More than 50 students and faculty members gathered in Town and Gown Thursday evening to hear Columbia University Professor Mahmood Mamdani discuss the post-apartheid transition in South Africa as part of the Center for Law, History and Culture’s 12th Annual Law and Humanities Distinguished Lecture series.
Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University and a leading scholar of African history and politics, human rights and the War on Terror, began the conversation by juxtaposing two responses to historical crimes against humanity: the Nuremberg trials following the allied victory of World War II and Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), the political talks that led to the end of apartheid.
“Nuremberg redefines the problem and the solution,” Mamdani said. “The problem is extreme violence. The solution encapsulated is lessons of Nuremberg is to think of violence as criminal and responsibility for it as individual.”
Recalling one grey morning in Cape Town when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission questioned the seventh and last President of South Africa under apartheid, F.W. de Klerk, Mamdani noted the distinct differences between the TRC, the judicial body established after the abolition of apartheid, and the Nuremberg trials.
“De Klerk had just read out a statement enumerating the wrongs of apartheid, and concluded by taking responsibility for apartheid. But the TRC was not interested,” Mamdani recalled. “At Nuremberg, the greatest responsibility lay with those in positions of power, those who had planned and strategized. At the TRC, the responsibility laid with those who pulled the trigger — those closest to the scene of the crime.”
Further contrasting the Nuremberg trials and the TRC, Mamdani suggested that both responses to human rights abuses differed in how the processes defined “the victim.”
“Whereas Nuremberg shaped the notion of justice as criminal justice, CODESA calls on us to think of justice as a primarily political justice,” Mamdani said. “Whereas Nuremberg has become the basis of what I would call ‘victims” justice,’ CODESA is for an alternative notion of justice which I call ‘survivors” justice.’”
In the case of Nuremberg, Mamdani said the process functioned under the shared political logic by the allies in which the victims and the perpetrators would be physically separated into distinct political communities.
“The possibility of victims’ justice flowed from the assumption that there would be no need for winners and losers to live together after victory,” Mamdani said. “The perpetrators would remain in Germany and the victims would depart for another homeland.”
Though Nuremberg officials had the option of separating victims and perpetrators, CODESA officials did not.
“Whereas Nuremberg was backward looking, preoccupied with justice as punishment, CODESA sought a balance between the past and the future,” Mamdani said. “The very meaning of survivors changed from a victim-based identity to include all those who had survived the apartheid. Yesterday’s victims, yesterday’s perpetrators, yesterday’s beneficiaries and yesterday’s bystanders — all were survivors.”
In closing, Mamdani emphasized the importance of recognizing the lessons of victims’ and survivors’ justice.
“Reconciliation cannot be between perpetrators and victims, it can only be through survivors,” Mamdani said. “The point is not to avenge the dead, but to give the living a second chance.”
Eszter Boldis, a junior majoring in history and philosophy, politics and law, said the lessons from Nuremberg and CODESA can be applicable to contemporary conflicts.
“The concept of justice and learning how to forgive for the survivor’s sake as opposed to seeking vengeance for the victim’s sake was really powerful,” Boldis said. “I think that’s something that the international community can really learn from.”
Some students, however, said there was still much to be desired in terms of defining justice.
“There was a lot left to be said of what his idea of survivors’ justice entails in that it kind of evaded the question of what exactly justice is and what a society is supposed to make of trauma on a collective level,” said Kristen Besinque, a third-year doctorate student in comparative studies.
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