Fighting for Justice

29 Aug

It is only 20 years since we witnessed the beginning of the end of Apartheid in South Africa. It heralded a new era of emancipation for the black community who had for so long been disenfranchised as ‘non-citizens’ under a system of racial discrimination and became victims of repression and state-sponsored violence. We know of the courage and sacrifice of icons such as Nelson Mandela but little do we know of the unspoken resistance of the masses who gave birth to this freedom, those who tirelessly struggled for justice amidst great risk to their lives. We think of Steve Biko, through his writings and activism, and the protestors who lost their lives in the Sharpeville Massacre. All gave some but some truly gave all.

The end of Apartheid was a small yet significant victory for our common humanity, of which we are all inextricably linked, and for justice in particular. However, many communities around the world still continue to be deprived of their basic dignity, identity and liberty even today. We have all heard of the horrors of Rwanda, Bosnia and also Darfur in Sudan in recent memory. But for every mass atrocity publicised there is another serious human rights violation which goes under the radar of our collective conscience. Whether it is due to vested strategic and geopolitical interests or simply moral bankruptcy, today’s states have shown a disturbing trend towards forfeiting our fundamental humanitarian values. In some cases even acting as arbitrators of ‘selective’ justice and respect for human rights.

‘Never again’ was the rallying cry by all who believed that we must speak out against acts of genocide. But many silent victims of such crimes against humanity, like ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka, have become casualties of the oppressor as well as international duplicity, where nations are playing poker politics with people’s lives. On a local level many of us have become anesthetised, consumed by a culture of apathy towards mass suffering in distant lands (take the recent floods in Pakistan). Not least due to the media which aids our ignorance through partisan coverage (euphemism for propaganda) of foreign affairs, manipulating public opinion to align with their agenda.

Amidst this moral vacuum, minority groups around the world like Sri Lanka’s Tamils (like the Armenians before them) face an uphill struggle to have their voices heard. Despite the undeniable and unmistakable history of their persecution, for these communities justice as never before has become an elusive and precious commodity. In the words of that renowned champion of human rights, Martin Luther King Jr, our leaders and policy makers will do well to realise that “justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere”.

Some months ago, during a conversation with a friend, I had an opportunity to contemplate what it meant to apply oneself for a cause, to revisit the struggle which anti-Apartheid activists and others dedicated themselves to – the fight for justice. Here is my take which I hope will give you solace and succour through your own struggles, and maybe like Mandela or Biko for a worthy cause. We must never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has!

“Fighting for justice is like sitting in a tiny boat and rowing against the tide, being tempered by both the winds and resistance against its course (or shall I say, cause). Rowing towards your port of call, you have nothing but two oars, unflinching determination and the knowledge that others would be better because you made that journey, however arduous it may be.

Each one of us works that boat but it is on the collective effort that it reaches it destination. There is no map but only moral conscience to chart the way. The sad irony is, once you reach your refuge (against all odds), it’s only then that the onlookers realise the journey made was for the humanity of us all and ask themselves why they’d not stepped in to the boat and rowed with you.”

In developed countries we have forgotten the real value of freedom. We will do well to realise that it was the sacrifice of our forefathers which ensured what we conceive to be our inalienable right today. Why then should we see the freedom of other cultures any different to our own? Freedom is a universal right; it is not just for some people but for all people, and not just for one time but for all time. Should not the right to self-determination be the fundamental right of a people, to determine their own political status without external interference?

The case of Tamils in Sri Lanka is a valid example. Their heritage, history and independent existence as a separate state over a distinct territory for several centuries was lost during successive European colonisation (Portuguese, Dutch, and then British). In 1833 the Tamil Kingdom was artificially merged for ‘administrative convenience’ with its adjacent Sinhala Kingdom, in to a single political entity, and became a dominion of the British Empire. The country (then Ceylon) eventually gained independence from Britain in 1948, but was left under a chauvinistic constitution of the now majority community (the Sinhala-Buddhists), who effectively became the new colonial masters. The once sovereign Tamil nation has since been reduced to the position of subject people under systematic ‘Apartheid-like’ oppression.

Just as did the black population in South Africa, the Tamils continue to struggle for their legitimate freedom amidst an absence of peace, justice and accountability, with even more unpardonable crimes perpetrated against them. Yet we witnessed during those dark days of Apartheid in SA that freedom is a flame of truth within the heart and soul that cannot be extinguished or swayed, no matter what the external scene may hold. As with Mandela and his people’s long walk to freedom, we must remember that freedom is never really free. It is never given, it is won, and its victory belongs to the most persevering.


2 Responses to “Fighting for Justice”

  1. Trung August 29, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    well written, atticus. the world needs more stephen bikos. regarding the media, i think i have seen scant mention of these crises (darfur and sri lanka) on any of the major outlets; at lest here in the US. i can’t say i’m surprised, but i think that also adds to conditioning of the population to be so aloof and apathetic about it. i am quite sure if people saw images and knew what has truly happened, they would be outraged and demand justice. keep up the good work!

  2. Kaitlin Burnett August 29, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

    I love the quote you chose. Sadly, it continues to ring true, no matter the fight of the day. Nelson Mandela and Stephen Biko were, and are, heroes. We continue to be inspired by them, to venerate them. It seems we’ve forgotten what they taught us, though; the subjugation of the Tamils by the Sinhalese, made possible by the legacy of colonialism, is the exact same kind of situation that our noble heroes fought against. Too bad we never seem to realize that.

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