25 February 2011
By Pregs Govender, SAHRC Deputy Chairperson, responsible for Basic Services & Health Care
“Transforming society, Securing rights, Restoring dignity”
My address on the purpose of today’s event, is entitled ‘Transforming society, securing rights, restoring dignity’ – the mission of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). The South Africa Human Rights Commission is mandated by our Constitution to promote and monitor the development, attainment and protection of human rights in our country. It is also mandated to help build a culture that respects human rights.
Over the last few years, the SAHRC has represented Emmah Laukazi Koko, Nkgapeng Rebecca Adams, Mankoe Naomi Phororo, Sebuasengwe Mittah Ntlatseng and Mothibedi David Molete in what has become known as the ‘Reitz case’. When we were preparing for today, I asked all of them what they wanted to say to South Africa and this presentation is based on what they said. Any reconciliation event has to begin with the voices of those who have been the victims/survivors. They are here today on the stage with me but have preferred that I quote what they shared in our meeting.
Ms Adams, who will be talking in the ceremony tonight, said: “It is very important for the nation to know how this thing happened so that they can also know our conditions since then. It will also help with white people who think like these boys to also note that we should live together as united as possible. It is a lesson to SA’s current generation so that they can teach the future generation’ Ms Koko added that: ‘Everyone should know what the concept of Ubuntu is. The way we loved them was demonstrating Ubuntu. The expectation was that they should return the same. Not what they did’.
The Commission has chosen ‘reconciliation’ as the focus of today’s event. This event is the culmination of a long process that was sparked by events in 2007.
The now infamous video against non-racial integration of the Reitz hostel was made by the four students as part of a competition at the University of the Free State. The video was an attack on the dignity of the workers, most of whom are women. It reminded many of our Apartheid capitalist and patriarchal past that discriminated exploited and oppressed the majority of the people of our country on the basis of race, class and gender. It replayed the abuse of power that many people who are Black, working class and women experienced and continue to experience. The response was visceral across our country.
The video was a public humiliation and was intended to dehumanise. It ended with the words ‘This is what we think of integration’
The video impacted on many lives. As Ms Phororo shared: ‘What those boys did was really hurting. We had expected good things from them and we were really disappointed. What happened not only affected us but seriously affected our children as well. We would like them to ask for forgiveness from us. Then I will forgive them. It will help us to heal if it means also changing our lives for the better because this thing
changed our lives for the worse.’ The workers, their children and other members of their families were mocked and ridiculed in schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods. They stopped wearing the University uniforms that they used to wear, because they (and their other colleagues) were recognised and mocked for work that they previously had taken pride in. As Ms Ntlatseng shared: ‘I am crying because the hurt was there and it was a very big hurt. The way it went into the public it was relived, multiplying the hurt.’
Today marks a public recognition of Ms Koko, Ms Adams, Ms Phororo, Ms Ntlatseng and Mr Molete, whose courage in asserting their dignity set in motion the process which culminated in ensuring justice and laid the basis for reconciliation. As Ms Nhlatseng affirmed: ‘ I am happy the way the Commission handled it legally and appreciate the steadfast way and resolve in the way it has addressed it.’ The legal process gave effect to the commitment to equality and protection against all forms of discrimination in our Constitution and in the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act. This has enabled the students concerned – Roelf Malherbe, Schalk Van Der Merwe, Danie Grobler, Johnny Roberts and the University of the Free State, to accept responsibility by acknowledging the harm they caused, by making reparations, to apologise and to seek forgiveness from the workers.
Through-out this experience the workers never stopped referring to the students as ‘boys’ – the same age as many of their children. As Ms Koko shared of one of the ‘boys’: ‘ I treated him as my own child. If my own child had done this to me I would want to take him aside and say ‘my child how could you do this to me?’ Yesterday there was an opportunity for that to happen – for the workers to meet with the students on their own and to say what they needed to say to each other.
The courage of the workers in claiming their rights together with their capacity to forgive, has helped the students, who were reviled by many for making the video, find their own courage to accept responsibility for what they did as well as to reconnect with their own dignity and humanity that the video desecrated. Last night the workers said to the students: ‘We have forgiven you. Now you must forgive yourselves’ There is a way beyond the raced, classed and gendered notions of masculinity that was nurtured by our collective pasts.
The courage and compassion shown by the workers together with the student’s willingness to embrace the spirit of change have enabled a process of justice, transformation and reconciliation that is an inspiring example for South. The process, led by the Rector of the University, Jonathan Jansen, whose term began just after this incident, has laid a significant foundation for the future. It is significant, not just for this university, but for all educational institutions, including schools.
This in summary is the process that led to this reconciliation event today.
The agreement that was finalised and signed last night, includes establishing a Centre for Human Rights and Reconciliation on this campus. Today’s dialogue will help shape that centre as a place of hope and healing built on human rights. Much of today will be spent in round table dialogue and the University has agreed to capture the wisdom you share in an artistic wall hanging that will eventually hang in the Centre.
Mr Molete, who in sharing why he could forgive the students, drew on the powerful example of Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela: ‘If he could forgive – we can.’ Madiba refers to forgiveness as an act of liberation of one’s own heart from hate. In the context where Apartheid’s rulers imprisoned him, he would not allow them to imprison his heart. Every morning for 27 years he sat in silence connecting to the power of love within. He walked out of prison with his dignity intact. The same inherent dignity in each of us, that is referred to in our Constitution, as the first founding value and as a substantive right.
The Commission looks forward to the wealth of wisdom that all of you will share with us today. I thank you.