The study of retrospective justice provides a new lens for us to consider how historical injustices might shape our present-day obligations.
This year in World History, we have been studying what one student described as "some of the most depressing subjects in modern history": the transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust, colonialism and partition in India, and apartheid in South Africa. You might ask, why would we do this? Why would we focus on such bleak subjects? We reflected on this question together in previous blocks and considered a number of reasons: to contextualize enduring inequalities, to honor victims and survivors, to use memory as a tool of prevention, and to learn how leaders and movements can create social change.
Studying apartheid in Block 4 has helped us approach this question in a new way. Specifically, we have viewed apartheid not only as a case study in how systems of oppression are constructed, but also in how a society torn apart by segregation and violence can move forward in the spirit of reconciliation. Our focus on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has served as an entry point into discussions of "retrospective justice," a term that encompasses the ways in which a society attempts to redress past injustice and its legacies, often starting at a time of political transition and continuing to the present. The study of retrospective justice provides compelling justifications for why we should learn about "the most depressing subjects." It forces us to consider how historical injustices might shape our present-day obligations and invites us to take inspiration from extraordinary models of forgiveness and resilience.
Students read A Human Being Died That Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela as a foundation for our discussion of these themes. In the book, Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist who experienced the oppression of apartheid firsthand, recounts her interviews with Eugene de Kock, the notorious commander of a state-sanctioned death squad under apartheid. She struggles with what it means to empathize with de Kock and reflects on the nature of evil, trauma, and forgiveness. For their culminating assignment, students wrote analytical essays in which they considered the extent to which Gobodo-Madikizela’s reflections on the dialogue could speak to a larger reality in South Africa.
-- Eve Simister