Last week, for the first time in more than a decade, the House of Representatives held a hearing to discuss the issue of reparations for slavery and subsequent laws that discriminated against African Americans. Testimony from experts like Ta-Nehisi Coates made the argument for reparations by outlining how the United States economically benefited from slave labor. It also highlighted more than a century of oppressive policies that occurred after slavery ended, as well as legacies of discriminatory practices, ranging from the disproportionately high mortality of African American women in childbirth to the mass incarceration of African Americans.
The congressional debate then focused on who will bear the costs of a reparations program, how beneficiary eligibility would be determined and how much states would pay. But the hearings overlooked one component crucial to addressing the ongoing structural racism in the United States: truth-telling.
Can community reparations — which will prioritize African Americans’ access to services, institutional reform, scholarships for African American children, symbolic measures such as a public apology for past wrongs — make a difference? Yes, but only if accompanied by a public truth-telling project that addresses continued white denialism, exposes the reality of racism and makes clear the consequences of decades of inaction.
To do this, Americans can learn from South Africa, which over two decades ago undertook a national, public truth-telling initiative — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — to address its long history of institutionalized racism. That initiative was a necessary first step in the country’s process of healing and rebuilding relationships, rooted in a shared past.
Before its democratic elections in 1994, South Africa was notorious for its apartheid policies, premised on white supremacy that legally sanctioned racism. Beginning in the 1940s, a legal scheme of racial discrimination systematically dispossessed and disenfranchised nonwhite South Africans. The Group Areas Act of 1950 was essentially a form of redlining (separating race groups geographically). The most lucrative land was allocated to whites, while blacks were confined to townships with little or no resources and services. The 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the 1950 Immorality Act forbade marriages and relationships across color lines while requiring every black person to carry an identity document in an attempt to control the movement of blacks in everyday life.
Under increased political pressure abroad and at home, political negotiations began in the early 1990s between the apartheid state, led by the National Party, and liberation movements, a process that eventually led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the nation’s first democratic election in 1994. In 1995, the new Mandela-led government established the South African TRC; its goal was to investigate the human rights violations perpetrated during apartheid and to provide a platform for survivors and perpetrators to testify. Perpetrators were given amnesty in exchange for the truth and survivors were promised reparations.
There was a heavy burden placed on survivors to forgive perpetrators in exchange for their confessions, especially because perpetrators most often showed little remorse. Many white South Africans actually denied that some of the torture, sexual violence and other violations actually occurred. There was a general feeling among the black South African public that despite being victims, they were once again required to accept the mantle of reconciliation, while white South Africans remained comfortable in their positions of historic privilege.
But black South Africans also gained something from these public hearings, broadcast nationally on television. For many of them, this was finally an acknowledgment of the daily horrors that they were subject to during apartheid. With testimony from 21,000 victims, the 2,000 public hearings and 7,112 amnesty applications made it difficult to cling to denialism because a collective narrative of a racist past began to emerge. The hearings forced South Africans to confront the horrors of their past.
The TRC could only legally focus on human rights violations in its inquiry. But the stories of degradation, inhumanity, fear and inequity of everyday life under apartheid also demanded action. So the TRC made a series of reparations recommendations, running the gamut from immediate compensation to symbolic reparations to non-monetary actions like institutional reform and community rehabilitation programs.
The TRC acknowledged the collective effects of apartheid on all blacks, and therefore emphasized the importance of institutional reform and community rehabilitation programs to recognize that all black South Africans were victims of the system, and that the socioeconomic legacies of that system continued to beset black communities even after legal discrimination had ended.
In the end, however, the South African government refused to connect actions with the ethical questions raised by the testimonies or with the obligations of the state to provide adequate and timely redress and reparations for victims. In 2003, President Thabo Mbeki announced a once-off payment of approximately $4,000 each to 18,000 victims who testified before the TRC, and announced that community reparations programs, which aim to uplift black communities as a whole, would be implemented as part of broader development programs for all South Africans.
In framing reparations as a broader development program, Mbeki diluted the impact of the TRC’s message, which highlighted the moral wrong of apartheid and the effects it had on black South Africans. The benefit of reparations is as much about the process — the recognition of harm done, the need to make amends and efforts to reintegrate a specific group back into society as equal citizens — as it is about the actual form that the reparations would take.
But even without the follow-through necessary to ameliorate the damage done by decades of racial segregation, South Africans gained something crucial from the TRC initiative. The TRC successfully shattered the silence and denial about the past, questioned the apathy of bystanders and opened spaces for continued dialogue about racism and ongoing inequalities — lessons that may be relevant for the United States today as the question of reparations reemerges on the political stage. A truth-telling and reparations initiative may not necessarily rebuild relations in the United States in the short term. But it can begin an essential longer-term process by shifting the narratives of the African American experience of slavery and consequent racism away from the margins of American life and into the center.
In the United States today, matters of race, racism and racial inequalities no long remain tensions under the surface. We must openly air the many shameful truths about America’s racist past, so that future generations will remember us as the generation that took action to craft a new founding story where all Americans are included.