheid beneficiary is placed between brackets, for a while.

To explain this indirect approach let me refer to what Steven Friedman recently described as a possible "model for attempts to redress poverty and inequality in our deeply divided society" (Mail & Guardian, Oct. 20 to 26, p.39). Under the heading "Joining forces to fight poverty" he discusses the remarkable lack of redistributional resistance from the DA to an ANC water tariff proposal. According to this step and lifeline water tariff proposal every household will receive 600 litres a month free after which unit costs rise as consumption rise.

What is important for my purpose here is part of Friedman's explanation for the DA's endorsement. He argues that their support for a measure that will clearly benefit the poor more than the wealthy "confirms evidence from a focus group exercise conducted a few years ago in which non-blacks were asked if they would pay more for water to compensate for the sins of apartheid. Not only did they all refuse, but they responded with tirades against black people in which denunciations of affirmative action and the 'culture of entitlement' were frequent themes. A while later they were asked if it was fair that people who used more water should pay more per unit so that the poor could gain access to it. Immediately they replied that it was. So people who denounced demands for them to pay for the past were happy to foot the bill for a principle such as access for all. The effect would be much the same – but change the rationale and resistance turns to acceptance."

Now, changing the rationale might not always be possible. Friedman concedes that "this approach can clearly not be used for measures whose aim is racial redress". There is always the danger that redistribution without historical awareness might become charity instead of corrective justice. But I do think that we might be able to overcome some restitutional reluctance by first drawing people into creative reconciliation projects that involve co-operation across racial divides.

Imagine, for example, that for the next 10 years or more we get members from different racial groups to co-operate, on 16 December, the Day of Reconciliation, on a house-building project. Local authorities prepare the plots beforehand, lay the foundations etc., and on the 16th people from different communities come together and literally build houses together. Those who cannot be there sponsor a couple of bricks, a bag of cement. Others provide food or music. And throughout the day national TV provide coverage of the 100 or more houses slowly rising from the dust across the country.4

As the beneficiaries rubs shoulders with the non-beneficiaries, as whites, many for the first time, venture beyond their fearful comfort zones, as they see and feel the poverty in the townships, they might well wake up and see what they are doing not as charity but as a commitment to redress the ongoing effects of past systemic injustice.

Wilhelm Verwoerd is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at the University of Stellenbosch, and a former TRC Researcher (1996-1997).

Talk delivered at Politics and Promises: Evaluating the implementation of the TRC's recommendations conference, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johannesburg, 27 October 2000.


1 TRC Report, Vol. 5, Ch.9

2 I am not referring here to legitimate criticism of badly implemented, particular programmes.

3 TRC Report, Vol. 1, Ch.1

4 I am indebted to Andrew Muir, from the Wilderness Leadership School, for this wonderful idea.

CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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