Apartheid was a crime against humanity, but 'of a particular kind' - News24

May 22, 2018
22 May 2018 - AfriForum triggered a media controversy last week over the thesis that, while apartheid was wrong, and they disagreed with it, it should not qualify as a crime against humanity. In drafting a response, I sought the views of a range of South Africa's top thinkers; what follows is influenced to a significant extent by what they told me.


Frans Cronje

AfriForum triggered a media controversy last week over the thesis that, while apartheid was wrong, and they disagreed with it, it should not qualify as a crime against humanity. In drafting a response, I sought the views of a range of South Africa's top thinkers; what follows is influenced to a significant extent by what they told me. 

A first cautionary note was that much of the debate of this week has revolved around the United Nations convention on apartheid as a crime against humanity, the initial versions of which were put forward by the Soviet Union and Guinea in 1971, and ratified some years later. The UN of the 1970s was, however, a cesspit, and the sponsors and most ratifiers of the apartheid convention were serial rights abusers in their own right – on par with the apartheid state, and often worse.

So, it is in many respects a mistake, and defames the memory of the victims, to use that convention, and whence it came, as the moral lodestar against which to benchmark or memorialise the deprivations of apartheid. 

A second cautionary note was the risk of diluting the meaning of the term "crime against humanity" as it was employed at Nuremberg in the prosecution of those individuals who had been responsible for the greatest act of state-sponsored murder the modern world had ever seen, where, over a period of five years, two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe were murdered.

Most recently, Oxfam in South Africa is reported to have described capitalism as "a crime against humanity". Throwing the term around loosely risks defaming the memory of the millions of victims of Nazi Germany. 

A third cautionary note arose from the use of the term "crime" itself. The point is argued that the accused at Nuremberg were convicted and punished (and in some cases acquitted) by due process of law. In South Africa, that did not happen. Against that, however, stood another view, that the term can be used in public as a statement of moral condemnation, as is often the case in South Africa. It is important to draw a distinction between the moral and technical invocation of the term. Yet, even on the technical definition, as invoked in Germany, the term did not make criminals of all German people. 

A related and fourth cautionary note was that, in the absence of due process, the risk arises that the use of the term "crime" triggers a situation where minorities are put on trial in the media amidst much populist fervour, when, in fact, the English language is rich in terms that convey the cruelty of the apartheid system without the risk of the chosen terminology being used to justify new abuses.

History is littered with examples where the evils of the past are used to open the way to the abuses of the future and the risk of that in our society is very real. But it is a risk we must be prepared to face, and its presence dare not justify any inclination or exhortation not to speak frankly and truthfully about the past for fear of how populists and radicals in our midst may use what is said to threaten the future.  

This was very much the tenor of the fifth cautionary note: that fears for the present stability of our country, or that this debate may be divisive – even in the extreme – must not be allowed to justify any sense of downplaying or concealing the full extent of the deprivations suffered by the victims of the apartheid system. In this latter respect, a senior colleague said that AfriForum has failed a moral test. You cannot simply say that apartheid was wrong and that you disagree with it. The condemnation of apartheid must be more complete and explicit than that.

This latter point is particularly important to us as a think tank, given our own history of many decades. As an organisation, we want to be judged on our contribution in the present – and so we tend to refer to our past sparingly. We do not trade on it. But the IRR was South Africa's leading anti-apartheid think tank and played a major role in bringing to global and domestic attention the terrible abuses of the apartheid state.

The extent of the severity of the dehumanising abuses suffered through that era are recorded in our archives and the reports we used, both within the country and abroad, to expose those abuses: the hundreds of thousands of arrests under the pass laws, the deaths in detention, restrictions on the rights of black people to sell their skills and labour, the restriction of their rights to own property, the banning orders, the undermining of the rights to free speech and political association, the censorship of unpopular voices, and the vastly inferior education that was provided to black people – to name but a few.

It has been argued this past week that defining a crime against humanity should be predicated on a body count. Many people did die during the apartheid years as a direct or indirect result of that system; some in detention, some in conflict with the security forces, a significant number in political violence, and a great number (difficult to estimate) as a result of the deprivations that black people were exposed to. 

But if you study our archive, you will understand that to measure that count, even if it could be done with precision, is to overlook what was perhaps the most evil aspect of the apartheid system, which was the mass dehumanisation, born of prejudice, of a significant proportion of South Africa's population, sustained over a period of many decades.

The risk is that, in comparing body counts, apartheid's architects may get off lightly – in comparison, say, to what happened in Europe in the 1940s – when the dehumanising subjugation of black people, sustained by government policy that denied them the rights to advance through education, property ownership, and economic participation, is where the real evil lies.

The question is whether that should be the standard against which society would be justified in judging a crime against humanity to have been committed – a state or system that systematically denies rights and freedoms to own property, access opportunities, be educated, etc. on the basis of the victims' race/ethnicity/language/culture or history.

That is pretty much the view reached in a brilliant assessment published by the Ratcatcher, a columnist on Politicsweb, who goes on to conclude that "it should not be hard for anyone with any kind of moral and principled objection to racial discrimination to make the case – on the merits – that apartheid, alongside various other forms of racial discrimination and persecution, was a 'crime against humanity' of a particular kind". 

It could not, perhaps, be better put and overcomes the problematic question of benchmarking the evils of apartheid against a position adopted by governments who were themselves serial rights abusers engaged in an exercise of global political grandstanding.

It avoids the trap of thinking that apartheid's evils are relative only to the number of people who died at the hands of the system. It allows an honest appreciation and admission of the full extent of the dehumanisation that occurred during the apartheid years. And it sets a standard against which the society should now judge itself, mitigating, therefore – more than exacerbating – the risk that the wrongs of the past may be repeated in the future.

- Cronje is the Chief Executive Officer of the IRR.

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