By Linda Bordoni
The “Black Lives Matter” movement has gathered strength and resonance since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on 25 May.
Demonstrations have been taking place in the United States and across the world to demand justice and equality for minority communities.
Protests are also taking place in South Africa where, notwithstanding the anti-apartheid struggle that led to democracy in 1994, a legacy of division and injustice still undermines a society where millions of mostly black people live in poverty.
South Africa’s Ambassador to the Holy See, George Johannes, himself an anti-apartheid activist during the years of the regime and a member of the African National Congress, spoke to Linda Bordoni about his thoughts regarding the Black Lives Matter movement today:
Ambassador Johannes, who spent many years of his life in forced exile while he continued to be part of The Struggle against apartheid in South Africa, noted that the current social upheaval triggered by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis is “disastrous for America at a time when authorities should have been able to cope and focus mainly on Covid-19.”
But it is important, he said, because “it has also highlighted the fact that the black population in the US has always been on the receiving end” as demonstrated, not only by the long list of African Americans who have been killed by police officers or who have died in police custody, but have also been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Race and social inequality
“I found it very interesting to find out why,” he said, “and certainly it’s to do with the social conditions in which people live” because they are at the lowest rung of the ladder and are severely affected by health issues because they can’t afford to pay for health care.
All of this, Ambassador Johannes continued, has channelled the anger of people who are frustrated with the leadership they have.
And, he added, it’s significant not only for the United States, noting that anger and demands for justice expressed by the Black Live Matter movement have “escalated globally for the first time in years forcing people to focus on the issue of race that’s always been skirted around, left aside and ignored, and now all governments have been challenged to rectify the situation.”
Asked whether he thinks America has any lessons to learn from South Africa, the Ambassador recalled the reconciliation process that took place when the apartheid regime was dismantled allowing people to speak openly about their pain and grievances.
“Maybe America also needs a reconciliation process where people can speak about what has happened to their families,” he said.
The fact that issues of injustice and anger are coming to the surface is very helpful, he reiterated, as the United States isn’t seen as a racially divided country, but is dealing with deep-rooted questions that need to be urgently addressed.
It is helpful, he added, also because it is raising issues connected to colonialism and the slave trade , in many other countries as well, including the UK.
“It brings the deprived, the people on the peripheries to centre stage, saying ‘we too have to be counted’, not just the privileged few,” he said.
The fact that all this has come to the fore during the lockdowns imposed by the pandemic, the Ambassador said, means that people have the time to reflect on what is happening and perhaps take note that in their own countries there may be injustices to address, because if not: “it's going to be far more dangerous than the coronavirus.”
From his perspective as an anti-apartheid activist, as a member of South Africa’s ruling ANC party and as a diplomat, Johannes voiced his opinion that racism should be addressed by international organizations that aim to safeguard fundamental rights.
“Maybe the UN and other multilateral bodies have to start addressing the issue of racism:
during the ’80s apartheid was seen as a Crime Against Humanity,” he said. So, he continued systemic racism and racial harassment should perhaps also be considered crimes to be brought before the International Criminal Court of Justice.
The Struggle continues
Finally, thinking back to the long years of the South African Struggle for democracy and to the struggles of many other oppressed peoples in the past century, Ambassador Johannes expressed his belief that “the Black Lives Matter movement is going to be with us for much longer” because, he said, it regards the lives of ‘One Human Family’ as Pope Francis describes humanity in his encyclical Laudato si’.
“So, I think we must never lose sight of the fact that the struggle continues.”