South African scholar recounts anti-apartheid work

Yazier Henry’s experiences growing up in South Africa, working actively against apartheid state-sanctioned violence, along with his later work with survivors of apartheid have inspired his scholarship.

His work challenges the widely held idea that the social and economic effects of institutionalized, racialized, legal segregation and discrimination have been resolved in South Africa.

“It’s visible, visceral. If only you want to look, you’ll see pain in the conditions of those survivor communities who continue to live life in circumstances of economic and social horror,” says Henry.

Henry, lecturer IV in public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, began his early political life as an anti-apartheid activist.

Yazier Henry is a lecturer IV in public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy who began his early political life as an anti-apartheid activist working with South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

He participated in and later was a specialist researcher for the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a state tool for reconciliation and transitional justice. The TRC was a court-like reparative and restitutive justice body that collected testimony to the state’s human rights abuses and produced the official state narrative to recommend reparative measures.

However, Henry asserts the survivor testimonies to the violence were glossed over in favor of perpetrators’ amnestying confessions, producing a whitewashed historical account of reconciliation embraced by the white, post-apartheid political and economic elites who did not adequately acknowledge nor apologize for the crime of apartheid.

“The South African state has the responsibility to apologize for what happened in its name. As long as there is no acknowledgement of atrocity, it doesn’t exist in public or policy terms. The truth of political horror must be publicly acknowledged and actively redressed for those who suffer its consequences to recover,” he said.

The state’s response remains inadequate, he says, because mere narratives of reconciliation and healing do not hold perpetrators accountable, nor do they guarantee human rights.

For many black South Africans, reconciliation means “you should forget and move on from the reality and memory of your pain” and for white South Africans “tuning in to the TRC testimony (means) you’ve done enough and can continue without any reckoning as if nothing had happened.”

Henry’s work confronts the nation’s enduring pain and calls on the post-apartheid state to fulfill its constitutional promises to the humanity of its victims.

“What does the word ‘healing’ mean to the families of the disappeared when (the lost) will never return and will always be politically, socially and historically absent?” he said. “The state’s imposition of a political language of truth and recovery rings hollow on an empty belly.”

Henry visited the Ford School in winter 2007 as a policymaker-in-residence and was subsequently invited to join the faculty. He accepted the offer to continue his research, writing and working on structural and systemic violence.

“Working against injustice, in my opinion, requires more than producing knowledge. It also requires training the intellectual leadership resources of the world,” he said.

Forging students into effective intellectual resources is to facilitate seeing beyond one’s own beliefs and intra-subjective positions to discover the language power of justice and peace, he said. “Words live also as active instruments; they are not simply communicational effects of language.”

Henry said his pedagogic philosophy fosters deep dialogicality; it requires non-violent exchanges of ideas training learners to see themselves as part of a societal whole.

“If I cannot produce community and peace in the classroom, how can I expect it to occur elsewhere?” he said.

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Henry sees his academic work also as a privilege.

“Only a small segment of the world produces knowledge, politicizing its creation. Knowledge therefore is not innocent and can make real economic, political and social impacts,” he says.

In both his research and his teaching of future policymakers, Henry understands the societal responsibility of his scholarship.

“I trust my own work over time will make contributions to the world in ways that makes it more peaceful and better to live in for more people.”


What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

Each time a learner demonstrates a deeper understanding and relevance of the concept, theory and issue I am teaching.

What can’t you live without?

Not much, however I would prefer to live in a more equal, just, safe and peaceful society.

Where is your favorite spot on campus?

The Ford School.

What inspires you?

Human beings who are willing to become bigger than themselves.

What are you currently reading?

“Morning Yet on Creation Day” (1975), Chinua Achebe; “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952), Frantz Fanon.

Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?

My mother.


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