Nelson Mandela & the need for restorative justice

Dec 3, 2013, 12:15 pm

Dawud Walid: Nelson Mandela and the need for restorative justice


American cinemas will be filled this weekend with audiences watching “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” about the iconic South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. While I’m anticipating going to see this movie, the struggle of Mandela and his people also reminds me of the need for societies to celebrate such personalities while also keeping in mind that true justice is restorative in nature.

Mandela, who served 27 years in prison for resisting racist apartheid, was not seen as a hero by many in our society.

Former President Ronald Reagan considered him to be a terrorist, and there were many in Congress, including Dick Cheney, who opposed legislation to hold South Africa accountable for its deeply institutionalized racism. Later, Mandela was hailed as a hero throughout America during his 1990 Freedom Tour, which included Detroit. He rose to become South Africa’s first indigenous president and was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2002.

Despite greater political access for indigenous people, South Africa is very far away from having a just society. Due to white Afrikaners’ continued control of natural resources, means of distribution of goods and the legacy of mass accumulation of wealth and property, the majority black population has advanced little after two decades in terms of economic opportunities and standard of living.

America has a similar, though perhaps less pronounced, dilemma as South Africa. We just celebrated a national holiday of Thanksgiving, which has some mythology attached to it while ignoring the ethnic cleansing that Native Americans suffered shortly after pilgrims traveled here on the Mayflower. Despite some Native American reservations that generate casino revenue, Native Americans suffer the highest percent of poverty in America followed by the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Socioeconomic problems and depravity among marginalized groups didn’t magically pop up in vacuums. They have are historical roots and contemporary negative effects on groups of people.

Restorative justice is not simply about getting laws on the books that provide equality on paper, but active governmental involvement on the state and federal levels to ensure that all Americans have equal access to the same public education and economic opportunities. It’s about offering a level playing field, not based upon the legacy of privilege. If the playing field is not level, then there can be no real justice, only the further solidification of structural inequality. The playing field in America is still far from level.

So as we look at movies like “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and celebrate similar personalities, let’s not treat them and their stories like warm and fuzzy Santa Klaus types that make us feel like we have gotten past the legacy of racism. Rather, reflection on such heroes should challenge all of us to think about how we can reach the ultimate destination that they strove for and what can we and our government due to assist in making America become truly the land of “liberty and justice for all.”



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