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Ferguson killing: King, Mandela, Truth and Reconciliation
August 25, 2014, 8:41 am

The August 9 fatal shooting of Afro-American teenager Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, has torched worldwide debate on the racism prevalent in the United States (US). At the same time it has revealed some of the daily realities in the US that most of the world does not know about and the urgency with which race prejudice in the country needs to be addressed.

Recent scenes of American police and National Guard troops armed to the teeth confronting unarmed demonstrators, a declaration of a state of emergency, and the imposition of curfews (from midnight to 5 a.m.) has put the US in the spotlight for the very actions that it often condemns when they happen anywhere else in the world. In acting in the same way as so called “rogue regimes”, the American police and army risk eroding the US’s standing on issues of human rights — that it is known to champion globally.

Protesters chase away a police vehicle during a demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, the United States, on Aug. 15, 2014 [Xinhua]

Protesters chase away a police vehicle during a demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, the United States, on Aug. 15, 2014 [Xinhua]

The outgoing United Nations (UN) Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has condemned the violence and noted that the clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson are reminiscent of the racial violence spawned by apartheid in South Africa. Pillay, herself a South African human rights activist who experienced firsthand the wrath of apartheid, has urged US authorities to investigate allegations of brutality, as well as the “root causes” of racial discrimination in America. It is therefore important to look at the similarities of the two countries in recent times.

The contemporary history of the black people in both countries is as similar as it is dissimilar. The history of South Africa is defined by the struggle against apartheid led by the liberation movements, while that of the US is characterized by the struggle for justice led by the civil rights movement. This year marks fifty years of two defining moments where blacks were engaged in largely similar struggles against de-humanising racial discrimination at the hands of whites in both the US and South Africa.

In the US, it is now fifty years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act which, for the first time, forbade discrimination on the basis of sex and race as well as creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to implement the law. The Act outlawed unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. Meanwhile, this year South Africa marks fifty years since the Rivonia Trial where ten leaders of the African National Congress were charged of treason, and eight eventually convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In both struggles, two luminaries would emerge – Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela – both Nobel Peace laureates. It is now fifty years since King received the Nobel Prize which came one year after his seminal ‘I Have a Dream’ speech where he reiterated the call for an end to racism in the US by invoking its creed of the self-evident truth that “all men [and women] are created equal”. Four years later he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee in a racially motivated attack.

Mandela’s speech from the dock during the Rivonia trial expressed his political beliefs cherishing the “ideal of a democratic society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”. Thirty years later he would become South Africa’s first democratically elected president when apartheid ended in 1994 and devoted his short tenure to nation building and reconciliation under one of the world’s most progressive constitutions.

Among Mandela’s most revered legacies was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that acted as a transitional justice mechanism to deal with human rights violations perpetrated (from all sides) during the period of apartheid. While some people feel the TRC did not accomplish much, it was a necessary exercise that enabled South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis which advanced the cause of reconciliation. This could be a model for the US to deal with the long legacy of racial inequalities that still haunts her.

"South Africa and the US should heed Navi Pillay’s call to deal with the root causes of conflict" [Xinhua]

“South Africa and the US should heed Navi Pillay’s call to deal with the root causes of conflict” [Xinhua]

The events in Ferguson show that the racial inequality that King fought to eradicate endures to this day, especially with regards to the disproportionate number of black men who are victims of police violence. The police force in Ferguson consists of 58 battle-hardened officers. Only three of them are black. The city has a majority population of 23 000 blacks. Such glaring disparities make it seem like the police are an occupation force. This is against the US’s own Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division whose third aim is “protecting the most vulnerable by ensuring they can live free from fear of exploitation, discrimination and violence”.

While political apartheid ended in South Africa, twenty years into democracy the ghost of the evil system still rears its ugly head through the structural forms of violence it created on the economic front. This latent conflict has to be confronted sooner, rather than later. Racial inequality cannot be just wished away. South Africa and the US should heed Navi Pillay’s call to deal with the root causes of conflict. It is the only way to build fair, democratic and inclusive societies. And when she says “apartheid is also where the law turns a blind eye to racism” it is indeed a profound truth.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

2 Responses to Ferguson killing: King, Mandela, Truth and Reconciliation

  1. Vukile Reply

    August 25, 2014 at 10:13 am

    The cult of the hero is habitually used to make mass black movements look like one-man operations. King and Mandela represented movements,but you never read about that from the “experts”. Try again, Webster.

  2. Dzikamai Reply

    August 27, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks Webster for this reflection. The scenes in Ferguson are a very disturbing pointer to what is so bad about the US and minority relations.

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