In a seminar room at the New School for Social Research in lower Manhattan, Columbia, Professor Mahmood Mamdani tells us about the difference between criminal, social and political justice. The New School, previously called the University in Exile, was founded by Jewish intellectuals who fled the Holocaust.

Mamdani explains that the Allies put the Nazi survivors on trial after World War II and found them guilty of breaching the codes of criminal justice. On the other hand, the old South African state and the liberation struggle groups, caught in a war neither could win, opted for political justice by allowing a democratically elected government to rule after the negotiated settlement. People were not put on trial for crimes they had committed. Perpetrators on both sides could come forward if they so chose and apply for amnesty for committing acts of violence that were politically motivated.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that:

“ apartheid, as a system of enforced racial discrimination and separation, was a crime against humanity … At the same time, the Commission acknowledges that there are those who sincerely believed differently and those, too, who were blinded by their fear of a Communist ‘total onslaught.'”

Approximately 20 years after the first democratic election, in 2013, the institute for Justice and Reconciliation conducted a representative survey of 3590 South Africans. Nearly half (48%) of whites said that apartheid did not oppress the majority of South Africans.




In the evenings here in New York, we often play Scrabble against the interwebs. We play separately, each battling against people somewhere out there because I am scared that Lebogang will beat me while playing in her seventh language. “White pain”.  Another one of our favourite evening activities is watching the Mark Zuckerberg International News Network, a channel we can shape by choosing friends to act as newscasters. Huddled around my laptop, we follow a link and watch “the big debate”.  Chumani Maxwele is sitting across from AfriForum’s Ernst Roets. Chumani Maxwele. So this is the man who threw poo at Cecil. Didn’t he also attack a white lecturer? I think he might even have eaten her. Yes, I think some white person on the Zuckerberg Network said that he ate her and then he shat her out and then the students rubbed her all over the Cecil statue. But he looks so calm and dignified here on live TV in front of the whole country. I’m 10 years older than him and I, with my masters and PhD degrees in tow, would be pooing in my pants on live TV. That could help. Maybe. He could throw it at the irritating Mr Roets sitting next to him. The man who is goading him. Maxwele is far too composed for this nervous rabbit whom he refuses to give any carrots.

Maxwele holds up a hand gently and says. “As Rhodes Must Fall, we said ‘Black first’.” Roets asks: “Whites out?” Instead of responding to Roets’s articulation of the deepest fear of every white South African, Maxwele takes the opportunity to demonstrate that this kind of inference on behalf of black South Africans is at the core of the problem. He asks: “On behalf of us? No, no, no. One of the successes of Rhodes Must Fall was to be able to tell white people to do what we want them to do. Those progressive white students within us, we told them to sit down and listen and they sat down and listened, and those who were not prepared to, we kicked them out. Without an apology. That’s our success.”

But Roets isn’t quiet and he doesn’t listen. He says: “I’ve never heard you complain about names or statues that are offensive to minority communities. One example, the renaming of the main street of Amanzimtoti to Andrew Zondo Street. Andrew Zondo was an ANC Youth League member who planted a bomb in a shopping centre and killed two ladies and three children, and they named the main street after him. That’s an offensive name because there are people living in that town who were murdered by the man after whom the main street has been renamed.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report made the distinction between just ends and just means, stating that the commission was guided by Just War Theory, which evaluates the justness of the cause being fought for and places restrictions on how much force may be used and who or what may be targeted. The Commission reviewed the struggles of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress, endorsing their decision to go to war with the South African government. However, the Commission added that both groups “committed gross violations of human rights in the course of their political activities and armed struggles, acts for which they are morally and politically accountable”.

Does that mean Andrew Zondo was a murderer? Do the people of Amanzimtoti know that they were being liberated? Were they blinded by Communist total onslaught? Would Professor Mamdani call the naming of Andrew Zondo Street criminal, social, political or shopping mall justice?




A terrible moment happened earlier this year. Do moments happen? We were singing the South African national anthem in our apartment in New York. I don’t remember why we were doing this. I wish we hadn’t. At one point it became clear that I didn’t know ALL of the words in the line that starts “ofedi…din  mmm mmm mmm”. I mean, I know almost all of the words. I know quite a lot of them. And to be honest, that line is in SeSotho and I come from Cape Town in the Republic of the Western Cape. There are, like, no SeSotho speakers there. My disgusted partner, a Sowetan, described growing up in the township during the formation of the new South African state.  How she and her friends cut out the page of the newspaper that announced the words of the new national anthem. They treasured this document that validated their newly minted citizenship. I bet they sang the Afrikaans words unashamedly. These children, who like their parents, were filled with hope. I wonder what I was doing while they were learning this anthem? I was probably busy with important homework. I attended one of our “good” schools. The one that the Sunday Times named as the best public school in the country in 2009, one of the schools that is left alone by the education police that hunt people for the crimes of low matric exam scores and inadequate literacy and numeracy results. I remember spending the day of the first democratic election feeling deeply ashamed that one of my friends at the good school might find out that my parents were voting for the ANC.




We are watching the students protesting outside Luthuli House on the Zuckerberg Network. Like one extremely disciplined body they are singing: “SOLOMOOOOOON….EEEYOOO”.

I ask, “who is…” Lebogang cuts me off mid-sentence:

“Solomon Mahlangu. Google him.”

She is becoming impatient with the holes in my education. Wikipedia tells me that Solomon Mahlangu joined Umkhonto we Sizwe after the 1976 uprisings. He fought in Angola and Mozambique before being caught and hanged by the apartheid state, the people who, according to 48% of whites, didn’t oppress the majority of South Africans. Wikipedia says that before he died Mahlangu’s last words were:

Tell my people that I love them

and that they must continue the fight.

My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom.


My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom

I repeat the words slowly to myself over again. They are so beautiful. Instead of wrapping this young man in cotton wool so that he could safely release the poetry he held within, he was forced to take guns and try to kill people who denied him the right to vote, to live, work and love whomever and wherever he chose. When they caught him they put a rope around his neck and strangled him until he was dead. He was 22. Half of white South Africans think that this was not an oppressive regime. And I never knew about Solomon until Wikipedia told me.




It is strange to watch from afar as a social movement gathers momentum in your home country. It’s perplexing to see how different bits and pieces join and contest. How liberals become conservative. How elder statesmen and women who were radical in their youth become the status quo. The year 2015 will be remembered as the year a generation of born-frees challenged democratic South Africa’s founding narratives. Apartheid was a crime against humanity. Full stop. None of this nonsense about being blinded by communist total onslaught. The pain experienced by those who were systematically dispossessed and oppressed cannot be understood in the same way as the pain experienced by those who felt the wrath of retaliation. People who were complicit in these systems and events must not be memorialised and celebrated in our public spaces. Systemic inequalities that continue to deny people equal access to South Africa’s resources need to be addressed far more urgently. These are the lessons that young South Africans have taught us in 2015. In their own ways and with their own methods. And they didn’t charge fees for these teachings. Each generation always questions the moral basis of the next. This is the only constant in the field of youth studies. But elders have different track records when it comes to listening to young people. I hope that 2015 is also remembered as the year that South Africans with even one grey hair, a group that I have involuntarily joined, learnt to listen a bit more closely.



#FEESMUSRFALL protest at Wits University on 19/10/15 by Dean Hutton

Dr Adam Cooper holds a PhD in Education Policy. He has just returned after a year as a National Research Foundation post-doctoral scholar at the City University of New York.

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