The term “Crime Against Humanity” is highly charged politically and emotionally. The formal definition of this term is presented by the United Nations. It is defined as:

”Any acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law, torture, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity, persecution against any identifiable group or collectively on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender and lastly other inhume acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”

What can be taken away from this lengthy definition is that Crimes Against Humanity are certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian or an identifiable part of a civilian population.

This piece will focus on the changing attitudes of South Africans when asked whether they are in agreement that apartheid was  a crime against humanity. The data used in this instance is the South Africa Reconciliation  Barometer(SARB in 2017). SARB is a public opinion survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in South Africa since 2003. It is the world’s longest running public opinion survey on national reconciliation and provides a nationally-representative measure of South Africans’ attitudes towards reconciliation.

When one looks at the data it becomes apparent that there are  large fluctuations in the views of white South Africans polled on the issue. When this survey was first started white respondents agreement with the statement fell well below the responses of all other races and stood at 70% in 2005. This figure then rises to around 75% in 2006, however after that this figure dropped to 59% in 2008.

It is noteworthy that the response of white people varies over time and there is an interesting variation between the years of 2008 and 2013. What is interesting is that in 2013 those who agreed that apartheid was a crime against stood at only 55%. This figure has seen a steady increase yet again until 2017.

When looking at the data with a colleague, we initially focused on the question of  what historically happened during the  years in which the white communities’ views rose and declined sharply. However, it occurred to me that we were approaching this in the wrong way. My colleague pointed out to me that that this had more to do with the memory of a specific event and how this event or period is thought of over time. Instead, it is the events after the fact that shape white people’s views on apartheid.

Taking this into account and, upon reflecting on the SARB data, another picture emerges: white people are wrestling with a system that they believe to be a crime against humanity. But at the same time, this crime against humanity privileged them, and to this day continues to favour them through the legacies of the system.

This in part explains the large variations over time on the white people’s views on apartheid. They are struggling to come to terms with the privileges they had under apartheid and how this system continues to benefit them. To deny that apartheid was a crime against humanity enables people to continue to benefit from the system without dealing with guilt or moral consequences.  To accept apartheid as a crime against humanity would mean having to challenge racism and white privilege, which is hard, and for some people a step too far.

Earlier reference was made to the United Nations definition of what constitutes a crime against humanity.  The definition goes on to include that “the crime of apartheid is a crime against humanity”.  Even though we are 25 years into democracy, the legacies of apartheid remain and the lived realities of many continue to bear the brunt of these legacies.  In order for there to be reconciliation there needs to be a recognition of the crime of apartheid and the injustices need to be rectified.  This can only happen when all people understand that “apartheid is a crime against humanity”.  The SARB data suggests that we still have much work to do.

Article first published by Voices360

Mikhail Petersen holds a Bachelor of Social Science degree in Politics and Economic History as well as an LLB from UCT. Mikhail is an intern within the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town.