Civil Rights, Apartheid and Democratic Hypocrisy

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Very few people reflect over how long it actually took to introduce democracy, even in the West. It took even longer to create a democratic culture in which it is natural for us to give each other personal freedom and mutual recognition as individuals.

There are also not many who remember that it is only in recent generations that democratic privileges have come to include all groups in Western societies.

It is rarer still that we in the West acknowledge that it is often us who have prevented the rest of the world from also achieving prosperity, democracy and freedom. We have been busily collecting the resources we have needed from all corners of the world and sheltering ourselves behind tariff walls and trade barriers, while at the same time failing to contribute to the spread of information and education. The religions have been diligent in their missionary work, and so have Marxists and Leninists, but the "enlightenmentists" have mostly stayed at home.

Colonial powers

Although European countries introduced democracy and suffrage for all their citizens in the early 20th century, many of these countries retained their colonial powers until the 1950s and 1960s. Democracy thus only applied to a privileged part of the world's population, and democracies have always been good at keeping privileges for themselves. For those outside the western world, Western democracy was not a plus, and secession for many colonies was bloody and brutal. The colonial powers certainly didn't live up to either human rights or international conventions, and many countries have World War II to thank for the democracies losing their grip on their colonies.

After secession, many of the former colonies came under either Soviet or American control, and many became dictatorships. In several places, American intervention meant that democratic reforms were directly prevented and the West's talk about democracy was shown to be pure hypocrisy; in fact, a hypocrisy the consequences of which we are still contending with today, such as in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. A common trait in both the Soviet-loyal and the US-loyal dictatorships was that they were responsible for dreadful economies and consistently violated human rights.

One of the last countries in the West to guarantee all its citizens' human rights and introduce democracy for all its inhabitants was actually the USA.

Race laws in the USA

The southern American states had racial legislation dating back to 1876 which in practice divided society into a black section and a white section. After 1945, the civil rights movement began to grow. One of the landmark dates in the history of the movement is 1 December 1955, when a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in the city of Montgomery, Alabama. Her arrest and conviction for civil disobedience led to all the blacks in the city boycotting the buses for 382 days. This suppression was thereby put on the national agenda. An unknown clergyman named Martin Luther King was elected as chairman of one of the associations that was supporting Rosa Parks' case.

In 1957, the governor of the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, refused to allow nine black students access to the city's white high school. This led to violent riots that culminated in federal troops being deployed against the local National Guard.

The riots and the ensuing race debate led to the Civil Rights Act being passed in 1964. The Act assigns all U.S. citizens the same rights regardless of race, religion or origin and provides equal access to public places, such as hotels and buses, and to employment in public enterprises. In addition, it prohibits racial segregation in schools and at universities and gives equal rights in employment.

The rights of indigenous peoples

The achievements of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s also led to awareness of the conditions under which the native Americans (the Indians) lived. This led to improved educational conditions and their own land districts with autonomy in 1975.

In Australia, the original inhabitants, the Aborigines, were only granted the same rights as European Australians in 1967 and it was not until the early 1990s that discussions began into what rights the Aborigines should have to their original land areas.

Apartheid and reconciliation

In South Africa, where whites liked to be regarded as part of the European cultural sphere, the different ethnic groups lived segregated by law, the Apartheid system, until the early 1990s.

The interesting thing about South Africa's transition to a democracy which encompassed all the inhabitants was not so much the struggle for equality, because that resembled so many other freedom struggles. Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress Party (ANC) used the same mixture of peaceful and violent means to achieve their goals as other liberation movements have done.

The unusual thing was the process that South Africa underwent in the 1990s after apartheid to heal its wounds. In 1995, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chairman. The Commission's mandate was to witness and record the apartheid regime's crimes and in some cases grant amnesty to the people who had committed the crimes. The offenders could obtain amnesty on two conditions: that the crimes were politically motivated, and that they told the whole truth about all the crimes they had committed. The Commission's work was divided into three sub-committees: one investigated human rights violations between 1960 and 1994; another took care of the rehabilitation of victims; and the last could give amnesty to offenders.

Nobody was protected in advance from prosecution, and ordinary citizens, policemen, politicians and members of the ANC, which in the meantime had become the ruling party, could all be summoned to appear. Many crimes had been committed, both by the apartheid regime and by the many rebel groups, and in 1998, after thousands of testimonies, the commission's work was finished. 849 persons had been given amnesty, while 5,392 had been denied amnesty.

In an unusually short time, the process had created a non-violent transition from an oppressive regime to a democracy for all. It had not been a smooth process, and many of the victims felt cheated out of seeing criminals get a punishment that was consistent with their crimes, but on the other hand, the Commission was set up precisely to find out the truth and create reconciliation. It has been an unprecedented success, and that is a great achievement in itself. They consciously refrained from talking about justice and forgiveness, which would in any case have been impossible.

Next chapter: Summing up: Democracy the Second Time