June 25, 2019
What South Africa Can Teach Us About ReparationRoundup
tags: racism, South Africa, reparations
Ereshnee Naidu-Silverman is the senior director for the Global Transitional Justice Initiative at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.
Last week, for the first time in more than a decade, the House of Representatives held a hearing to discuss the issue of reparations for slavery and subsequent laws that discriminated against African Americans. Testimony from experts like Ta-Nehisi Coates made the argument for reparations by outlining how the United States economically benefited from slave labor. It also highlighted more than a century of oppressive policies that occurred after slavery ended, as well as legacies of discriminatory practices, ranging from the disproportionately high mortality of African American women in childbirth to the mass incarceration of African Americans.
The congressional debate then focused on who will bear the costs of a reparations program, how beneficiary eligibility would be determined and how much states would pay. But the hearings overlooked one component crucial to addressing the ongoing structural racism in the United States: truth-telling.
Can community reparations — which will prioritize African Americans’ access to services, institutional reform, scholarships for African American children, symbolic measures such as a public apology for past wrongs — make a difference? Yes, but only if accompanied by a public truth-telling project that addresses continued white denialism, exposes the reality of racism and makes clear the consequences of decades of inaction.
To do this, Americans can learn from South Africa, which over two decades ago undertook a national, public truth-telling initiative — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — to address its long history of institutionalized racism. That initiative was a necessary first step in the country’s process of healing and rebuilding relationships, rooted in a shared past.
In framing reparations as a broader development program, Mbeki diluted the impact of the TRC’s message, which highlighted the moral wrong of apartheid and the effects it had on black South Africans. The benefit of reparations is as much about the process — the recognition of harm done, the need to make amends and efforts to reintegrate a specific group back into society as equal citizens — as it is about the actual form that the reparations would take.
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