The ‘apartheid as a crime against humanity’ question revisited

Hermann Giliomee returns to the 1996 speech he delivered on the topic

In February 1996 I gave the presidential address of the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR).

Since 1929 the SAIRR had been one of the leading organisations in civil society that had consistently challenged and condemned violations of human rights both under segregation and apartheid.

A few months earlier the ANC had adopted the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the brief to investigate the gross human rights violations of the pre-1994 period. But by the beginning of 1996, when I drafted the speech, grave doubts had arisen about the manner in which the ANC was going to approach this process.

As the Chilean example had shown a Truth Commission composed of highly respected figures from both political sides could provide a fair and balanced interpretation of the past conflict which could, in turn, form the basis of a process of ongoing national reconciliation.

It was already clear at that time however that the ANC was intending to use the process to ensure that its interpretation of the past triumphed completely. In particular, it wanted the TRC to uphold the designation of apartheid as a ‘crime against humanity’ by the UN General Assembly in 1973.

It was clearly successful in this regard as the recent controversy over former President FW de Klerk’s resistance to this designation has illustrated. President Cyril Ramaphosa has even gone so far as to suggest that it is “treasonous” to question this classification.

De Klerk’s critics have neither dealt on the merits with the problematic origins of the convention, in Soviet bloc manoeuvres of the early 1970s, nor with why Afrikaners may have good reason to be resistant to it today, at a moment of great vulnerability.

In my 1996 address I dealt with this question, and below follows a verbatim transcript of the relevant section:


Human nature is such that there always will   be politicians and academics who seek some historic scapegoat. Marxists put the capitalist system in the dock. Capitalism, so their argument goes, sustained and greatly benefited from the system of racial domination in South Africa. Despite all its pretensions capitalism was unable to solve tile crisis of unemployment or to improve significantly the position of the black working class.

Instead it has produced the obscene spectacle of pockets of great wealth existing within a sea of misery. They depict liberals as accomplices on the grounds that it is liberals who developed the argument, which served business so well, that capitalist development liberalises race relations, and more generally, class relations. And it was liberals who, during the 1980s, when sanctions threatened both tile economic and political system, tried 'to distance and protect [sic] English-speaking capital from the apartheid state'.21

Part of this argument and certainly the one relating to unemployment has validity, but there were also great weaknesses in the Marxist argument. As Charles Simkins succinctly formulated it in the 1986 Hoernle lecture, Marxism suffers from two great weaknesses. First it is unable to explain the evolution of advanced capitalist societies. In the South African case, they felt themselves compelled to deny the great advances the black working class was making especially since the early 1970s. (Mike McGrath calculates that the position of the top quintile of blacks improved by 40 % between 1975 and 1991.)

The other Marxist problem/weakness relates to the problem of power in a socialist society and the system's emancipatory promise. 22 The Marxist attack on capitalism in South Africa derived its energy from the conviction that socialism promised an ethically superior form of power and production. The promise was still there while the socialist countries which were part of the Soviet empire lasted. However, it was buried in the avalanche of evidence not only of their economic disasters, but of the political, social and ecological crimes committed by the socialist leadership.

Eugene Genovese, an American Marxist historian whose work is greatly respected by both Marxists and non-Marxists, recently uttered this mea culpa: ' We [i.e. Genovese and his fellow communists] ended a seventy-year experiment with socialism with little more to our credit than tens of millions of corpses.' 23 It will be interesting to see if the ex-Marxists and ex-Trotskyites in our cabinet and in academia will, like Genovese, put their hand on their own breast while correctly urging the accomplices of apartheid to do the same. Apart from a half-hearted effort by Joe Slovo, there is little evidence of this. 24

The burden of history is particularly relevant with respect to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mr Dullah Omar, as the Minister of Justice, has been insisting that everybody asking amnesty or indemnity should be treated equally by the commission but has suggested an historical context for it in considering the record of human rights abuses in South Africa over the past 35 years.

According to him, it is 'morally and legally' wrong to equate human rights violations by the ANC with those committed by the government, since ANC abuses were in pursuit of democracy and human rights and those by the government were to deny this quest and to maintain apartheid. In calling for 'a new moral order' he puts those who fought against the ANC in the 1980s in the same context as the defenders of Nazi Germany and Vichy France, and the hero­ worshippers of Hitler. Mr Omar, like some other ANC leaders, cites the United Nations' (UN) declaration of apartheid as constituting a crime against humanity to reinforce this interpretation.

Let us first consider the issue of apartheid constituting 'a crime against humanity'. Some of the proponents of the Truth and Reconciliation Com­ mission, Mr Omar in particular, have been less than frank in their references to this UN resolution to bolster their case. They have presented this verdict of apartheid as constituting ' a crime against humanity' as if it was the collective judgement of the democratic countries of the world.

The concept of 'crimes against humanity' was developed by the Nuremberg Tribunal in the context of the Nazi atrocities committed during World War II. Such crimes were defined by the tribunal as including 'extermination, enslavement and deportation'. They connote crimes of unspeakable horror - such as the extermination of six million Jews and the incarceration of conquered civilian populations in Nazi concentration camps where they were subjected to starvation, forced labour, brutal abuse, and medical experimentation.

In a 1973 resolution, the UN General Assembly declared apartheid a crime against humanity. It also agreed to the drawing up of an 'International Convention on the Suppression of the Crime of Apartheid'. Countries like the United Kingdom and the United States (US) voted against the resolution with the representative of the US stating: ' We cannot accept that apartheid can be made a crime against humanity. Crimes against humanity are so grave in nature that they must be meticulously elaborated and strictly construed under existing international law. '

The main sponsors of the resolution and the idea of a convention were the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Guinea. The convention came into force in 1976 after 20 countries had ratified it. Almost all these 20 countries were either dominated or heavily under the influence of the Soviets. Let me list them: Benin, Bulgaria, Byelorussia, Chad, Czechoslovakia, Ecuador, the German Democratic Republic, Guinea, Hungary, Iraq, Mongolia, Poland, Qatar, Somalia, Syria, the Ukraine, the USSR, the United Arab Emirates, Tanzania, Yugoslavia. Almost without exception the 'democracy' and 'human rights' which existed at that stage in these countries are now recognised as a cruel farce. How seriously must we take people who take seriously the judgement of these countries on human rights abuses in South Africa? ·

The identification of apartheid as a crime against humanity has been promoted, not because there is a real equivalence between Nazi genocide and the unspeakable brutalities of apartheid policies, but because it provides a convenient basis for excusing some of the revolutionary violence - such as necklace murders -   that was used against civilians. It is propaganda designed to muddy the waters, and to provide a moral shield for such actions.

Let us consider Mr Omar's reconstruction of history in which he presents the moral and legal weight as being all on the ANC side. Implicit in all this is the view that we have to thank the ANC for the democracy and human rights which we currently enjoy in South Africa. Politicians tend to be presentist, falsifying history in order to ratify, if not glorify, their present positions. 27 When politicians start reinterpreting history it is good to remember the caution expressed by that wise historian Herbert Butterfield.

He said that if we organise our history by reference to the present 'we are producing what is really a gigantic optical illusion'. 28 To project the democracy and human rights of the interim constitution of 1993 as the kind of democracy the ANC has always fought for is indeed to produce a giant optical illusion.

Let me ask this question: about 1980, at the beginning of the final stage of the battle between the ANC and the government, what kind of democracy and human rights were espoused by many leading figures in the ANC? My answer would be: the 'democratic centralism' of societies like the USSR and Cuba.

Today this type of democracy is no longer regarded as a democracy at all. The human rights of Cuba and the USSR were fraudulent. Indeed, the Freedom House ratings of 1980 scored Cuba and the USSR lower in human rights than apartheid South Africa! One could have joined the ANC in 1980 to assist the battle for black dignity - some of my best students did so - but to have bet on democracy and human rights would have been a long shot.

Let us have a brief look at the Nazi analogy. This has been popularised initially by Brian Bunting and lately by Allister Sparks. Serious historians have always treated it for what it was: propaganda in a war in which e higher moral ground was decisive. If one reads the Hansards of the first five or six years after the NP took power in 1948 it is clear that they considered the American South as their frame of reference.

When he introduced the Mixed Marriages Act in 1949, Eben Donges frequently pointed to the fact that there were 30 American states with similar laws and 15 with a marriage officer to administer them.29 The first pillar of the apartheid order was erect­ed at a time when the percentages of blacks in the American South who voted were in single digits, and schools and military units were still segregated.

While the Nazi analogy suggests the deliberate extermination of a population group (or at the very least its decimation) the apartheid record suggests something quite different. The recent study of the American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt argues that life expectancy and infant mortality are the best indices of social welfare. In South Africa black life expectancy nearly doubled during this century. I do not have separate figures for blacks with respect to the last 35 years, but that it was substantial is evident from the fact that the overall life expectancy of South Africans improved from 51 years in 1960-65 to 61 in 1985-90.

I do have the figures for coloured people, for whom dramatic improvements occurred during the apartheid years. While the life expectancy of the greatest beneficiaries of apartheid - white males - increased by only two years between 1950 and 1980, that of coloured males rose by ten years and those of coloured females by 15 years. Between 1970 and 1985 the coloured infant mortality rate fell by a truly astonishing two-thirds. Taking a global perspective, Eberstadt comments: 'Hardly any other population on record has to date enjoyed such a rapid and sustained pace of. improvement in child survival. Though unheralded abroad, or even in South Africa itself, the recent drop in coloured infant mortality rates represents a major achievement in public health.' 30

My point here is simply to challenge the historical interpretations of the proponents of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not to offer any apology for apartheid. I therefore hasten to emphasise that all who were not white suffered pervasive discrimination and that all of them compared their condition with that of whites, which even today is substantially better.


In 1998 the Statute of Rome included apartheid as an example of a crime against humanity. Such a crime is defined as systematic oppression by a racial group of another racial group. The USA and Israel are not signatories.