A Luta Continua: Refounding a nation

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.

 

About Kristian Davis Bailey

Kristian Davis Bailey is a junior studying Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity. A full time journalist/writer and occasional student, he's served as an Opinion section editor, News writer and desk editor for The Daily, is a community liaison for Stanford STATIC, the campus' progressive blog and journal, and maintains his own website, 'With a K.' He's interested in how the press perpetuates systems of oppression and seeks to use journalism as a tool for dismantling such systems.
  • Rick Martinez

    I congratulate you on your interest and study of “how the press (‘journalists’) perpetuate the oppression
    of the poor and minorities.” And as opposed to dismantling or making the press or journalists either enemies or opposites, I’d like to join you if your aim is to write “to” and “for” the poor and minority communities insofar as to how to bring themselves UP and OUT of their circumstance.

    While it should not matter, I am Mexican and grew up in a family of 13 brothers and sisters.

    My dad was migrant farm laborer, and mom a housewife–having come from Mexico during the early years of America’s Depression. Yes, my dad told of indignities by Americans–one of which was that he had to take a shower before he crossed the border. However, he also spoke of American goodness–an American farmer, Mr. Dalton Richardson, who gave my dad, mom and older brothers and sister food to eat, and then when he saw my dad at 4 in the morning raking up his front yard–hired my dad as a farm laborer. Eight years later, my dad was Superintendent of Mr. D’s 15,000 acre farm, some 4000 workers, and all processes and activities.

    My dad and mom would totally take offense and disagree with President Obama, his words and his ideas that “the basic bargain that built America,” and your follow-up “was one of structural inequality and injustice towards indigenous Americans, blacks, women and unpropertied men.” My dad would tell our President and you that America is like a road in the country: There was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence. Dad would say, “If he can make it, anyone and everyone can do it.” And he would remind us America is a land of strangers…immigrants…people enslaved by the freedom and vision of opportunity.

    There’s an inscription there on the campus of Stanford that reads something like this: Let’s dedicate life to the things that haven’t happened yet, and to the people who dream them up. I agree! This reminds me of
    something Thomas Jefferson wrote years back: “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; and nothing on earth “can help” the man with the wrong mental attitude.

    Kristian, you and I know some people would rather be certain they are miserable, than risk being happy.
    Our job, then, is to write to inspire all people to be free from the memories that keep them from facing the future with confidence. May the struggle “not” continue!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=564978878 Clifton Buck-Kauffman

    That is certainly an uplifting anecdote about your father’s exceptionally successful integration and upward mobility. You should be proud and happy to share your story.

    Nevertheless your dad’s success, unfortunately, doesn’t change the reality that POTUS Obomba slipped into his speech when he said: “the basic bargain that built America,” as Mr. Bailey paraphrased, “was one of structural inequality and injustice towards indigenous Americans, blacks, women and unpropertied men.”

    All of the 4000 workers your father supervised obviously hadn’t enjoyed very many of the fruits of the road they all trod. I imagine they had much more difficult lives than your family did despite their performing often skilled and always extremely hard work.

    The continued exploitation of these 4000 workers is what created the opportunities you have enjoyed previously and will, hopefully, continue to benefit from into the future.

    Think about that…

  • Rick Martinez

    Yes, Clifton, I’m sure you’re correct about many of Mr. Richardson’s and my dad’s workers. I’m also sure that each of us had the same opportunity, however. Like the general population, Stanford, college, and education generally, it’s up to each individual…to dream, to work hard, to sacrifice, to invest oneself, and ultimately to put everything else secondary to one’s goal…to what one “professes” as his or her dedication and contribution in life.

    Yes, there are the less fortunate. There are also the less motivated. I beg of you, Clifton to consider this. Not all of America or Americans back in my dad’s day (even today) were bad or mean or racists, nor did all farm owners exploit farm wokers by paying low wages. For example, Caesar Chavez came to Mr. D’s farm and saw the houses for families he provided, the housing for single men, the buses to transport kids to school and families to Mass on Sundays, and the cows, pigs and chickens for every-Sunday barbecues all for the workers.

    With respect to those among the 4000 who did go on, almost all were working illegally without citizenship, yet paying into the local, state and federal tax and Social Security without ultimate benefit. One is Dr. Julio Nava, educator and educational reformer, and former President of Cal State University. Another is Jorge Zapata, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. And a guy who came from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, Jimmy Bronstein, is a litagator at his own Law firm–and one of my dear friends today.
    These are just a few I know about. Perhaps there are many others.

    No, Clifton: You will not convince me your success at Stanford and in life thereafter will be because of the exploition of others–especially the less fortunate. No! You’ll do “well”–and your sustained wellness–will be because you’ll do “good.”

    Yes, the poor will always be among us–and yes, a poor man shames us all. Our job, then, is not to continue to divide rich and poor, givers and takers, rather inspire all people that if one person can do it,
    any person can do it–especially here in America. We do to ourselves what we don’t anyone else to do to us: Ostracize ourselves from dreaming, conceiving and believing that we have the same freedom and opportunity as everyone else!

    One last story. My dad was a tough family disciplinarian, and he thought college was for lazy persons–people who just wanted to get away from hard work on the farm. I had to run away from home and take a bus to UCLA at age 14. My brother folllowed and he today is a Superior Court Judge. Now, my dad died some 40 years ago. Each time my brother and I get together for a drink at a local watering-hole, my brother would say “If only dad was a better dad, I would have become a screenwriter.” Well, after hearing this same junk for all these years, I finally decided to say, “Old brother, dad has been dead for 45 years, what’s your excuse in all these years or now–for not doing what you want to do?”

    Let’s not give anyone excuses for not going for it!

  • tim smith

    Rick, yours and your family’s past struggles and your personal successes are indeed inspiring. i hope you can realize they are basically anecdotal and not the norm for most “immigrant” families or others of various oppressed groups living here. The plight of native “first peoples” living under the current regime, but whom used to roam this land unfettered, is only one example of the ongoing structural subjugation and repression. And i would hope i needn’t remind you of the horrific *war* raging just south of the border (30,000-40,000 killed in less than a decade ! – and almost all of them “people of color”, or whatever the politically correct term is nowadays.). That war is a direct result of repressive trade agreements (esp. NAFTA) negotiated by the ultra rich in your father’s former homeland and the 1% who control the levers of power in this land, without the least concern for the thousands of small subsistence farmers in Mexico who’ve been facing unbelievable scarcity and starvation as a result of the aforementioned agreements. Unfortunately, i could go on and on…

  • Rick Martinez

    Thank you, Tim, for your comment which I truly feel and appreciate. And, again, thank you Kristian for an exhilarating article and discussion–for which, I believe, we are all on the same page, reading “the same thing only different.”

    Tim, do you feel fortunate to be at Stanford, or guilty because most others cannot qualify or have not worked hard enough to be there? Do you feel proud or bad and guilty to say you’re an American? Can you see (“understand”) that America (and Americans) has evolved, refined, and civilized over the past years and that we are not only looking at the “problems of man,” but “man as the problem?” Is it okay to be rich if we exchange the word “rich” for the word “prosperity” and define it as: 1) Loving relationships; 2) health, energy and wellness; personal and professional fulfillment; 3) love, faith and hope for others; 4) Peace of mind (freedom from anger, fear and guilt); 5) worthy goals and ideals;
    and, yes 6) Financial freedom.

    You see, Tim, we are all still learning. We are all still learning how to tame or domesticate our soul’s raw passions. Perhaps we’re reverting back to be more beastful–and “less violent.”

    And, I believe, we’re learning to give, to take care of our poor. That it’s not up to government or anyone else but us–to care for and give to those who cannot help themselves. The “honest” poor can sometimes forget poverty: The “honest” rich can never forget it.

    We must be careful, though, lest “we” create more takers than givers, and “we” push society into spiritual decay, and ultimately our country into moral and financial bankruptcy.

  • Sout Piel

    I have never before seen reference to Jan Smuts as the architect of apartheid. Should this be Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd?