Is it possible, and even desirable, for white South Africans to repay apartheid's debt?
When you see black poverty and hear stories of hardship due to apartheid and its legacy, you are reminded of your debt: when you look at matric results and crime statistics, which always look better in formerly white areas; when you read posters at political rallies calling for the death of Boere; when you hear politicians calling for the abolition of apartheid and its legacy.
Apartheid was a deliberate act committed over decades, causing permanent harm to millions of people still alive today.
I, like the majority of my friends and family members, was a victim of that crime. We owe you a debt of gratitude in exchange.
It is a liability with no fixed amount. There is no deadline for payment. It's also unclear to whom it should be billed. This debt will never be paid off because it is too ill-defined.
Some white people seek solace by emigrating from the United States. It's easy to forget about a debt if you don't see the repercussions of your actions.
Most white people simply deny that they owe someone anything. They claim that the fact that apartheid ended 26 years ago and that the ANC government has made some catastrophic mistakes since then has absolved them of their guilt.
The majority of us are too busy paying for a black child's education, funding black-led charities, and establishing patronizing relationships with car guards and beggars. This in the name of making amends for past wrongs and doing good deeds.
We have made no progress on the debt after 26 years.
So, how do we make good on our obligations?
They're pleading with you to return the property. I'm without a piece of property.
Allow your inheritance to be forfeited. I don't have any. Sassa is where my parents are.
After high school, I took out a student loan to pay for my studies at a technikon. When I got my first job at a newspaper, I set aside half of my salary to pay off that debt. Because I was so poor, I worked all of the evening reporting jobs in order to be able to eat at the functions. I kept going because I knew there would come a time when I would be debt-free. Each monthly payment brought me one step closer to that goal.
I've often wished that white people could pay our apartheid debt in a similar manner. I pondered whether an invoice should be sent to me or if I should be summoned for community service. I'll do whatever is required of me because I'll know that one day my debt will be paid off and I'll be debt-free.
Of course, the debt that white people such as myself owe for apartheid is not the same as a student loan or a credit card balance.
So, what is it, exactly? Is there even a debt here? Is there a way to put a number on it? And, if we could agree on a figure, who would be responsible for collecting it and paying it?
In order to find answers, I spoke with a few South Africans and researched how other countries dealt with the issue of guilt and reparations.
The device that explodes
A bomb exploded in front of a pharmacy in Worcester, Western Cape, on the day before Christmas in 1996. A total of four people were killed. Seventy-seven people were injured.
Stefaans Coetzee, a right-winger of 19 years old, was the bomber. He was attempting to assassinate as many African-Americans as he could.
He turned himself in to the police shortly after and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. In 2015, he was released on parole after serving 18 years in prison.
He had long since turned his back on racism and had reached out to his victims to ask forgiveness by the time he was released from prison.
Olga Macingwane, one of them, was still limping from the injuries her bomb had caused when she came to see him in Pretoria Central Prison in 2009. “Come here, my boy; I forgive you,” she said when she saw Stefaans. I heard what you said, and I accept your apology.”
“I have nothing to offer you other than myself,” he replied.
Stefaans has devoted his life to helping the poor and reconciling people since that time.
Stefaans is involved in 71 food farming projects in the townships surrounding Klerksdorp, where he lives, in addition to other community work. He didn't have a car for the first four years, so he walked to the projects to work. The one furthest from his home was 22 kilometres away.
I asked him if he feels that by doing good he is paying off his debt to society.
His answer surprised me: “For a very long time, everything I did I did because I felt guilty. Then I decided to leave the guilt behind and to do it out of love.”
The remorse has not left him, it just does not fuel his behaviour any more. “Whenever I hear of a bomb, I imagine myself to be the terrorist, regardless of where it occurs. After that, what you want to do is give more and more.”
That feeling is familiar to me. Even though I have not intentionally hurt someone as a result of my own acts, I always feel like the victim when I hear friends explain how apartheid has harmed them.
Like my friend Julian, who was born a coloured child in apartheid South Africa 56 years ago and is caring, kind, and smart.He recently told me, "I have a lot of reasons to dislike white people." “As a child, I wasn’t allowed to swim at the ‘whites only’ beaches. We were forced to swim between the rocks in gullies. When my father, a soldier, objected to them calling him a "hotnot," he was viciously attacked by two young white guys. Apartheid shattered my father's life. I grew up in a neighborhood where life was reduced to that of a third-grader.”
In our country, there are several similar stories to Julian's. When I hear them, I'm struck by the weight of a debt I don't know how to repay.
Making a price estimate
Susan Neiman, a Jewish philosopher, writes in her book Learning from the Germans that, no matter what the offense, reconciliation necessitates "an honest accounting."
I looked for someone who had measured the expense of apartheid, someone who had performed "honest accounting." In monetary terms, what would be an acceptable recompense for Julian? What was the true cost of underpaid labor, a lack of job and business opportunities, and inadequate education for apartheid victims and their children?
There was no such estimate that I could find.
Julian makes no demands on himself. “One may wonder why I don't feel compelled, or should I say compelled, to seek vengeance. Maybe it's because of my Calvinist upbringing, or maybe it's because, considering my parents' financial constraints, I was able to pursue a tertiary education,” he says.
There is no doubt in his mind that there is a debt.
“Today, black people face a tremendous disadvantage that cannot be measured in rands and cents: a terrible lack of skills and expertise, and as a result, money. Consider the loneliness experienced by young sons as a result of the absence of fathers in their homes as a result of migrant labor. Consider how apartheid contributed to the emergence of gang culture on the Cape Flats.”
However, Julian claims that this debt cannot be paid with money.
Stefaans' debt, on the other hand, cannot be forgiven.
“Now that I know and love Olga, I realize I will never be able to make her whole again,” he says. If anyone had died, how could a life sentence, 20 years, or 18 years be enough? It isn't sufficient. My first child will be born in January, and there is a mother who will never see her child reach the age of 21... “Can you tell me how you're going to return it?”
My friend Deon, a vivacious, hardworking 27-year-old, and his wife purchased a compact car at the start of the year. That was their first major purchase together as newlyweds. He claims that this made him wonder. “Do you ever lay awake at night wondering if you've done enough?”
In the year 1993, he was born.
“I don't feel bad because I wasn't the one who did it. Apartheid was not enacted by me, and I never voted in support of it. I'm a white person who was born in this world. That entails that I've been given special treatment. I do believe that I have a duty to assist in the restoration of order.”
So, what exactly is the nature of that responsibility?
“The problem is that the damage was so severe that no one can accurately estimate it. Nobody can tell you that you need to do A, B, and C to rebalance your life. As a result, someone can accuse you of something, and you will be unable to defend yourself because you will be unable to demonstrate that you have attempted to do your part. You're always battling with yourself, wondering if you're doing enough.”
We South Africans are far from the only ones who have struggled to calculate the cost of debt accrued as a result of human misery.
The Black Lives Matter movement in America has brought a new lease on life to the fight for reparations for the descendants of slavery in the United States.
According to polls, about 15% of white people and three-quarters of black people in the United States support some kind of cash payment.
According to one recent estimate, this debt amounts to $6.2 quadrillion in today's currency, based on the unpaid wages the slaves might have received and the interest accrued over a century and a half. That's a six followed by 15 zeros, an unimaginably large sum that can never be paid. That isn't even taking into account all slaves were denied, aside from the payment of their wages.
The victorious nations presented Germany with a bill at the end of World War One. According to the BBC, it was originally worth the equivalent of 100,000 tons of gold. In the 1920s, Germany was bankrupted by debt, and the German public's frustration of having to pay it fueled the rise of the Nazi party.
After World War 2, reparation claims totaled $320 billion, but the Allies knew that Germany, crippled by the war and the residual WW1 debt, would be unable to repay the debt, so it was reduced to a fraction of that amount. It was payable to individuals who had survived Nazi death camps, Israel, and the World Jewish Congress, among others.
When referring to reparations at the time, Germans used the term Wiedergutmachung. It literally translates to "to make things right again."
On the 3rd of October 2010, Germany paid off the last of its war debts, but that didn't make things better for the mill.
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