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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Commonality in Divided Societies

In divided societies, the commonalities subordinate communities share create a shared terrain in which deep societal cleavages flourish and invariably explode. At the heart of the beasts that debase and dehumanize us and unloose demons of evil are issues of justice, equality, equity, and the inviolability of the individual's human rights. Not that all men are created equal an absurd proposition but that all men are equal in the eyes of the law and in terms of the rights that are their birthright. The challenge is how to devise a system of governance that protects minorities yet does not abrogate the rights of majorities, that creates confidence in the administration of justice so that justice dispensed with a judicious hand is not only done but seen to be done, judicial and legal processes dispensed as instruments of impartial remedy, where the law is the agent of justice not the agent of the state, where difference is a symbol of diversity, not the arbiter of disunity.

The ANC represented the great majority of blacks and were engaged in a genuine war of national liberation that would give their people the voting franchise they were denied and the right to elect a government of their own choosing. The ANC resorted to an armed struggle only as a measure of last resort when all other avenues of redress of the inequalities, inequities, and carte blanche discrimination were closed to them. Mandela himself at the Rivonia Trial, explained why the ANC turned to violence: The hard facts [he said] were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rightsIt was only when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe.1

The ANC fought a just war, although the means it used to pursue a just aim were not always themselves just.2

All South Africans African, Coloured, Indian, and White shared a common identity they regarded themselves as South Africans. The basis for the conflict was that whites did not at least until the mid 1980s -- regard blacks as South Africans but rather as citizens of designated homelands, which had been carved out in piecemeal fashion to meet the requirement of an indigenous ethnic homogeneity. Hence the design of grand apartheid and separate development. Blacks were denied the franchise in South Africa because whites had designated them as citizens of their respective homelands, not as citizens of South Africa. Thus, what black liberation movements in South Africa sought was universal suffrage one person, one vote. However, universal suffrage would ensure that the black majority would rule the country, erasing the privileges and power of the ruling white minority. In short, blacks aspired to the rule of the majority and the white minority was not prepared to go to any lengths to prevent a black takeover.

The belief that divided societies share similar characteristics is not new.3 But most divided societies took umbrage at the idea for a very long time, each believing that its "special problems" were unique; that they were somehow "special," that no one outside of themselves could truly fathom the depth of their grievances unless immured in the centuries of their mystic and mythological historical constructs.

Indeed, in some regards, deeply divided societies are like alcoholics; both cherish the notion of their own "unique" condition: to maintain that supposed uniqueness becomes one of the psychic pillars that prop up their own sense of identity. Alcoholics believe that no on can understand them; that they are too different, either too self-absorbed in their own pain or too narcissistic to believe that they are in fact quite ordinary. Only when they join organizations do they begin to realize that they are no different than hundreds, perhaps thousands of others, and sometimes that recognition leads to recovery, or at worst some kind of relief. The belief that no one is able to understand what they endure is an essential part of their identity, and to give up that identity is to lose part of one's sense of self.

Members of divided societies live in the same cocoon they share the same sense of being somehow special, of being in the diaspora of the isolated misunderstood, of being victims. And they, like alcoholics, or others addicted to their own powerlessness, draw on these senses of self to give shape to their identity.

With the collapse of communism, much has changed, but even more has stayed the same. Ethnic and inter-communal violence is increasing at egregious arms. We in the west are preoccupied with Yugoslavia or the former Yugoslavia or whatever bits of whatever is left. In Africa more people die every day in communal conflict,4 genocide has become commonplace,5 more displaced people live in what amount to prison camps, yet we can only turn our eyes to the east at least to that part of it that is white. For reasons not difficult to fathom, we can only see the colour of our own skins. We certainly don't see the stellar pundits of the political circus that envelopes us in their combat safari suits in Kigali or Goma telling us what an awful world it is.6

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.