Ebrahim Rasool on What America Might Learn From South Africa's 300+ Years of Struggle



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

Dec. 16, 2020


Last week, Ebrahim Rasool, the former South African ambassador to the United States, gave a talk and answered questions at the Alliance for Peacebuilding's PeaceCon2020 in a conference session entitled "Making Peace in a Polarized Nation."

Guy and I were extremely impressed when we heard his talk, as were many others, apparently, as it was talked about frequently in the following sessions. I hope a video or audio of the entire talk will be released (as has been done for a few of the other sessions), but it hasn't been yet and the talk was so insightful and important, that we wanted to share the key ideas from our notes here.

Rasool started out by giving a very brief overview of the racial struggle in South Africa, which has been going on, he pointed out, for over 300 years. It dates back to colonialism, segregation, and, in 1950, apartheid.  It "had features," he said, "of a genocide, of frontier wars of dispossession, and slavery."  So South African history shares a number of similarities with U.S. history, at least in terms of race relations. Apartheid in South Africa was "in its very fabric, designed for polarization and disempowerment," just as was, he implied but didn't say, slavery and then racial segregation in the United States.

He went on to explain that South African Blacks overcame apartheid by using "militant nonviolence." To him, militant nonviolence wasn't "namby-pamby opposition," rather, it was based on "moral authority" and a deep understanding of the oppressors. While the Whites were busy dehumanizing the Blacks, the ANC (African National Congress) issued a "Freedom Charter" that said that "South Africa belonged to the South African people—Black and White."  In that way, Rasool said, "the Blacks were offering to redeem [White] humanity."

The process of struggle needs to incorporate the solution. You cannot call for the end of racism and mobilize [on the basis of] race.  You cannot want a peaceful society and be wantonly violent in your conduct towards it.  You cannot speak of unity and polarize society in the conduct of your struggle.

"The process of struggle," he continued,  needs "to incorporate the solution. ... You cannot call for the end of racism and mobilize [on the basis of] race.  You cannot want a peaceful society and be wantonly violent in your conduct towards it.  You cannot speak of unity and polarize society in the conduct of your struggle."

The South Africans also needed to "grapple with what was in the heart and minds of [their] oppressors." The oppressors' behavior, he asserted, was borne of fear and ignorance. The fear wasn't just fear of the other, it was also fear that the people they had stolen from would rise up and demand their land and freedom back.  So Whites were the victims of fear that they created themselves. 

"Fear," he said, "can be forgiven, but not ignorance.  People can go to school.  They can read.  They can educate themselves in other ways." So he (and by implication Black South Africans more broadly) were willing to forgive the White's fear (even if it was self-created), but not White ignorance.

The "parents" of oppression are fear and ignorance and the parents of fear and ignorance are prejudice and discrimination."  One has to be able to understand the origins of oppression in order to be able to dismantle it.

Looking back further, he said, the "parents of fear and ignorance" were prejudice and discrimination.  "We all pre-judge people and situations before we know them. We form little mind images of people so we can understand [them].  But the moment we form these little mind images we have pre-judged them." This prejudgment grows from an idea in your head, "to something on your tongue, to something in your hand, to something you write in the law."   These prejudgments, he asserted, grow into lots of "-isms, phobias, and -antis: racism, sexism, conservativism, anti-semitism, homophobia, Islamaphobia."  One has to understand these origins in order to be able to tackle systemic racism or any of these other -isms, phobias, and antis.

He then presented seven ideas, arising from his knowledge of South African resistance, that he said Americans need to add to their anti-polarization and racism "toolkit." 

We must understand that "the other" is here to stay. They will not leave, or disappear.  We have to "be neighbors."

First, he said, we have to understand that "the other is here to stay." And, you, in the United States, have to understand, "your [American] racism, your polarization, your discrimination, is sustainable only as long as you believe the other will disappear or go away." But they will not.  Most have no where to go.  Nor do they want to go anywhere.  This is their home too. In South Africa, he said, the Blacks came to realize that "if we were going to have freedom, we were going to have to be neighbors [with Whites].  We were going to have to co-exist.  And that is mind-shifting!" It makes you realize that you have to come up with a plan to live together in peace.

America should do what South Africa did: start with the end. Create a vision for the future that everyone—on all sides—can embrace.

Second, he advised us to do what the ANC did in 1955: They started with the end—defining their ultimate vision for South African Society. "The ANC vision was that South Africa belongs to everyone who lives there, Black and White. That not only [was] a statement of vision, it [was] an extension of friendship.  It [was] an act of generosity." Even as Whites continued to dis-empower (and often kill) Blacks in South Africa, the Blacks had the "supreme humanity to say that South Africa even belong[ed] to [the White oppressors]. That disrupt[ed] the little pictures [the Whites had] constructed in [their] minds" and allowed people to open themselves up to new ideas. 

Don't destroy what you want to inherit.

Rasool's third item for the toolbox was the idea that was preached by Nelson Mandela, "you don't destroy what you want to inherit." ... "You begin to take responsibility for the country. You can go forth and fight it out to the death, or you can seek to preserve it as much as possible."

Isolate the extremes, but unite the middle ground.

The fourth idea is that in your (American) struggle (and there must be struggle, he asserted, because polarization never ends without struggle), you "isolate the extremes, but you unite the middle ground. That's redeeming the humanity of the other.  Even if the other is your oppressor, you take responsibility" for finding the human commonalities with them. Whenever they point out differences, you point out similarities—show how you are both human and you share many interests and aspirations.  "You must always do battle with the extremes, because they will never reform until they are mentally defeated or politically defeated.  But the middle ground mustn’t be confused for all of them. You have to redeem them with a sense of humanity."  

Humanize the other by appealing to their "better angels." 

That led to the fifth idea that the struggle is waged through politics and ideology, but the ideology should always have a "human lens," that humanizes the other.  "That was the strength of Nelson Mandela. He waged a model struggle where [he didn't] try to out populist the populists.  There’s a fundamental difference between Mandela’s popularity and Trump’s populism. Because populism feeds the fears and the ignorance and the instincts of people. Mandela appealed to people’s better angels."

There is no easy redemption.  You have to confront the truth.

Rasool's six item for the toolbox was the idea that there is "no easy redemption. You have to confront the truth." This is where, he said, truth commissions come into play.  Some people, he said, think that "truth must be sacrificed in order to build unity," in order to reach some kind of reconciliation.  He called that kind of reconciliation "rainbow-ism."  But rainbow-ism isn't real reconciliation.  The truth will continue to fester, to cause hatred and fear.  Truth has to come out. 

He compared the process of truth-telling to peeling an onion: "[You peel] an onion, layer by layer. The tears are rolling, it’s painful, but it has to be done to get to the core of what went wrong.  And you must have a sense of accountability. I think part of it is both a reward to those who have kept up with the battle against populism, and warned against its dangers, but also a warning to the would-be populists of tomorrow, that you won’t find an easy space to re-polarize society, once [you] start depolarizing it."

You must find the intersection between peace and justice where you have just the right proportion of each.

The last tool was the necessity of finding the intersection between justice and peace.  Just as you have to balance truth and peace, justice and peace are also, to some extent, in conflict. "Too perfect a struggle for justice means perpetual struggle, and too easy a reach for peace means sweeping justice into the coffin. That intersection, that proportionality of it is absolutely crucial.  You need sufficient justice and sufficient peace in order to mold that kind of reconciliation that has both of those elements in it. 

He elaborated more on this idea in the Q and A. He says he confronts this issue all the time when he gives talks and young people say to him that "you chose peace, but now you are living with inequality between Blacks and Whites in South Africa."  He usually responds, he said, with a question—"where would South Africans have been now if they had demanded perfect justice then?  And then he answers himself—the parties that did that were out of power in a year.  The ANC has been in power ever since 1994, when Mandela was elected president. "So the tension between justice and peace is really where you find reconciliation."  "It is not perfect reconciliation," he said, but a reconciliation that was good enough that it allowed us to continue our struggle for better justice every day. "We know we are alive because every day we are debating inequality.  Every day we are battling racism in the schools, in the labor unions, in the sports federations. We are grappling with it every day.  We don’t sweep it under the carpet.  But it doesn’t create the kind of social upheavals [that you have in the U.S.] Everyone knows, we are working on this day by day.  That is the practical notion of finding sufficient reconciliation to perfect both your peace and your justice in society. "

The US may have a fragmented vision of itself. Its unity and its coherence is often dependent on an external threat.  The country comes together around its troops.  It comes together when there’s a war.  It doesn’t seem to have a positive, binding spirit within the country itself.

Rasool also elaborated on his second tool about vision in the Q and A:  "I think the idea of a common vision is absolutely critical, because the US may have a fragmented vision of itself. Its unity and its coherence are often dependent on an external threat.  The country comes together around its troops.  It comes together when there’s a war.  It doesn’t seem to have a positive, binding spirit within the country itself." He added that the ANC's vision for South Africa was powerful because it was very simple and understandable.  It had just five points that, he said, were "non-ideological and non-controversial."  They called for a "united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, and free South Africa."  Everyone—Whites and Blacks—understood and could support those ideas.  They could see themselves living in a country that espoused those ideas. They were not frightening, as they didn't "other" anybody.  Rather, then emphasized the humanity of everybody. Around that, he said, you can build diversity. 

America has a mandate to be good. But not good at the expense of someone else. Rather, good for itself and the world. How does America become a force for good for all the world and for its people? I think that maybe that’s the area around which a vision and a mission could be built. It needs to be constructed in a way that is non-ideological, but eminently human.

He ended by saying that maybe COVID-19 will actually prove helpful to America because it will have created the "moment of rupture and disruption in America." If everything was working smoothly, there would be no reason to change.  But now, in one year, there has been a raging pandemic, the raging outcry against racism as unleashed by the killing of George Floyd, and "an immensely important election." So maybe these upheavals will force change.  "America," he said, "has a mandate to be good. But not good at the expense of someone else. Rather, good for itself and the world. How does America become a force for good for all the world and for its people? I think that maybe that’s the area around which a vision and a mission could be built. It needs to be constructed in a way that is non-ideological, but eminently human."

Many of us at PeaceCon were quite taken with this talk, in part because it was so perceptive, and at the same time remarkably positive.  While acknowledging that the U.S. faces deep challenges, Rasool suggested what he calls a "toolbox" that could be used to chart our way out of our unprecedented political polarization.  And unlike the many other "solutions" that are pie-in-the-sky dreams that are very unlikely to work, Rasool's set of tools actually has worked in a situation that was, in many ways, more extreme than ours.  True, South Africa wasn't battling a pandemic when they overcame apartheid, but the discrimination inflicted by apartheid was far more severe than what we now have here in the United States, and the violence surrounding that was far more extensive than anything we have recently experienced here.  So I find reason to believe his tools actually could work—IF—and that's the big issue, they would be utilized by enough people.

Let's explore the implications of his suggestions a little bit more.

Tool 1: Understand "the other" is here to stay. In one sense this is obvious, but many politicians, as well as their supporters, continue to act as if it is not.  The obvious example is the Trump administration's actions to deport as many people as possible. But the less obvious and much more widespread example is each side advocating policies that are so unacceptable to "the other," so as to make them believe that their life will be over, or at least their hopes and dreams all dashed if "the other side" comes to power. That is what made this past election one that both sides thought that they "could not afford to lose." If we are to overcome our hyper-polarization that is making it impossible for us to address our most pressing problems (COVID and its related economic problems, for instance) we need to accept that both sides are here to stay, and we need to begin to develop a plan to live together in peace.

A vision for reconciliation needs to be one that all sides would find at least acceptable, if not desirable.  So it needs to be built around common goals and fundamental needs, not one side forcing its ideology on the other.

Tool 2: Develop a vision. I teach a class on "reconciliation" at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Studies.  We have a unit in that class on envisioning and I ask students to develop a vision of what a reconciled society might look like 30 years from now.   Most of the visions submitted are left-leaning, just as the students are left-leaning.  They paint a picture of their own "utopia," without accounting for the attitudes the "other side" might have about living in such a society.  That's not reconciliation.  That's essentially conquest!  A vision for reconciliation needs to be one that all sides would find at least acceptable, if not desirable.  So it needs  to be built around common goals and fundamental needs, not one side forcing its ideology on the other.

Tool 3: Take responsibility for the country.  Our lack of doing that is clearly evidenced now in our response to COVID.  We have been asked to wear masks, not so much to protect ourselves, but to protect others. How many people refuse to take that little step to make our country safer for everyone?  At the same time, some jurisdictions (mostly liberal ones) have closed down practically everything, without doing much of anything for those who are left in untenable situations:  without a job or the ability to pay for essentials or, with a job, but with kids home from school, so they are supposed to be full time employees plus full time teachers and caregivers for their kids. We need to work together to take responsibility for our country and for each other.

It is dehumanizaing to suggest that talking to another human being is compromising one's own integrity.  We must redeem ourselves and the other by treating all with a sense of humanity.

Tool 4: Isolate the extremes, and work with the middle. We need to redeem each other with a common "sense of humanity."  Both the left and the right have been painting each other with a very broad brush, assuming anyone who voted for Trump is an irredeemable loony, or anyone who voted for Clinton in 2016 or Biden in 2020 is evil incarnate.  The moderator's question to Rasool in the Q and A was indicative of this:  "how does one bridge the divide within families, within communities ...when there are a lot of people feeling like 'how could [I] ever compromise [my] integrity by even engaging with others across the divide?"  How dehumanizing is it to suggest that just talking to another human being is compromising one's "integrity?"  We need to come to understand that the vast majority of people on the other side are not really all that different from ourselves.  We all have the same fundamental human needs.  We want security—which means we want physical safety, both from violence and from disease, we want a secure income, a secure home.  We also want a secure identity.  We want to be able to live openly and freely as a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, as a straight or a gay or a trans, etc. That means we need to work with the other to develop the vision (see Tool 2) to allow us all to identify and then achieve these mutual goals. 

Two "magic words": Listen and Respect. Do those, and problems will become much easier to solve. 

Tool 5: Appeal to people's better angels.  Following on from the notion that we need to work with the middle, Rasool asserted that we need to appeal to people's goodness. When I taught a conflict skills course, I always ended the last class by saying "if there are only two words you remember from this course ten years hence, please have them be "listen" and "respect." I went on to explain that if you really deeply, actively listened to anyone you were in conflict with, and if you treated them respectfully (even if they didn't "deserve it,") a vast majority of your conflicts will disappear, and those that don't will become much more manageable and/or resolvable.  Treating people with respect doesn't cost you anything.  It doesn't make you smaller, it actually makes you bigger.  And, it often encourages reciprocity.  Just think about how you feel when someone attacks you—calls you names or threatens things or people that you care about. Does that make you like them better?  Does that make you agree with them more?  Of course not!  If we want to get people to agree with us, or even consider our point of view, we have to start by treating them with respect—appeal to their "better angels."  

"Truth and Mercy have met together, Justice and Peace have kissed.” That's the "Meeting Place of Reconciliation." --Ledearch, Journay Toward Reconciliation, p. 51.

Tools 6 and 7: Seek and expose the truth and find the intersection between peace and justice. Taken together, these two tools correspond closely to the image of reconciliation proposed by John Paul Ledearch. In his book Journey Toward Reconciliation [2] and again in Building Peace [3], Lederach wrote about his work on Conciliation teams in Nicaragua at the end of the Nicaraguan war.  The meetings, he said, always started with the reading of Psalm 85.  This is a psalm where the writer pleads to the Lord for for peace, righteousness, and well-being.  In Verse 10 of the Spanish version, which is somewhat different from the English version, Ledearch says, “four voices are called forth,” and they say, “Truth and Mercy have met together, Justice and Peace have kissed.”  Lederach took that idea and developed it into an exercise which he first used to great benefit in Nicaragua, and which he (and many others, including me) have used around the world. In his description, Lederach explains that the psalmist treats the concepts as if they were alive. Quoting directly from the book he says, “I could hear their voices in the war in Nicaragua. In fact, I could hear their voices in any conflict. Truth, mercy, justice and peace were no longer just ideas. They became people and they could talk.” (Ledearch, Journey Toward Reconciliation, p. 51.) So in what I call "The Meeting Place Exercise," Lederach assigns participants to one of four groups, truth, mercy, justice, and peace, and asks them a series of questions about who they are and what they care about.  He also asks them who of the others they see as likely allies, and who are opponents. He then brings one representative of each concept to the front of the room and mediates between them until they find "the meeting place of reconciliation" where they can all live together.

I've done this exercise with John Paul leading 4 times, and I have must have lead it myself at least 30 times.  It always comes out different, but the participants (and often I) discover things about these concepts that they hadn't known before.  One thing that always comes out is that the truth of what happened in the past has to be exposed to bring about reconciliation, but that truth needs to be balanced with mercy for those who have been found to have done wrong.  Without the hope of mercy, oppressors will not tell the truth.  There also needs to be some accountability.  The Justice group usually ends up debating how much they want to advocate for punishment (retributive justice) and how much they want to offer redemption (restorative justice). They also often grapple with the notion of reparations, procedural justice, and distributive justice, and how much of each they want and what each means.  Usually, they go into the negotiations with the other "people," wanting it all, but end up compromising some of each in order to "make peace" with the other people in the room.  It is a powerful exercise that shows both the complexity of these concepts, but also how compromises can be forged to reach reconciliation.  This corresponds directly to Rasool's notion of "proportionality" between peace and justice, and between peace and truth. When such proportionality is sought "in the real world," (as opposed to a classroom exercise) it helps a lot to have an agreed-upon vision of the desired future (Tool 2) which will suggest what balance of these four elements will most likely achieve the desired ends. 

A last thought about Rasool's talk was that it showed the great value of having an outside view of a conflict—outsiders can see things that insiders can't see, because they are too close to the fray, too immersed in their own "silos," as we peacebuilders tend to call it, and their own worldviews. Another exercise I have done in that Reconciliation class is to have students read a tongue-in-cheek article from Slate, If It Happened There: Courts Sanction Killings by U.S. Security Forces. This is a "news report" of the aftermath of the 2014 Ferguson, MO and New York police killings of black men and the subsequent court decisions, written from the point of view of another country "looking in" -- much the way we "look in" and "report on" other world trouble spots.  I then ask the student to imagine how we, in the U.S., might respond if peacebuilders from abroad (I usually suggest a team from South Africa and Rwanda) decided they should come to the U.S. to help us solve our racial problems. (The point is to get them to focus on how others perceive us when we go into other places to help resolve their conflicts.)  Many of the students reply that this notion is "absurd," that no one in the U.S. would accept outsiders "telling us what to do."  It might help a little, they thought, if the outsiders were invited in, rather than came on their own volition, but they generally observe that America has an "exceptionalism" complex that makes us believe we are better at everything than anyone else is. So it usually takes some cajoling to get the students to take the assignment seriously. 

I was thrilled to see that make believe assignment really come to life with Rasool's visit and talk, and was even more pleased to see how well he was received, at least among the peacebuilders listening to him (who were, admittedly, a very friendly audience.") That suggests both that U.S. peacebuilders can be well received abroad, if they really do provide perceptive ideas about the conflict areas they are visiting, and it is illustrative more broadly of the value of outside third parties.  Two things should be noted here, however.  One was that Rasool was a former ambassador to the U.S. He wasn't a "parachuting in" peacebuilder, who came for a few weeks or months, offered solutions, and left.  He had been deeply immersed in U.S. society for a long time, so he was able to come to understand our quirks very well.  He also, most likely, was invited, and as I said a moment earlier, he was speaking to a friendly crowd.  I don't know how well his suggestions would be received by activists on the left and the right who are not used to compromise or peacebuilding, but in our roles as U.S. peacebuilders, we would be well advised to take his message to heart and try to spread these ideas as widely as we can.