A Luta Continua: Refounding a nation February 17, 2013 6 Comments Share tweet Kristian Davis Bailey By: Kristian Davis Bailey Last weekend, we traveled to Johannesburg as our Bing Cultural Excursion and visited the South African Constitutional Court, among other sites of memory. Our Johannesburg visit made me feel surprisingly heavy – I’d thought I’d been fortified by what we’d already seen in Cape Town the prior five weeks. Walking through the Women’s Jail and Building Number 4 was an experience like no other I’ve had. While I understand American mass incarceration as our greatest current civil rights issue, the history of political imprisonment and mistreatment in South Africa was a phenomenon completely new to me. It was remarkable to me that a country could memorialize and reincorporate its oppressive past by building the foundation of its Constitutional Court and Constitutional Hall upon the bricks and walls of its old prisons. Even though the Constitutional Court is the equivalent of the United States Supreme Court, its design and presentation could not be more different than our hallowed American building of marble and looming columns. The court sits on the site of an old high-security prison that housed thousands of political dissidents and prisoners of all races – including Gandhi. Half of the walls of the chamber itself were built from the bricks of the old prison walls. Inside, the public sits elevated, looking down on the justices and lawyers. And outside the chambers, built upon the old prison bricks is a display in neon letters that reads: “A LUTA CONTINUA” or “THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES.” On the entrance to the building, each of the 27 basic rights and principles of the South African Constitution is carved into a wood panel in each of the country’s 11 official languages and sign language. One of the most interesting things about studying in South Africa has been encountering how the state addresses the history and legacy of apartheid. This experience has been especially interesting in contrast to my perceptions of the United States and its treatment of indigenous and black populations, among other historically oppressed groups. Watching South Africa – the most unequal country in the world – confront its social issues, I have grown interested in the notion of refounding a country. Our visit to the Court inspired me to read through South Africa’s Constitution to get a better sense of those 27 principles. The preambles of the Constitution begins with an acknowledgment of past suffering: “We, the people of South Africa, Recognise the injustices of our past; Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.“ In its founding provisions, the Constitution establishes that the state is founded on the following values: “a Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms. b Non-racialism and non-sexism. c Supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law. d Universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.“ The combination of these clauses stands in stark contrast to the “All men are created equal” and “We the people of the United States” that so glaringly excluded the majority of those living on “American” land. Yet, as we discussed in class this week, what does it mean to those South Africans who are in the worst material conditions, those who suffer from racism or sexism, those who do not have adequate housing, etc. that their constitution guarantees them the opposite of what they experience? Is that any better or worse than living in the United States (for example) where such promises are not explicit? I’m of the mind that being unambiguous about past injustices and present (and future) goals gives the people more to demand of their government, and the government more to be accountable to. The United States should acknowledge that (to use Obama’s words from this year’s State of the Union address), “the basic bargain that built America” was one of structural inequality and injustice towards indigenous Americans, blacks, women and unpropertied men. Beyond this fundamental recognition, we also need to admit that those injustices and inequalities continue through today, that our ideals of liberty, justice and freedom are yet unachieved, and that we as a nation need to commit ourselves to the lifelong pursuit of realizing these goals. As it stands, our veneration of the founding figures, documents, institutions, and values as holy blinds us to the structural injustice all around us. Just as monuments to Cecil Rhodes (the great exploiter of Africa) and Jan Smuts (the architect of apartheid) stand tall and plentifully around South Africa, so too do these American institutions remain unabashed and taunt us of past and present oppression. While my instinct has often been “We need to tear this stuff down,” watching South Africa change through its transition and reconciliation process has shown me that we cannot hide our troubled pasts, but must commemorate how we have failed and use that memory to inspire future action. Instead of demolishing the statue of Cecil Rhodes in the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus, a plaque noting his role in crafting the mining labor and land exploitation that haunts South Africa even today would provide a more nuanced and educational experience than leaving the monument as is or than having nothing present at all. A luta continua Instead of leaving the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, Department of Justice, Department of Education, Liberty Bell, National Constitution Center, etc. etc. standing as they are in their pristine, (white) marble glory – some commemoration of the role of all of these institutions in nearly every internal injustice of the last 200+ years would be a step in the right direction. A luta continua Without changing our perspective, we will continue to perpetrate and perpetuate crimes against women, against ethnic minorities, against the poor – not only in South Africa or America, but around the world. A luta continua. 2013-02-17 Kristian Davis Bailey February 17, 2013 6 Comments Share tweet Subscribe Click here to subscribe to our daily newsletter of top headlines.