The Ramaphosa visit and prospects of normalisation


FRANCE, Longueval : South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (L) pays tribute to black South-African soldier Private Myengwa Beleza, enrolled in an indigenous battalion by the British Army during World War I, whose coffin is put to rest in a new tomb at the South-African Delville Wood memorial, in Longueval, northern France, on July 6, 2014. The soldier’s body has been exhumed from a cemetery near Le Havre in order to be buried at the South-African Delville Wood memorial, among white South-African soldiers. The epitaph reads : "His presence represents all members of the SANLC whose deeds were not acknowledged in the past. He is buried here among his comrades as a symbol of reconciliation and nation building." During WWI, black South African soldiers were buried in various civilian cemeteries across France, while their white counterparts were buried at the Delville Wood Memorial. AFP PHOTO / DENIS CHARLET

By Rohana R. Wasala

Cyril Ramaphosa (b. 1952), vice president of South Africa, started his official visit to Sri Lanka on Monday (July 7, 2014), giving our leaders a valuable opportunity which should not be missed. It is an opportunity to deflect, as far as possible, the undue ‘international’ pressure that is being brought to bear on the country. The stature of the guest shows the importance that friendly South Africa attaches to this visit. Cyril Ramaphosa was among the delegates from all over South Africa that Nelson Mandela (released from prison in 1990) consulted before his meeting with the last apartheid president de Klerk. Mandela, referring to these preparatory consultations with delegates, makes special mention of Ramaphosa in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: "One of these young men was Cyril Ramaphosa, the general secretary of the National Mine Workers’ Union and one of the ablest of the new generation of leadership." He was a firm Mandela loyalist and a prospective deputy to the great man. Ramaphosa has played many roles as an anti-apartheid activist, a union leader, a politician, and a businessman connected with the platinum industry. He assumed office as vice president on 26 May this year. He has been criticized over business interests. But his pre-eminence in South African politics is unquestioned, and is likely to lead that nation in the future.

It is said that Ramaphosa’s visit is about pushing South Africa’s initiative in the Lankan ‘reconciliation’ process. But a statesman of his perspicuity and pragmatism will not fail to appreciate the differences between the two countries in respect of the nature of the conflicts that overwhelmed them for different durations of time. This, however, does not mean that the proffered helping hand should be rejected. The South African case is an illustration of Mandela’s wisdom that "Compromise is the art of leadership". In that sense, our leaders of all persuasions have something to learn from the South Africans.


Reconciliation is already there if we only care to acknowledge it. But communal politicians often raise a great hue and cry about its absence. The word ‘reconciliation’ came into prominence in Sri Lanka particularly after its advent in the name of the panel of eminent persons appointed by the government in the wake of the conclusion of the war on terror in May 2009 to look into the background causes of the terrorist violence. How should we define the term ‘reconciliation’ in the name "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" (LLRC)? The broad dictionary meaning of the word, as everyone knows, is something like "to restore friendly relations, or to make peace between estranged individuals or groups", "to harmonize ideas or principles or make them compatible with one another", etc. But here, the idea of bringing relationships back to a proper or normal state would be basic to a definition of the term in relation to the artificially complicated political context that the LLRC had to deal with. For the level of actual estrangement between the two communities involved is perhaps too low for us to talk about a need for reconciliation in any serious sense. This is my personal view. True, we have experienced years, perhaps decades, of a sort of communal tension, even occasional conflagrations of communal ill will such as those of 1958 and 1983; but those were isolated instances of violence fomented by a handful of opportunistic politicians; the overwhelming majority of both communities naturally desire and do enjoy communal harmony. Peaceful Sinhalese and Tamil coexistence at the grassroots level (that is, among the common people) has hardly been affected by three decades of civil war, except that there is a more mature sense of the need for communal accommodation among the masses than ever before.

Truth Commission

Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, appointed the TRC in November 1995. It was chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu, and its final report was released in October 1998. The commission was created with a view to bringing about some sort of rapprochement between a traditionally privileged minority of white Africans of European origin and a long oppressed majority consisting of native black Africans (that account for 8.86% and 79.20% of the country’s population respectively according to the latest census taken in 2011). South Africans, comprising these two groups along with Indian/Asians, Coloureds and others, were naturally in need of reconciliation after centuries of bloody conflict between them (that is, the whites and the rest). In this unequal contest the dispossessed, unarmed, ill-fed, mostly rural, black majority were regularly defeated, and denied their rights and were persecuted as sub-human by a well armed well-fed white minority battened on stolen land and mineral resources of the country. The representatives of the minority were acting in defence of the perpetuation of their illegitimate domination, and those of the majority were in pursuit of their inalienable birthright or ‘our just dues’ in the words of Solomon T. Plaatje (1876-1952), an enlightened black activist of the early part of the last century, who wrote one hundred years ago: "Awakening on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth". Plaatje was referring to the repressive, disinheriting Natives Land Act passed by the government that year. As, at a later date, Nelson Mandela points out in his Long Walk to Freedom, another piece of similarly obnoxious legislation known as the ‘Bantustan system’, was allegedly meant as a blue-print for the development of Bantustans or Bantu Areas (virtually, arbitrary black enclaves). The Bantustan system was touted as a well meant plan for ‘separate development’ or Grand Apartheid, based on racial segregation. The idea was conceived by H.F. Verwoerd, minister for native affairs in the 1948 Nationalist government. (He was later prime minister of apartheid South Africa from 1958 to his assassination in 1966.) The Nationalists were the white Afrikaners or Boers (‘Farmers’), descendants of Europeans born in the Dutch colony in the Cape. The Bantustan system was craftily designed to silence international criticism of the South African government’s racial policies, while institutionalizing the already long existent de facto apartheid system. "The idea was to preserve the status quo where three million whites owned 87 per cent of the land, and relegate the eight million Africans to the remaining 13 per cent" (Long Walk to Freedom, ABACUS, London, 2013, p. 223).

Victims of imperialism

We in Sri Lanka, as fellow victims of European imperialism and exploitation over the centuries, and allies in the struggle for emancipation from that evil, are quite familiar with the horrendous crimes committed against the native black Africans. We grew up hearing about them. After the dismantling of the apartheid system in the early 1990s the essential ‘truth’ had to be ascertained and acknowledged by the parties to the conflict for reconciliation to start. To what extent reconciliation has been achieved in that country is a moot point. In Sri Lanka, however, reconciliation or restoration of normalcy to communal relations will not involve such ‘a long walk’ if only some of our politicians stop being narrowly communal, and instead cooperate with the mainstream for the good of all Sri Lankans.

President Rajapaksa set up the LLRC voluntarily, and as far as realistically possible, without kowtowing to the ‘international community’, after crushing the violent Tamil Tigers which had terrorized the nation for thirty long years. The commission’s brief was principally to investigate the causes of the conflict and to make recommendations to the government for suitable remedial measures that would help stop the recurrence of such a situation in the future. I thought at the time that the inclusion of ‘reconciliation’ in the name was probably a reluctant concession to meddlesome imperialist forces that exert undue influence on our internal affairs for their own purposes. Through this, the so-called international community got the government to implicitly admit that the Tamils and the Sinhalese were at war, which was not really the case. The false suggestion that the majority Sinhalese were making war on the minority Tamils was meant to overshadow the reality that the government was only meeting its responsibility to protect the whole nation from a bunch of terrorists who were hell bent on carving out a separate state. The confrontation was between a ruthless terror outfit and the sovereign state of Sri Lanka. The imperialists, in pursuance of their intrusive objectives, are now trying to capitalize on this deliberate misconception or rather misrepresentation of the state’s war on terror as an assault on a section of its own citizenry. Stakeholders must be disabused of this wrong notion for the reconciliation process that is already underway to be meaningful and effective.

The LLRC was modeled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The word ‘reconciliation’ in the name of the TRC is much more meaningful than in our case. The TRC was established to investigate the countless abuses of the apartheid era (1948 to 1994) such as the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, suppression of non-white movements, pass laws, and hundreds, nay thousands of cases of inhuman treatment meted out to indigenous black men, women, and children by the white supremacists. By the way, there is a brief, admirably objective, account of the Sharpeville incident in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom". Reading the whole volume should give the reader some idea of the magnitude of what the native Africans and the whites had to be reconciled over with one another, and how much the black and other non-white Africans still had to reconcile themselves to on emerging out of apartheid rule. We had no such history of relentless oppression of one race by another to investigate or take responsibility for. In the case of our country, the problem has involved two groups of ‘sons of the soil’ with a common history and culture, who share a common homeland on terms of absolute equality with the democratic right and power to correct anomalies if any. There hasn’t been any real estrangement between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Though there have been allegations of racist intolerance or xenophobia among the Sinhalese, we have long proved that those charges are false. Therefore the gratuitous comparison between the South African and Sri Lankan situations that the imported term ‘reconciliation’ implies, unless properly moderated, will be as untenable as it could ultimately prove to be prejudicial to the interests of the Sri Lankan people.

What the ordinary Sri Lankans yearn for is normalisation. For that to be a reality, let there be compromise and reconciliation among the politicians.

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