“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu
As a white female South African, a beneficiary of apartheid South Africa and an individual who benefits from white group privilege, I fully acknowledge my moral responsibility as a beneficiary of apartheid. Do you?
Verwoerd proposes some difficult accountability questions that need to be answered in order to be able to move forward as a nation. How far can responsibility for past apartheid human rights violations extend? Are those who were indirectly involved in inhumane acts also responsible? To what degree do we as descendants of perpetrators of violent acts carry blame caaused by our forefathers on people of color? What is the moral significance of shared responsibility and what can be done as retribution to these past human rights violations?
Before discussing and attempting to answer these questions I think it is important to establish what is meant with the terms ‘moral responsibility’ and ‘moral guilt’.
Karl Jaspers, a prominent German philosopher explains it as follows: “The question of the individual analyzing himself is what we call the moral one…The morally guilty are those who are capable of penance, the ones who knew, or could know, and yet walked in ways in which self-analysis reveals to them as culpable error- whether conveniently closing their eyes to events or permitting themselves to be intoxicated, seduced or bought with personal advantages, or obeying from fear”
Attributions of moral responsibility for actions of failure to act arise in contexts where we want to know to what extent the actor is morally blameworthy or morally obliged to make amends. Assignment of moral responsibility implies that the actor must answer or account for his conduct and that he is properly blameworthy when he should and could have acted differently.
The political philosopher Judith Shklar further talks about passive injustice, the moral significance of indifference. Passive injustice means that unjust persons are not only those committing unjust acts, but also those who ‘shut their eyes to the injustice that prevails in their midst, those who ignore the claims of victims of injustice and those who are morally deaf and dissociated’
Jaspers also states that passivity places ‘upon the individual a moral guilt…Blindness for the misfortune of others, lack of imagination of the heart, inner indifference toward the witnessed evil. That, is moral guilt’
How far can responsibility for past apartheid human rights violations extend and are those who were indirectly involved also responsible?
It is important that moral responsibility be viewed from the moral as well as the political domain. Moral responsibility is not restricted to those who were directly involved, but extends to those who were indirectly involved, like the Apartheid government of the time who made unjust policies and laws and supported individuals who committed atrocities on behalf of the government. Moral responsibility extends to those who voted for an unjust regime, NP supporters and all those who benefitted and continue to benefit from unjust policies. Political guilt applies to all citizens of a modern state engaged in a war of aggression or a ‘slow motion’ civil war against its own populace.
Waltzer states that “citizenship is a common destiny, and no one, not even its opponents can escape the effects of a bad regime, an ambitious or fanatic leadership, or an overreaching nationalism.”
Let us proceed to look at some of the common excuses white South Africans offer in order to justify past crimes committed; whether by commission or omission.
It is typical of white South Africans to offer excuses or justifications when confronted with the issues of past atrocities committed in apartheid South Africa. First, I would like to distinguish between a justification and an excuse. In the case of an excuse we admit that the action was wrong but we do not accept full or even partial responsibility. In the case of a justification we accept responsibility but advance a facile excuse that there was no other course of action to be taken. (Walzer 1974:170).
A very common excuse that white South Africans make when faced with testimonies by victims before the TRC has been, “But I did not know.” This is a claim of ignorance. To claim ignorance should not be an easy way out. This claim should not and does not remove all moral blame or the moral duty to compensate. It is a difficult task to reach an awareness which might complicate one’s membership of, e. g. being privileged, white, and elite. It means confronting issues, giving up beliefs that justify, advantages we gain from being members of a privileged [social order (Verwoerd 2001:227).
There is a second type of excuse based on compulsion. This type of excuse does not emerge from ignorance but out of fear: “I knew what was happening but was too scared to get involved” As humans, we put self-preservation above moral duty and this is in no way predetermined, inevitable and inescapable…to be continued