Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope (2)

Gideon Strauss


October 22, 2010
Gideon Strauss

This is the second in a series in which, while recounting what the Psalms meant to me while I worked as an interpreter for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I will tease out some of the biblical beginnings for a spirituality of political practice.

The system of apartheid involved two things. Let’s call these grand apartheid and petty apartheid. Grand apartheid was a species of multiculturalism, based on a doctrine that every cultural community or ethnic group has the right and duty to flourish historically, and that ethnic communities thrive best on their own, in their own space. The idea of grand apartheid was therefore to separate South Africa into various political-geographic parts in which different ethnic groups could have room to live, govern themselves, and flourish. The different cultural communities would be “apart,” bringing about a state of “apartness,” or, in Afrikaans (my mother tongue), “apartheid.”

Petty apartheid was the doctrine that, as long as this grand sorting out of the ethnic political map of South Africa was still incomplete, people of different races (and note that the notion of ethnicity was here conflated with race) should be as apart as possible.  For example, use separate public restrooms, tan on separate beaches, live in separate neighborhoods, and be educated in separate schools. This doctrine is not unfamiliar to American ears, even though in South Africa it was never really accompanied by the ideal of “separate but equal.”

As grand apartheid was being implemented during the second half of the 20th century, it became obvious that this system was an intensification of white racial privilege. Political movements for racial equality dating from the early 20th century, along with more recently founded organizations, became an anti-apartheid movement. When the South African government clamped down on this movement, putting its leaders in prison, declaring its organizations illegal, and using an increasing amount of violence in the enforcement of apartheid, the movement responded with armed resistance. The largest of the anti-apartheid organizations, the African National Congress (or ANC) formed an armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe—the Spear of the Nation.

This state of violent oppression and armed resistance persisted from the early 1960s until the early 1990s, when the then President of South Africa, FW De Klerk, resolved to relinquish the ideals of apartheid and negotiate a peaceable, non-racial and democratic constitutional order. President De Klerk released Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, legalized the banned political organizations, and engaged in negotiations that led to a new constitution and the democratic elections of 1994, which established a new South African government.

This new government believed that lasting peace required the country to come to grips with its history of violence, and so by an Act of Parliament established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate gross human rights violations during the apartheid era, including abduction, torture and murder. The TRC invited surviving victims, the families of victims, and perpetrators to come and tell their stories. Perpetrators were to be offered an amnesty under certain conditions.

During 1996 and 1997 I worked for the TRC as an interpreter. South Africa has a multitude of languages, and for witnesses, commissioners, and audiences to understand one another, interpretation services were needed. These services were provided by the Language Facilitation Program at the (then) University of the Orange Free State, with funding from the government of Flanders, and I was employed as a policy researcher and interpreter by the LFP. For roughly two years I listened to the often gruesome testimony before the TRC and sought to interpret it from English to Afrikaans, or vice versa, with a lag of just a very few seconds. This work often felt like a sacred trust, whether the witness was victim or perpetrator—but it was difficult work, with the difficulty being in equal parts emotional, technical, and moral.

—Gideon Strauss is editor of Capital Commentary and CEO of the Center for Public Justice.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”