In 1976 the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff attended a conference in South Africa. The participants included Afrikaner, black and “coloured” theologians from South Africa and scholars from Europe and the US. Apartheid was in full force and the air was filled with tension. The Dutch theologians were furious with the Dutch Reformed Afrikaners for supporting apartheid. The Afrikaners were furious that they were being attacked.
Some way into the conference, the black and “coloured” South Africans started to speak of their lives under apartheid. They described the daily humiliations, their suffering and pain. The response of the Afrikaners was to be indignant. They spoke of acts of benevolence and charity they had shown their brothers and sisters – gifts of clothing, toys for the black children, and more. They argued that their black brothers and sisters should be satisfied with this.
Nicholas Wolterstorff was shocked. For the first time he was seeing benevolence used as an instrument of oppression.
Two years later he was invited to a conference in Palestine. There he heard Palestinians speak with great intensity of their pain, of being driven out of their homes, their right to return and the indignities heaped upon them. They couldn’t understand why no-one spoke up for them.
Nicholas Wolterstorff was changed by these two experiences. In the voices of the black and “coloured” South Africans and the dispossessed Palestinians, he recognised for the first time that what they needed was not benevolence but justice.