Black reparations are impossible within the terms of this world. If slavery is the material and metaphysical womb of the modern world, reparations will require nothing less than the end of this world. Our former enslavers and colonisers know this all too well. Undoubtedly, if a reparation agreement were to be reached for crimes against Black people in the mould of the 1952 agreement between Germany and Israel to compensate for the Holocaust, reparations would bankrupt and collapse the Western economy. We must therefore confront the terrifying fact that reparations cannot be offered within the terms of this world order: writes Panashe Chigumadzi

You do not say sorry with your mouth. Our historical consciousness of African moral law demands that we ask the Dutch, the French, the British, the Portuguese, the Germans, and all our other enslavers and colonisers—“Nixolisa ngani?” With what are you apologising?

This is the core of our African restorative justice and jurisprudence.

As Black people, we ask, “Nixolisa ngani?” because it is understood, that the material makes manifest the spirit of intent. Reparations enflesh the spirit of atonement in our material world.

“Nixolisa ngani?” is a question that demands that our enslavers and colonisers open their hands and show us the substance of their apologies.

We must be clear about what we are demanding – reparations will require nothing less than the end of this world, as we know it. To demand reparation is to demand remembrance. To repair is to remember. It is to remember how we arrived here. It is to have a historical memory of the past, present, and future. And so, let us begin at the beginning:

Our former enslavers and colonisers know this all too well, and it is for this reason that they will refuse to open their hands, go beyond regrets and so-called apologies, and give reparations. To give reparations is to end the world, to turn upside down everything that this 600-year-old modern world system is built upon. To demand reparations is to confront the terrifying reality that everything in our material and metaphysical worlds will have to change.

With Apartheid, South Africa having staged the most compelling political drama of the 20th century, global whiteness held its breath in anticipation of a night of the long knives for white South Africa on the eve of Black majority rule. Instead, Mandela’s South Africa gave a world at the end of history a “miracle” – a rainbow bending towards justice. Mandela’s post-Apartheid “miracle” seemingly absolved global whiteness of its sins.

After 1994’s negotiated settlement secured Black political rights with the protection of white property rights, Mandela’s post-Apartheid government mandated the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). South Africa would not go the Nuremberg way. South Africa would go to church. Presided over by a purple-robed Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the world held the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the exemplar of overcoming history and achieving global racial reconciliation.

As he presided over the TRC, Archbishop Tutu thrust Ubuntu—the African philosophy best understood through the concept “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (a person is a person through other people) into the global imagination. Describing the rationale for amnesty at the TRC as rooted in Ubuntu, Tutu said, “African jurisprudence is restorative rather than retributive.”

And yet, Tutu’s theology of grace and forgiveness was grounded in what his former comrade and colleague Reverend Allan Boesak later critiqued as a “Christianised Ubuntu.” Tutu’s TRC was given the limited two-year mandate to hear allegations of “human rights abuses” between March 1 1960 (the month of the Sharpeville massacre), to May 10 1994 (the date of Mandela’s inauguration).

This was a painfully inadequate 44-year time limit on injustice in a country where the Dutch conquest of the Cape in 1652 is the genesis of centuries of genocide, slavery, indenture and land dispossession. Cape Dutch slavery is the womb of 342 years of racial terror that nominally ended with the fall of Apartheid. We cannot begin to address Apartheid’s master-servant relations without addressing the master-slave relations of the Cape.

The TRC, nominally rooted in Ubuntu’s restorative justice, disregarded South Africa’s foundational centuries of racial terror, even though African jurisprudence declares: “Ityala aliboli” (A crime does not rot).” In other words, because Ubuntu operates across time and space—a person is a person through those who have come before us, those who come with us, and those who come after us—there is no time limit for injured persons to approach the court of law for justice, redress, and reparations.

Ubuntu’s demand for restorative justice therefore holds no statute of limitations. And yet, by limiting the period of redress to 44 years, the TRC denied the specific centrality and historicity of slavery in the formation of South African society.

By disregarding South Africa’s centuries of foundational terror and circumscribing them 44 years, the TRC was in fact not bound by African jurisprudence, but, as Boesak rightly asserted, by a “Christianised Ubuntu.” Without the mandate to right the historic conquest of the land and its peoples, Tutu’s impossible task as the head of the TRC was to wield a Christianised Ubuntu to reconcile Black and white South Africa into a single nation he called “God’s Rainbow People.”

Apartheid’s victims wanted the truth. One million black viewers made the weekly “TRC: Special Report” the highest-rated public affairs broadcast at the time.

Apartheid’s beneficiaries refused to confront the truth. Few white South Africans watched “TRC: Special Report,” and the objection of white radio listeners to TRC broadcasts caused its rescheduling to a time after 8 pm, “when most of the farmers are no longer listening.”

Apartheid’s architects refused to repent. Apartheid-era president PW Botha declared, “I only apologise for my sins before God.”

While white South Africans did not repent, or make themselves humble, they were surprised by and grateful for the lack of so-called “bitterness” and acts of “vengeance” shown toward them by black South Africans. Beyers Naudé, a Dutch Reformed minister who was one of the few Afrikaners to publicly oppose Apartheid, declared, “In some incredible way God has sown the seeds of a gracious attitude, of the spirit of Ubuntu, in the hearts and minds of the whole African community.”

Naudé’s awe at the seeming miraculousness of the transition revealed some of how even the more sincere, committed part of white South Africa has failed to truly reckon with what the radical ethical demands of Ubuntu require of them if they are to have meaningful reconciliation with Black people.

As Black people, we ask “nixolisa ngani?” Because it is understood, you do not say sorry with your mouth. The material makes manifest the spirit of intent. Reparations enflesh the spirit of atonement in our material world.

Ubuntu holds that ukuhlawula (paying reparations for injuries caused to others) is indivisible from ukubuyisa (the restoration of injured relations). Ubuntu demands costly forgiveness; you cannot receive forgiveness without giving something up as an act of your contrition.

So, we ask again, with what are you apologising?

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