The slaying last week of the South African racist reactionary, Eugene Terreblanche, provides an opportunity for another examination of the persistent and peculiar divide between some whites and some blacks in the “new” South Africa of black-majority rule. The Terreblanche murder, which may have had nothing to do with politics, also reminds that the task of reconciliation with the apartheid past — and so much else — is not over in South Africa. In a country with a super-high murder rate, where even a national (black) hero such as Lucky Dube can be massacred for the value of his car, and where hundreds and possibly thousands of white farmers have been murdered in the 15+ years since the end of apartheid, there’s no telling what caused the slaying of Terreblanche since, in South Africa, killing appears to have its own logic, to be its own twisted affirmation of human ambition. But if Terreblanche’s death cannot be analyzed easily, the efforts at reconciliation can indeed be further analyzed, starting with the justly famous if famously flawed Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A good place to begin a review is with Susie Linfield’s superb article, published some 10 years ago, “Trading Truth for Justice.”
Much of the energy spent on reflecting about the TRC experience has looked at the relative merits of punishing whites who did really bad things under apartheid, and of compensation blacks who suffered really really badly under the same regime and especially during its dying days. No doubt, the decision by the Mbeki government to issue scant monetary awards to bone fide victims who stood before the TRC was wrong. The awards should have been larger. Some whites meanwhile escaped without any punishment except public rebuke; so did some blacks. To be sure, these people of all colors could have received more negatives than social shame and stigma. Yet I think of the main debate over the TRC as essentially a sideshow. The main show ought to be what to do about racial tension — and worse — in today’s South Africa. That Terreblanche could publicly and openly reconstitute a racist political party says much about the confusion in South Africa between dissent and the impossibility of reclaiming the old forbidden segregationist ideology. Just as in Germany today, any neo-Nazi party is essentially inconceivable (and illegal), so too should be a white supremacist party in South Africa.
Terreblanche did not deserve to die, but he didn’t deserve to lead a political movement either.