On Collective responsibility

On Collective responsibility

Who Is Responsible For The Legacy Of Apartheid In South Africa?

By Dr Rianna Oelofsen (University of Fort Hare, South Africa)

September 13, 2016         Picture: John Wessels/Getty.

This article is part of The Critique’s September/October 2016 Issue “The Bright Continent: Illuminating The Challenges, Opportunities & Promises Of A Rising Africa”.

The issue of whether ’whites’ can and should be held responsible for apartheid related harms is a question which repeatedly surfaces in the South African context. There is general acceptance that harms were committed under apartheid, and a general sense of what they were, but whether someone or some group (and if so who exactly) should take responsibility for this is a question for which there is no agreed upon answer. Attribution of responsibility (and subsequent recognition of and acting on this recognition) needs to be agreed upon in order for reparations (if any) necessary for reconciliation in South Africa to take place. If one group does not see themselves as responsible, and therefore do not see themselves as having to pay any form of reparation, while another group sees this same group as having to pay reparations as a necessary condition for reconciliation, this will perpetually undermine the project of reconciliation. This issue has become more pertinent with regards to student and political organizations such as the Fees Must Fall (FMF) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) demanding that white people “give back the land”. In this article I will argue that, yes, certain race groups can and should be held collectively responsible for the legacy of apartheid. However, this is complicated, as race groups are not the only groups that bear collective responsibility.

Apartheid is best understood as a collective crime, in the sense that it could not have been enacted by an individual person , nor to an individual person. This is because it was a crime structured around group identities, drawn along racial and ethnic lines, in order to oppress the groups whose identities were pronounced to be ‘lower’ according to the apartheid racial hierarchy. Both the victims/survivors and perpetrators/beneficiaries of apartheid cannot simply be understood as isolated individuals who are the victims/survivors or perpetrators/beneficiaries of harm. If the harms of apartheid are merely understood on this individual level, a central part of the harm is ignored, namely its structural features. These structural features would include, for example, the different tiers of education implemented under apartheid according to ‘race groups’, forced removals, the migrant workers system which separated families, discrimination with regards to the jobs one could apply for or where one could live, and the psychological impact of structuring society along racial lines.

As I have claimed that apartheid was a collective crime, it seems prima facie plausible that collective responsibility is appropriate. The concept of collective responsibility attributes responsibility to groups, as opposed to individuals, understood as in isolation from one another, as “collective responsibility associates both causation and blameworthiness with groups and construes groups as moral agents in their own right.”[1] From an examination of the structural nature of the crime of apartheid, and the fact that it is a collective crime, it can be argued that collective and shared responsibility are vital components of dealing with its aftermath. As such, when the subject of collective responsibility for apartheid is mentioned, many people are of the opinion that the issue is simple: white people are collectively responsible for apartheid, and as such can and should be held accountable as a group through paying reparations. While I am sympathetic to this claim, and I do think that reparations are in order for apartheid crimes, it seems that the issue is not necessarily as simple as it would at first appear.

While I believe that white privilege applies to white people who grew up under the apartheid regime, as well as to white people born after the first democratic elections in 1994 (known as ‘born frees’), white privilege does not necessarily equal collective responsibility, nor does it mean that people who have white privilege are “guilty” of any crimes, or are “to blame” for the current situation in which black people are still economically and educationally deprived as compared to white people. However, white privilege does mean that white people have a certain “responsibility” for rectifying the harms of apartheid and its continued legacy.


The importance of ‘Race’

South Africa under apartheid discriminated against most of its inhabitants on the basis of race. Policies on race determined which schools one attended, which area one could live in, which employment one was eligible for, who one could have romantic relations with, and so on, to name but a few relevant policies. The concept of race is still an all important one in the South African context.


“White privilege does not necessarily equal collective responsibility, but does mean that white people have a certain “responsibility” for rectifying the harms of apartheid and its continued legacy”.


Many South Africans see race as still being central to identity. When I refer to race, I am referring to a socially and historically constructed category which has had, and continues to have, a great effect on people’s life choices, opportunities and challenges. The term ‘race’ is never meant to pick out more than that, and especially does not refer to any essentialist or biological understanding of the term. ‘Race’ as a biological term, refers to nothing more than morphological features and therefore does not translate into any pre-determined moral or intellectual capacities. There is only one human race in the biological sense, and so speaking of ‘races’ is only legitimate when it is recognized that race is a socially constructed category.[2]

As a result of its colonial and apartheid history, and the role that race played in this history, race is still an important sociological category in South Africa today.[3] This is as a result of the erroneous beliefs that earlier generations (and unfortunately, some of the current generation) had about racial determinism of moral and intellectual characteristics, and the consequences of these beliefs on how people were treated. The history of oppression, denial of opportunities and poverty, all rationalized by this outdated belief in biological racial difference and hierarchy, has shaped the opportunities, self-esteem, and group identities of so called ‘race-groups’ to this day, and continues to do so.

The continued difference in life expectations according to race in South Africa[4] can be interpreted as one indicator which could be used to measure whether someone is able to live a flourishing life. Not having the capacity to live a flourishing life is a prime example of how prejudice against a group in the past has caused particular circumstances (in this case, not being able to lead flourishing lives), which in turn perpetuates the prejudice.[5] Being able to lead a flourishing life is affected by economic position, as one’s economic situation determines the quality of nutrition, medical care and education one can afford. People find themselves in their current social positions as a result of the circumstances in which their parents are raising them. Some very basic examples of this include the impact of the quality of nutrition on the development of young children, as well as the proven importance of mental stimulation at an early age, and how that affects people’s chances later in life.

If, as a result of their impoverished state, parents are unable to provide the kind of environment in which these factors are adequately attended to, mostly due to their identities constructed as ‘non-white’ under apartheid, this gives a straightforward explanation of how the race classifications of apartheid still impact young people today. In other words, the structural racial inequalities in South Africa seem to persist, and as a result an average black person will have far less chances for a flourishing life than the average white person. But the fact that less black people lead a flourishing life perpetuates some people’s prejudices against black people. This is possible as people (especially racist people) ignore the structural causes of the failure to lead flourishing lives, and blame their failure on the individuals themselves, such as blaming their failure on laziness or choosing to fall in with criminal elements.

In conjunction with this, the historical legacy and classification of the population according to ‘race’ classifications in South Africa has resulted in a strong identification of individuals with their ascribed ‘race groups’. As a result, it is difficult to imagine that race would not still play a central role in the current South African political landscape. Racial identity is still central to how most people think of themselves (even if there are some in the country who claim to not think of themselves in this way). Racial identity was, and to a large extent still is, a major determinant of people’s life chances in South Africa, and it therefore continues to play a central role in how people classify themselves, and also how they are classified and treated by others. An explanation of how a (strictly speaking) non-existing biological category can have this impact on people’s identity centers on how the perception of these different ‘races’ as having different qualities can have very real effects. For example, empirical studies[6] have shown that applying positive or negative labels to children affect their performance in the classroom; each label acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the same way, expectations and the ascription of stereotypical features of a race group to individuals, and treating them as if they already instantiate these features, could affect their behavior to align with expectations.

Race then, in this sociological sense, denotes more than mere morphological features (or even average economic disparities) but rather points towards certain meanings attached to these features in the society’s symbolic order.[7] Even when people are inclined to dismiss race-talk, I would argue that people who are taking this stance are simply unaware of the deep racial construction of their identity. In certain circles it is accepted that ‘whiteness’ consists of “a social location of structural privilege in the right kind of racialized society.”[8] The social constitution of white identity affects and benefits all whites, and the implication of this, I argue, is that there is the need for collective and shared responsibility on the part of whites as a group, and white individuals as a part of that group.

However, as important as ‘race’ and especially ‘white privilege’ is in the South African context, this importance does not translate into only white people having to bear collective responsibility for the legacy of apartheid. As I will show, while it is true that white people are in fact collectively responsible for some aspects of the apartheid legacy, we should shy away from simplistic understandings which would attribute all collective responsibility to only white people as a group.


Afro-communitarianism and group responsibility

There are three central ways of understanding group responsibility in Western philosophical literature; namely the conspiracy, cost-benefit, and solidarity models of collective responsibility. Whereas these models are usually applied separately, as mutually exclusive possibilities, to conceptually understand collective responsibility, I will argue that all three of these models are to be applied simultaneously if we take an Afro-communitarian perspective. By applying the models simultaneously, it is shown that while it is true that race groups have to take collective responsibility and that therefore individuals share in this collective responsibility as a result of their race, this is not the only aspect of collective responsibility. In addition, collective responsibility will apply to other groups as well, such as for example ‘economic beneficiaries’, the membership of which cannot be reduced to ‘race’. Through showing how these different aspects of collective responsibility apply to the post-apartheid context, this should clarify how, while ‘race’ group responsibility is still operative, there are other types of group responsibility which also need to be emphasised.

According to the African perspective[9] on responsibility (which I will take in this article), the agent and her moral responsibilities are necessarily related to the community which the individual finds herself in. As the community creates the person, the person is dependent on her community and her agency, moral compass and personality is formed by the community in central ways. According to this understanding of the person and of morality, moral responsibility cannot be merely individualistic. In some ways there has to be responsibility for the group, the collective – and this then needs to be shared amongst the members of the group. All the individuals in the community are related and their relationships constitute this collective agent, and thus their relationships also constitute its collective virtues or vices. Whether these relationships are ‘virtuous’ or ‘vicious’ determines whether the society is virtuous or vicious, and what makes them virtuous or vicious is whether the relationships realize, or develop, the collective agent. According to this African understanding of the person, more is expected from the individual in terms of recognizing complicity in and taking responsibility for collectively (but also individually) perpetrated harms.[10] This African understanding of the person will be referred to as “Afro-communitarianism” for the rest of the article.

Why would Afro-communitarianism expect more from individual and communal agents in terms of responsibility? The answer is that the diffused communal self would be responsible for actions of her community to a greater extent than if she was an atomistic individual. From the community’s perspective, it would, as a collective, be responsible for the actions of each of the individuals within that community. In other words, the person understood in an Afro-communitarian way has more duties towards her community than would be claimed from an individualistic perspective. That a person has such strong duties to the community, and might be held responsible for the community, might seem a foreign concept to someone with an individualistic understanding of the person, and might even seem grossly unfair according to the individualistic worldview.


Group responsibility for apartheid

Now that a brief outline of an Afro-communitarian view of collective responsibility has been provided, I will continue by interrogating the concept of collective responsibility with respect to apartheid. How could and should responsibility be attributed in the aftermath of apartheid, and how would this affect different groups? How, and to whom, ought group responsibility to be ascribed?


“Afro-communitarianism might seem a foreign concept to someone with an individualistic understanding of the person, and might even seem grossly unfair according to the individualistic worldview”.


In order to frame the analysis I look at three central Western models of collective responsibility. These three central models of collective responsibility, focus on three different types of relationships, each embodying a set of criteria to distinguish any given collective from countless possible alternatives, in order to ascertain which collectives are responsible. These three models are, 1) the solidarity model, 2) the conspiracy model and, 3) the cost-benefit models.[11] Generally, only one of these three models is adopted, namely, the model that best informs the specific concerns of their line of inquiry. However, these models are not incompatible with one another, despite the common practice of applying only one model in a specific case. That they are not necessarily incompatible becomes clear when it is emphasized that these models could be interpreted as highlighting three different types of relationships between people and groups.


The solidarity model

When people are in solidarity with each other, they cooperate with one another, and look after each other’s interests. When you say you stand in solidarity with a group, you are saying that you identify with that group’s purposes and goals. The common interests of group members therefore provide a justification for group and individual action. A proponent of the solidarity model, Joel Feinberg, explains that a “group has solidarity to the degree that its members have mutual interests, bonds of affection, and a “common lot.”. [12] Such a community often entails that group members feel affection for each other, and this affection results in supporting fellow group members in numerous ways. Importantly, if you are in solidarity with a group, any harm to an individual group member would affect you, as you feel affection for fellow group members and share their interests.

From an individualistic understanding of personhood, relationships of ‘solidarity’ are contingent, whereas for the Afro-communitarian, such bonds of sentiment and solidarity are inevitable. The solidarity model emphasizes the importance of community in how people form their identity. If a group sees themselves as having a ‘common lot’ and ‘shared interests’, when these interests are perceived to be threatened, this would be interpreted and experienced as attacks on the collective self, and thus responses are interpreted as ‘self-defense’ or ‘pre-emptive attacks’, even when the particular individuals are not directly affected when understood from an individualistic view of personhood. Thus, whereas collective responsibility according to the solidarity model is a possibility, even from an individualistic understanding of personhood, such responsibility is a necessity from an Afro-communitarian understanding of personhood.

Any harm that result from that group’s interests, goals, purposes and affections, makes that group collectively responsible for the harm. If an individual is in solidarity with a particular group, then that individual, as a member of that group, shares in the collective responsibility of harms perpetrated by the group, or even by group members. Shared attitudes within the group create a situation in which certain harms are made possible, and the group is therefore responsible for those harms. For example, if there is a situation in which a group shares racist attitudes, this makes it possible for certain racist harms to occur, whereas these harms would not be possible in a community which did not share racist attitudes. White people in South Africa, as a general rule, will deny that they are in solidarity with other whites. However, as some recent incidents covered in the media have shown,[13] it seems that white people do support other whites when they are in trouble, and as such it can be argued that the solidarity is there even if some whites do not admit it.

The main point to understand with regards to this model and its relationship to Afro-communitarianism is that it is not always possible to deny a relationship of solidarity when you are a member of a certain community, as the individual is constituted by that community. In other words, the fact that being a member of a certain group is not something you consciously identify with, might not change the fact that you are, in fact, a member of that group through solidarity. In order to reject the group identity, you would have to explicitly work against these factors that implicitly include you in a group. Even this will not guarantee that you would succeed in escaping membership of the group, because while you are consciously working against some of these interests and attitudes, the reality is that many of your interests and attitudes are not ones you consciously choose or have full control over. In fact, you may remain blind to some of your shared interests and attitudes with others, and so be unable to override these factors and therefore be unable to distance yourself from the group.


“The fact that being a member of a certain group is not something you consciously identify with, might not change the fact that you are, in fact, a member of that group through solidarity”.


The solidarity model, and the relationships it embodies, is easily mis-judged to be the only important type of relationship between an individual and her group that needs attention according to the Afro-communitarian worldview. This judgment is as a result of the easy identification of the importance of “solidarity” in the Afro-communitarian worldview with the “solidarity” focused on in this model. However, as will become clear, the other two models of collective responsibility are just as important, and also necessary to take into account according to the Afro-communitarian understanding of personhood.


The conspiracy model

The conspiracy model of collective responsibility, maintains that if you are a member of a group, and you can influence certain decisions of the group, that means that you can be held responsible for some actions of the group (or actions of other members of the group) by virtue of that participation. For example, democratic nation states and corporations have the type of decision-making structures in place that means some individual members could be held responsible for actions of the group. This is for the reason that these groups have actions and intentions that can be attributed to the group as a whole. This means that the intentions and actions are not simply applicable to some individuals within the group, but are applicable to the group as a whole. The individual has the power to influence the decision making process to a greater or lesser extent, and the share of responsibility the individual bears will depend on how much power she had to influence the decision making structures, and hence the final outcomes of group action. The individual needs to stay informed with regards to group actions that are being perpetrated in her name, and ensure that she agrees with these actions. If she does not, she can remove herself from the responsible collective by lobbying against certain decisions taken by the group. Lobbying against particular group actions would mean that the individual is no longer a part of the relevant collective, as she is no longer supporting the decision-making structures under these circumstances. [14]

The relevant relationship in question here is where you either nominate someone to act on your behalf, or where you recognize that a particular decision-making structure represents the group in question. The particular role of the individual within the decision-making procedure will be vital to determine if that individual can be attributed with a portion of in the collective responsibility for decisions that caused harm. For instance, a worker who does not have access to information, nor has any power to influence decisions within the corporation, cannot be held responsible. She is not a member of the decision-making structure, and so is not in fact a member of the relevant collective. Similarly, in democratic nation states, opposition parties and their supporters cannot be held responsible for actions or state policies that they explicitly disagree with.

How is this relevant for the Afro-communitarian view of the person and morality? According to Afro-communitarianism, the community constitutes you in certain central ways. Certain situations may require that specific individuals or smaller groups represent the interests of the larger group as a whole, in order to further the group’s interests. A harmonious and flourishing community requires that representatives do, in fact, correctly interpret and further the interests of the represented collective. There needs to be harmony and agreement between the decision-making structures (and thus decision makers or leaders) and the people they are meant to represent. Unless the people they are meant to represent support and condone the decision-making structure, there will be obvious discord in this specific community. As a community, the relationship between leaders and supporters are central, and as soon as this relationship breaks down from either side, the society cannot be said to flourish in any meaningful way.

The main point to understand with regards to this model and its relationship to Afro-communitarianism is that as much as the group is important under the Afro-communitarian view, it is also important to understand that there are leaders and decision-making structures within collectives which cannot and should not be ignored. In other words, just because there is a collective, this does not mean that the relevant collective contains individuals with equal amounts of power. That said, it is also important to recognize that it is the support of the community, in many respects, which grants individuals their power as representatives. In other words, some individuals or structures within the collective could have the power to steer the collective in certain directions, and even though it is still the other individuals comprising the group’s choices to follow this lead, it needs to be recognized that dissent will be much more difficult than simply assenting. For this reason, people in powerful positions and decision making structures within the collective would bear more responsibility than others in the collective for specific group actions.


The cost-benefit model

According to the cost-benefit model of group responsibility, when you are a member of a particular group that means that you gain certain benefits from that membership, and as a result you ought to also bear certain costs.[15] If you benefit from being a member of a group, that means that you bear some responsibility for the actions of your fellow group members. If a particular group gains benefits through unjust means, there is a special duty to rectify the harms resulting from the injustice. This duty is to be understood as the cost of having received the benefits from the injustice. In the case of apartheid, members of the group classified “white” gained benefits from the system. White South Africans benefitted, for instance in terms of higher standards of education higher paid salaries andjob protection . As a result, white people ought to take responsibility for some of the harms that resulted from the system (for example black poverty, economic exploitation and poor education for blacks). There is a special duty of rectification and reparation as a result of benefitting from harm to another group.

The main point to understand with regards to this model and its relationship to Afro-communitarianism is to recognize that the benefits from community include the formation of personhood. In other words, we owe our very subjectivity and personhood, according to Afro-communitarianism, to the community in which we live and survive, and the social groups into which we were born. The individual is constituted by the community. If that is the case, then even the benefits of subjectivity itself need to be recognized – for example, the subtle advantages of “whiteliness” as explained previously. As Samantha Vice writes concerning white South Africans, “[o]ne is—even if unavoidably—a continuing product of white privilege and benefiting from it, implicated in and enacting injustice in many subtle ways”.[16] These benefits of subjectivity (such as self-confidence, knowing how to carry oneself in particular situations, etc.) are often at the core of what people with an individualistic understanding of personhood deny. Their denial would include not even recognizing that they possess these benefits, or that others do not possess them. These individualists would simply not even consider that self-confidence and knowing how to carry oneself in particular situations are things which not everyone possesses.

According to the Afro-communitarian interpretation of the cost benefit model, the beneficiaries of injustice need to understand that they have benefitted as part of a collective self, and that this may be so even though they have not or might not have had individual choice in the matter. We recognize that the relevant relationship with regards to this model is that between beneficiaries and benefactors, and that these roles are not always consciously chosen ones, but are often inherited and decided by accident of birth. The Afro-communitarian understanding of personhood therefore entails that individuals recognize the collective ‘self’ they are enmeshed in, and how this collective self might be indebted to other collectives as a result of having exploited these groups in the past.

Whether you are (or were) ignorant of the fact that benefits you gained were as a result of the exploitation and oppression of others is irrelevant in this case. It is also not possible to distance oneself from having benefitted in particular ways, by rejecting the group identity with which she is affiliated. In accordance with Afro-communitarianism, the individual and who she is, is understood to have been formed by her community, relationships, and material circumstances which may be beyond her control. Using the cost-benefit model, it does not matter how much an individual tries to distance herself from the collective, as, no matter what she does, she cannot escape her share of collective responsibility. Some benefits, such as having received a higher standard of education, for example, are simply impossible[17] to give up. Nevertheless, it is still the case that as a beneficiary of better education, if that education was gained as the result of an unjust system, you have a special duty to rectify the harms caused by the unjust system in question. Other benefits, such as a better financial position, could be given up, in this case through redistributing wealth. That could count as giving up on that benefit one accrued, yet will only allow the person to escape collective responsibility for that financial benefit if the person re-distributed the wealth with the explicit intention to make reparations to the group that was harmed. Giving all your money to your children, for example, would certainly not allow you to escape the responsibility you bear as an individual.


Analysis of some aspects of the three models of collective responsibility

Now that we are better acquainted with the three models of collective responsibility, allow me to highlight that these models, in the Western tradition, can be separated according to whether someone is in a specific group or not. They are descriptive when it comes to the nature of the collective agent. They hold that a collective agent does in fact exist, describes what the agent looks like, and analyzes what follows from that description. Each of these models of collective responsibility can also be said to focus on a specific kind of relationship, and highlight different dimensions of injustice applicable to each of these kinds of relationship. What the Afro-communitarian position would prescribe is, however, that all of these different types of interpersonal relationships need to be harmonious for a flourishing society, and that each of these types of relationships goes together with specific roles and duties for the individuals involved.

So, according to the Afro-communitarian position, the collective moral agent is not only descriptive, but also normative – in other words, prescriptive. Different types of relationships are at work in the different models of collective responsibility are therefore meant to create and foster new and stronger relationships between community members and, in this way, can work against an in-group out-group mentality.

For the Afro-communitarian the best outcome is that a harmonious relationship between the different agents involved is maintained or created. Indeed, in most of these cases, the contingent facts of history ensure that the relationship between the groups responsible and the groups or individuals harmed is one that neither group can escape. (In some cases, if possible, it may be better to sever the relationship, rather fostering other relationships which can be harmonious.) As a result, the Afro-communitarian position requires that all three models (in other words all three types of relationships) are addressed simultaneously, whereas it is possible to only apply one model to a situation in the Western tradition.[18] In the Afro-communitarian case, if these relationships are present in a particular situation, then they ought to be dealt with in order to try and move them to a more harmonious state. In contrast, in the Western case, it is not required that all the relationships are attended to in a particular situation (although someone coming from this perspective could still choose to do so).

As it is harmonious relationships per se, and not only one type of relationship, which is the goal of the Afro-communitarian ethics, all of these relationship types need attention, whereas collective responsibility in the Western context and literature is often directed at one aspect of the situation, or only one type of relationship. In the Afro-communitarian framework, these three models of collective responsibility are applicable to the South African situation, as each of them focuses on a specific set of responsibilities resulting from a specific type of relationship. Each set of responsibilities are pertinent to the overall set of injustices that make up the legacy of apartheid. Together, they paint a picture of the complicated range of injustices that still plague the South African post-apartheid landscape, and demand that the Afro-communitarian focus on responsibilities for all of these injustices, structural as well as individual, in order to aim for harmonious relationships in all these categories.

A result of this analysis, is that individual people in South African could (and would) belong to more than one group that might bear different collective responsibility for particular injustices. This is possible as individuals in a community stand in different relationships to each other, and being in one type of relationship does not preclude that person also being in another type of relationship. Individuals would be responsible for a share of the collective responsibility of different groups, i.e. according to both the solidarity and/or conspiracy and/or cost-benefit models.

Next, I apply the Afro-communitarian understanding of collective responsibility to the post-apartheid context, through showing how all three Western models of collective responsibility pick out important aspects of injustice for which there needs to be accountability.


Afro-communitarian responsibility for apartheid

As I have argued, understood from an Afro-communitarian perspective, all three models of collective responsibility are applicable in the South African context. The Afro-communitarian view of morality requires that all three types of collective responsibility are attended to in order to ensure that all the important relations are addressed in moving towards the goal of harmony, and therefore reconciliation. It will emerge that race groups per se, do not map onto the kinds of collectives that are pertinent to considerations of collective responsibility. So, then, if not races, which collectives are to be held responsible? In order to address this question, the three models of collective responsibility (the conspiracy, solidarity and cost-benefit models) as understood from the perspective of Afro-communitarianism are now applied to the post-apartheid South African case.


Solidarity model applied

Ideologies are supported by the attitudes and belief systems of people who support that ideology. For this reason, the solidarity model reinforces our intuition that people with racist beliefs and attitudes created a context in which certain physical and psychological harms could take place. However, we could still make distinctions between individuals and how much of the collective responsibility they share. For example, the person who holds the racist attitudes is responsible for racist harms, but to a lesser extent than the person who actually perpetrated those harms.

When we think of collective responsibility for apartheid, it is usually through the solidarity model that ‘whites’ are said to be responsible. White, especially Afrikaner, solidarity had the result that actions(such as the program to employ poor members of the group[19]), in line with group attitudes and intentions, were aimed at reaching a goal (in this case helping the impoverished Afrikaner). The solidarity model is therefore appropriate in order to hold South Africa’s Afrikaner (and even perhaps English) population responsible if they did not distance themselves from the practices of the apartheid state. This is in line the intuition that race groups, when in solidarity, are responsible for some harms under apartheid.

However, looking at the issue closely, responsibility under the solidarity model would not make all white people responsible for apartheid, but would rather hold all white people in solidarity with the apartheid government’s beliefs in racial hierarchy responsible. A white person could distance herself from attitudes of racial hierarchy, and as such would not be responsible under the solidarity model. As seen with some white struggle heroes (for example Joe Slovo), some whites need not be a part of the collective in solidarity, though this will require a drastic transformation of identity and distancing from their racial group. Once we understand this, it is apparent that according to this model, it would not be a racial group per se that would be collectively responsibility; rather it would be those individuals who share particular goals and attitudes as a group. As a result, this model would not prescribe collective responsibility merely on the grounds of racial classification.


Conspiracy model applied

There are two different harms of apartheid to which the conspiracy model will be applied, namely gross human rights violations (tortures, murders etc.) and economic exploitation.

With regards to gross human rights violations, the conspiracy model would pinpoint people part of the decision marking structures and hold them responsible. This would include members of parliament, other decision-making bodies, and also foot soldiers carrying out orders. Those responsible would therefore include direct perpetrators of the violations, people who ordered these human rights abuses aas well as those responsible for legislation and policy decisions that lead to gross human rights violations. The people who would have the greatest share of responsibility are the people with the most power with regards to decisions that resulted in gross human rights violations. This would include legislators and makers of policy,, people who ordered the implementation of these crimes, as well as the actual perpetrators of the crimes. Under this model, then, the ordinary white citizen cannot be held responsible for gross human rights violations, as she was not a part of the decision-making structures that resulted in these crimes.

However, when we look at the systematic economic exploitation of blacks, the conspiracy model would hold a much larger group responsible. Whites knew that most black people lived in poverty, and were aware that they were paid very little. Ordinary white citizens were aware that there was apartheid legislation in place which contributed to the poor economic situation of most black people. They were also voters, and should have realized that the apartheid legislation was unfair and exploitative, and therefore unjust. Poverty and economic exploitation of black people should have been apparent to any white citizen who cared to take notice. This would mean that all citizens who supported the apartheid government would be collectively responsible for a share of the harm of economic exploitation. However, white people who actively opposed the apartheid government cannot be held accountable.


“The ordinary white citizen cannot be held responsible for gross human rights violations under this model, as she was not a part of the decision making procedure that led to these crimes”.


This model of collective responsibility, despite its emphasis on individual choice and distancing the self from the relevant group, is still relevant and important from the Afro-communitarian perspective. It is true that leaders and representatives have more power than others in the collective, and this is reflected in the larger proportion of responsibility they would have to bear. Unfortunately, this understanding of collective responsibility with regards to gross human rights violation was not brought about in practice during the course of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as the most powerful and influential people who were called to testify did not do so, and yet did not suffer any retribution, and did not have to apply for amnesty. This has had the result that a few scapegoats were assigned the bulk of the responsibility for human rights violations, even though these scapegoats (Eugene de Kock is an example) were much lower on the hierarchy of power and decision-making capacities than people who refused to appear (such as former president PW Botha). This had the result that in practice the ‘foot soldiers’, as opposed to the ‘generals’, shouldered most of the blame for these atrocities. This is not in accordance with the understanding of responsibility according to the conspiracy model.


Cost benefit model applied

When looking at the benefits that were accrued under apartheid, it must be highlighted that most economic beneficiaries were white. It is also important to include in this economic benefit the next generation, who benefitted economically as a result of their parents having benefitted from a corrupt and unjust system. It is important to realize that the benefits accrued under apartheid did not simply end when the apartheid government was dismantled. The majority of those who were economically disadvantaged under the apartheid system remain in poverty to this day. Similarly, those who benefitted are largely still benefitting from the economic benefits they received.

Another subset of beneficiaries, let us call it structural psychological beneficiaries, can be seen to be limited to white South Africans. This relates directly back to the insights on whiteliness and how deeply race in fact affects white people. As the benefit accrued is a central part of what constitutes white identity, the white person cannot, or could not claim to make, a decision not to receive these benefits. A special duty exists in this case, and this duty would apply to white South Africans, for the benefits that their whiteness still affords them.

This would include their economic situation, but would also go further to include psychological aspects of whiteness. Yes, some whites did not benefit as much as others economically, and yes, some blacks are now benefitting economically, but there is one type of psychological benefit which is ingrained in contemporary South Africa. The type of benefit I am referring to here is the whitely way of doing and being,[20] and the symbolic order and racialized use of language that neither whites nor blacks can escape in the contemporary context. Whiteliness can be seen as a ‘benefit’, for the reason that it allows the person to see her own perspective as the only viable or respectable one, with assumptions of her position being ‘normal’ and her views ‘right’, and that the way she does and views things as just being ‘the way things really are’. It puts the white person squarely at the center of the world. She therefore does not have to engage with marginal positions, and can simply get on with doing things the way she sees fit. Being white, her perspective is assumed to be right by those around her within the current symbolic order and racialized use of language. Being ‘whitely’ will provide knowledge and benefits in a white dominated world such as not being regarded with suspicion, and having confidence in one’s own views. This kind of benefit is often not recognized by white people, and yet, once it is clear that there is such a benefit, the cost-benefit model would prescribe that there is a corresponding cost which white people ought to bear as a result of enjoying such a benefit.



With the application of the different models of collective responsibility to the South African case, it seems that collective responsibility applied only along racial lines is (mostly) unsatisfactory. It is only in one case (the case of collective responsibility for whiteliness) that collective responsibility can purely be reduced to race. Therefore, collective responsibility for apartheid cannot be divided only along racial lines. This is not to say that racial considerations should be discarded, but it does complicate the matter of collective responsibility for apartheid, as well as how the process of reconciliation can be continued.

Footnotes & References

[1] Smiley, Marion, “Collective Responsibility”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/collective-responsibility/>. Please also note this article is based on arguments from the article published in the South African Journal of Philosophy, 2008, 27(4).

[2] See Andreasen, R. (2000). ‘Race: Biological reality or social construct?’ Philosophy of Science, 67, S653-S666. And Taylor, P, 2000, “Appiah’s Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Reality of Race,” Social Theory and Practice 26 (1): 103–128. And 2004, Race: A Philosophical Introduction, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

[3] Cooper, A (2008). Review of ‘Why race matters in South Africa’ by MacDonald, M (2006). Africa Today, 54, 131-133.

[4] See Institute for Race Relations surveys and press releases http://www.sairr.org.za/

[5] This phenomenon has been discussed at in feminist literature, with regards to (for example) the intellectual capabilities of women. Once women were perceived to be not as intellectually capable, they were (still are in some contexts) not prioritized in (or even excluded from) education, which in turn skews the statistical presence of women who excel in intellectual endeavors.

[6] See Rosenthal, Robert; Jacobson, Lenore (1992). Pygmalion in the classroom (Expanded ed.). New York: Irvington

[7] See G. Stevens, V. Franchi, & T. Swart (Eds.). A race against time: Psychology and challenges to deracialisation in South Africa. Epping: ABC Press. (2006) for a collection of papers on the importance race still plays in identity construction in post-apartheid South Africa.

[8] Samantha Vice, ‘How do I live in this strange place?’ Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol 41 No 3 Fall 2010 p 324

[9] The African perspective I am referring to here is referred to in some academic literature as Afro-communitarianism or African communitarianism.

[10] This seems appropriate for a structural and collective crime such as apartheid, and the deeply contextually embedded understanding of the person in Afro-communitarianism would require that crimes of this nature require a collective and shared responsibility on the part of some groups in the society.

[11] Stacey Hoffman & Larry May, 1991, (eds.): Collective Responsibility. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. Lanham. Introduction pp 2-3

[12] Feinberg, Joel. 1968. ‘Collective Responsibility,’ The Journal of Philosophy, 65(21), Sixty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division. p 677

[13] http://www.netwerk24.com/Nuus/Algemeen/matriekmeisie-trane-van-dankbaarheid-wyl-hulp-instroom-20160729 This article is about all the help that a (white) school going girl received after her plight was made public in Afrikaans media. As the original article was in Afrikaans, it is fair to say that most of the readership, and also therefore most of the help, came from the white community.

[14] Stacey Hoffman & Larry May, 1991, (eds.): Collective Responsibility. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. Lanham. Introduction pp 2-3

[15] Stacey Hoffman & Larry May, 1991, (eds.): Collective Responsibility. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. Lanham. Introduction

[16] Samantha Vice, ‘How do I live in this strange place?’ Journal of Social Philosophy, Volume 41 No. 43 Fall 2010 p 6

[17] Nor would it be beneficial, even if it were possible.

[18] Marion Smiley notes that different models of collective responsibility are not incompatible (she isolates three similar ones, though not exactly the same as the ones dealt with here), but as they take you in different directions, in the Western context, usually only one model is applied. Smiley, M, 2011 “Collective Responsibility”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/collective-responsibility/>.

[19] Frank Füredi, The Silent War: Imperialism and the Changing Perception of Race, Rutgers University Press, 1998 pp66 – 67

[20] This whitely way of doing and being will be atomizing and isolate the individual from others, and as a result will be a handicap from the Afro-communitarian perspective. However, this does not preclude the possibility that being and doing things in a whitely manner also has its advantages for that particular individual, especially with regards to living up to whitely goals and standards. This will not, however, translate into a benefit for society as whole, as is required in the Afro-communitarian worldview.

Rianna Oelofsen
Rianna Oelofsen
Dr Rianna Oelofsen is a lecturer at the University of Fort Hare. She was the secretary for the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies (ISAPS) from 2014 – 2016. She is also secretary for the South African Centre of Phenomenology since 2012. Oelofsen completed her PhD dissertation, entitled ‘Afro-Communitarianism and the Nature of Reconciliation’ in 2013. She held research positions during the duration of her PhD studies at the Centre for Applied Public Policy and Ethics (CAPPE) at the Australian National University in Canberra, as well as at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland.
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1988:  Cartography,17th century. Map of Africa in 1686 by Joan Blaeu.  (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)Pippa van Rechteren and her twin daughters Catherine and Elizabeth watch farm invaders sing revolutionary songs outside the electric fence of her homestead on Chiripiro farm in Centenary district 180 Km's north of Harare March 29. Over 600 mainly white owned farms around the country have been illegally invaded by government sponsored war veterans, villagers and landless peasants following the government's defeat in a constitutional referendum and upcoming Parliamentary elections.