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I apologise for apartheid

By Ronèe Robinson

Ag hemel – wat op aarde het FW besiel? (What on earth got into FW?) Does he really believe that apartheid merely failed because black people did not want to live with separate development? What about all the injustices that were perpetrated under apartheid? Apartheid was not merely about a dream (or nightmare) of separate development. It was about a small group of people allocating the land of milk and honey to themselves and trying to evict those born in that very land to far-flung corners that no one would want to live in or could survive in. It was about the use of hideously repressive measures to achieve this fantasy.

For a ready discussion of some of these repressive measures one would have to refer FW to Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull. Her description of policemen trapping a women’s breast in a drawer in the name of apartheid is one of those I do not have the courage really to face head-on, and still it haunts me. Or read Dominee Nico Smith’s Die Dood van die God van my Vaders (The Death of the God of my Fathers), which he wrote after moving into Mamelodi township during the early 1980s to serve his congregation in their actual living conditions and experienced apartheid from behind the curtain that separated white from black. There was nothing pretty, decent, justifiable about it.

So what is really happening here? Is FW becoming too old to be interviewed on television? I do not know. Another option is that he does not want to squarely face the fact that he was part of an immoral system that inflicted harm on the majority of South Africans. Why does he not apologise unequivocally for apartheid? Something in him wants to find a way out, a way into moral salvation. There is none. We as white South Africans (and yes, all white South Africans) created a system to the benefit of us which depended on the subjugation of the rest of us.

I must confess that I find this enormously hard to face. I might confess it; I might write it; I might do quite a bit to “put the past right” (if it can ever be put right), but something in me cringes at the fact that I am and was part of an oppressive group, having to force myself to read, for example, Country of My Skull with the whole of me present.

One cannot justify apartheid. One cannot try to say this was merely “separate development”. It was separate but there was nothing equal about it. The best one can do is to face the fact with the honesty of, for example, Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, who was haunted her entire life by the fact that she so willingly worked for what she belatedly realised was a monster. Her frank discussion of this fact and the guilt with which she lived all her life in that wonderful film Der Untergang, is very moving. One cannot do better than that and I am incredibly annoyed with FW for not doing the same. It is one thing to have been misguided, as Traudl was, it is quite another to remain misguided in the face of incontrovertible facts.

After all, I thought Afrikaners were better than the English in this regard. I was shocked, horrified, disgusted, amazed (one could go on and on), during my time living in England by their ability to shrug off the past. They have no idea of the concept of guilt. As Afrikaners, we are only too familiar with their refusal to apologise for the holocaust committed in South Africa at the turn of the century (and here I refer to their murder of all South Africans). Never mind a refusal to apologise – they are blissfully unaware of the misdeeds of their forefathers and notorious foremother in the form of Victoria. Their failure to face their misdeeds have only led to further misdeeds – they blindly trotted off behind the USA into the illegal Iraq war, they proceeded to murder and torture inmates in their prisons in Iraq and have been held accountable for that only because they are subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. But even more nefariously, they showed absolutely no remorse when the Kenyan scandal broke, exposing the fact that they incarcerated thousands of Kenyans in concentration camps (yes, again) and castrated many of them. Recent exposures of previously hidden files documenting their abuses during the colonial times merited scarcely a mention in the British press. I was disgusted by this English cowardice against which I contrasted the Germanic facing up to the past.

I had trusted that, relying on people such as Antjie Krog and Nico Smith, we would be more like the Germans. Every group on earth has perpetrated injustice towards other groups. The difference lies in how one faces up to it.

Ag nee FW, ek skaam my vir jou (I am ashamed at your comments). Let this white Afrikaner now state unequivocally: Apartheid is and was a sin against humanity. I apologise without reservation for it. Indeed, one cannot do better than Antjie Krog’s dedication in Country of My Skull (except here I would add “and his”): “For every victim who had an Afrikaner surname on her lips.”

Ronèe Robinson practises law between (mostly) Cape Town and Johannesburg, does some legal writing and is also involved in heritage matters in the Western Cape. A miserably failed attempt at emigration to England had her return to South Africa and South Africans with gratitude.

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    • Lennon

      To the citizens of the universe at large:

      I wish to apologise for the behaviour of my species (Humans / Earthlings / Terrans).

      I am deeply ashamed that our history has been one of near-unrelenting violence towards each other over bullsh*t like money, ideology and religion.

      Like many of you, I do not understand why any species would detonate nuclear weapons within their own atmosphere or dump harmful chemicals into their own rivers, lakes and oceans.

      I am not surprised that those of you, who are capable of doing so, are reluctant to visit our planet. Some members of my species claim to have seen your spacecraft and to have even been whisked away and returned for various reasons. Should this be true, then it certainly would not surprise me that you have not made your presence overtly known to us for fear of what we might inflict upon yourselves should we ever achieve the means to defy space-time and put ourselves within reach of your civilisations.

      I acknowledge that Humanity is anything but humane and that we need to resolve our petty internal disputes and cease the abhorrent actions wrought upon one another before we can take our place as peaceful, responsible citizens of the universe.

    • Marina

      I agree 100% with everything you said, except: My children will not be held accountable for my deeds oor those of my father and forefathers. They will learn of the horrors apartheid, and that it was a terrible, and that I am sorry and that I apologise for it. But I will never expect them to feel guilty about something they had no part in, even if they are white.

    • Tofolux

      @Ronee, I welcome and embrace your guilt, your shame, and your hope to move forward in the realisation that this will never be committed without you boldly and loudly shouting out “No, not in my name”. Remember there is much that holds us together than that which breaks us apart. We are after all, South Africans, countrymen/woman and thats all. Thank you and much blessings on your journey of self.

    • Jon Story

      The other night I watched a Hollywood golden oldie: ‘guess wo’s coming for dinner’. Its available on you tube and well worth a view. The story of a white girl befriending a black doctor and the problems this caused with the parents of each, especially the fathers. The mothers saw just romance but the fathers reacted as representatives of their tribes, white and black. They could not see themselves as human beings but only as a white man and a black man.
      Something similar goes on in South Africa. In the apartheid past you had white men (die baas) and the black man who called the white man baas. For all its horrors, which seem to get more horrible by the day, apartheid was basically a matter of your skin colour. All the other things flowed from it, it was like the operating system of a modern computer.
      You were either supposed to be superior or supposed to be inferior only because of your skin colour.
      Fresh from the continent in the early 19-fifties I visited a museum in Pretoria. There was an old black man who seemed to be doing some cleaning. He greeted me: môre baas. Ek is niet you baas nie, meneer, I answered. He then started to lecture me on why I was the baas and why I should not call him meneer.
      Why? Because he saw himself as a black man and thus inferior to me.

      Was apartheid wrong, evil even? You bet!

      Do I apologise for it? No!

      But if at some unguarded moment in time I may have thought like the old men, then I apologise.

      What wàs I thinking?

    • Ndu

      I love that you are Afrikaans and writing this from an Afrikaans point of view. I think it’s time we openly speak about issues as black, white and everyone. We are all too scared to talk about issues cross culturally and then move forward. I love what you are saying. As a young black South African who wasnt affected directly but indirectly by the past, I feel this is a starting point to move on and I love it..

    • Rich

      Well written and sincere. Being of both English and Afrikaans descent your writing has left a very bitter taste in my mouth.
      As for FW’s comments; it shames me more the more he backpeddles.

    • Mkhulu


      I truly admire your courage and sincerity. I welcome your apology and embrace you. May God bless you and your family.

    • Hans

      Marina, if you say your children will not be made to feel guilty for something they had no hand in, are they allowed to feel pride in the achievements of their parents and forefathers, even though they had no hand in those achievements? Ought they be proud of their language and its literary output? We do not live as islands on our own. We are born into a world (language, culture, history…) that gives and forms our identities. We cannot exist without these and we have to take responsibility for that. We cannot start each with a clean slate anew. As an Afrikaner I must own that and acknowledge that it has given me privileges while denying others what I have received. I feel ashamed for Apartheid and for my own racism and many other prejudices. I feel guilty and it is good so because it is a sign of my humanity that calls me to move on and to take responsibility for my fellow-man and -woman. It does not mean I must stay in guilt but I should overcome it: that is, I must let that guide me to take responsibility and to become accountable to those I live with and who share the space we occupy. I do not want to tell you how to raise your children, but preventing them from feeling and engaging with something so profoundly human as guilt amounts to destroying something very important in their humanity namely the ability to read and trust their consciences. For their sake and for the sake of our future please do not do it.


      Nietzsche proclaimed that when you stare into the abyss it stares back at you. If psyche is a mirror that guides us as thinking yet impulsive beings from moment to moment then not only must the perpetrator recognise the monstrosity of Apartheid – the victim too must be wary of the shape forced upon his/her sense of self by the horror of this shared history. A biblical tale tells of 40 years of wandering in a desert (waterless, cloudless & indeed without reflection) so that erstwhile Slaves could shed the image of being slaves & the bitterness born therefrom. Atonement & commensurate forgiveness in fact only shape the future positively when both sides understand that they are stained by blood and in South Africa skin tone still tries to hide this colour of truth.

    • Gavin Foster

      Apartheid may have been bad, but the ANC’s efforts to convert SA into an even more reprehensible form of Zimbabwe could result in something even worse. I’d love to see how history will read in 50 years time.

    • Heather Auer

      @Lennon “I acknowledge that Humanity is anything but humane and that we need to resolve our petty internal disputes and cease the abhorrent actions wrought upon one another before we can take our place as peaceful, responsible citizens of the universe.”

      Sad but true, Lennon. What is wrong with humanity? Greed, power, money… disgusting.

      Thank you Ronee for your honesty. I can identify with your feelings.

    • MLH

      I remember going the whole hog in a comment once, as demanded by others who had commented. Their reaction? ‘Stop being sarcastic!’
      Sometimes you just can’t win and I suspect that had FW worn sackcloth and ashes, it still wouldn’t have been enough. He was honest about himself, neither seeking a halo nor adulation. It’s enough for me.

    • Dave Harris

      Thanks for your courageous writing.
      Yes, apartheid was not just, as the UN declared, a crime against humanity but also a SIN against humanity since Christianity was used to justify white supremacy giving rise to the subsequent dehumanization of blacks.

      No need to conflate apartheid with the ills of the world. Time to admit the uncomfortable truth that most beneficiaries of apartheid can’t seem accept – that apartheid was uniquely supported by whites in SA while the rest of the world saw the evil this system of government was creating – the resulting carnage is what we now have to deal with – festering racism, widening socio-economic disparity, no land reform, legacy of Bantu education etc.

      @Marina & Jon Story
      Hans makes and important point. Since you and your children are direct beneficiaries of apartheid, shouldn’t they also be responsible and contribute to cleaning up the mess created by apartheid?

    • Reducto

      @Harris: “Hans makes and important point. Since you and your children are direct beneficiaries of apartheid, shouldn’t they also be responsible and contribute to cleaning up the mess created by apartheid?”

      You can’t hold people responsible for that which is not their own fault. You aren’t going to promote reconciliation with imposing original sin on innocents. This said, all privileged youth – regardless of colour – should be required to undertake community service initiatives and help uplift the poor. E.g. require all university graduates to do sufficient community service to get their degrees. Obviously the bulk of privileged youth will be white, but that does not change the fact that the requirement should be privilege, not race.

    • Jack Sparrow

      I’m only a little puzzled by this. How can one person apologise for a group unless they were part of doing something wrong?

      So Renee, please rather tell us what you did wrong that you are apologising for. Don’t waffle.

      Then we can assess our own actions.

    • Hmm

      Black South Africans are on average better off than fellow Black Africans. White South Africans are for most part on a par, or worse off, than their European counterparts.

      So who then benefited at the hands of whom? I for one am confused.

      Also if the white man had never arrived would there be ONE South Africa, or a number of smaller countries (like Swaziland or Lesotho). And how peacefully would they have co-existed after the discovery of gold.

      As with the expansion of the Zulu nation, a clash of civilisations has always caused conflict. Don’t be so quick to judge the actions of the past based on todays norms.

      After all just 70 years ago Germany was responsible for the holocaust. Today that would seem inconceivable.

    • Ernst Marais

      I am not ashamed about Separate Development as envisaged by Dr Verwoerd.

      After Verwoerd’s murder, the idealism was gone, replaced by an adhocracy and clinging to power for power’s sake.

      After Mandela’s brief presidency, the idealism was gone, replaced by a kleptocracy and clinging to power for power’s sake.

    • Lennon

      @Dave: No matter how you try to frame your point of view, don’t for one minute think that I’m going to buy your narrative no matter how often you repeat it.

      Apartheid was but one chapter in a long, sad and horrific history which continues to be a story of needless hatred and suffering. That you continue to push guilt on anyone who lacks melanin in sufficient quantity betrays your own hatred shows your complicity in the real narrative which simply proves what I have previously stated.

      You, Dave, are a part of the problem.

      This comment has been edited.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Now maybe someone representing the Zulus can apologise for the mfecane, especially to the Fingo (like Mbeki and Tutu).

      Some estimates say that Shaka Zulu and Mzilikatzi wiped out as many as 100 tribes, languages and cultures.

      The British and Afrikaner may have seperated the cultures but they never wied out a single tribe or language or culture.

      Maybe Prince Buthelezi would do so, since his identity as a Zulu prince seems to superceed all his other identities?

    • Dave Harris

      No brother, this isn’t about laying a guilt on anyone but to hold the beneficiaries of apartheid ACCOUNTABLE to help clean up the mess. Playing the victim card does not help either.

    • Lennon

      @ Dave: One can only be held accountable for doing something if one is guilty of having done it.

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    • http://none Myrna

      You make me so proud to be a South African!