If actions speak louder than words, the relinquishing of power by white South Africa in 1994 was worth far more than the mere mouthing of an apology by “whites” in 2008.

Knee-jerk responses should always be regarded with cynicism, and the call this week for whites to say sorry for apartheid — in the wake of the poignant and inspirational apology by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to native Australians for the wrongs done them — is about as knee-jerk a response as I’ve encountered.

Just days ago, I read with joy the text of the beautifully formulated and clearly sincere Australian apology to Australia’s “stolen generations”. A clear thought leapt into my head like a springbok chasing a kangaroo: at last, the Australians have taken a leaf out of our book. About time too. Now they’ll feel better for it, and move on.

Then, on Wednesday, the local papers ran a story saying that South African Human Rights Commission chair Jody Kollapen had told a conference that white South Africans should follow Australians’ example and apologise for apartheid.

I find myself responding to this in different ways. The chief problem I have is that Kollapen’s call is predicated on the assumption that all whites supported apartheid, and that all whites today must take collective responsibility for it, even if they were, say, three years old in 1994. The thinking seems to be purely race-based — that is, “whites” meaning all whites, as if there were no individuals among us.

Historically, it is fair to argue that all whites who, in 1994, were old enough to form mature opinions could be asked to apologise for the fact that there were many (but not all) among their number who oppressed the majority. All whites benefited from a system that favoured them and their prosperity, even if some of us always morally opposed that system (which we did), and therefore I will unhesitatingly put my name to a well-formed and fulsome apology to those who were oppressed.

But what of those white South Africans who were only small children in 1994? We have among us a new generation who have not lived under the yoke of apartheid. Why should they be lumbered with the ills of the past? Why should they be thought responsible for evils perpetrated by or condoned by their parents’ generation?

You have a classroom full of white and black kids who believe they are all equal, who play sport together, do exams together and go clubbing together — and the white ones must apologise to the rest?

My family think of our kids (now in their early 20s) as the Model C generation: they know no colour, and it is a joy to see them all just getting along together, not seeing one another’s race. So they must apologise … for what exactly?

As for the rest of us, let’s say we do sign up for an apology. Who will make it? The Australian apology was made by a man who represents all Australians, apologising on behalf of all Australians. Who, in South Africa, would be representative of all whites? The white South Africans most likely to make a poignant and heartfelt apology would be people of the ilk of a Frederick van Zyl Slabbert or a Helen Suzman. Spot the problem: they’re the last ones who should be apologising for apartheid.

We need to raise BJ Vorster from the dead, dust off the bones of HF Verwoerd, or, in their understandable absence, get old Adriaan Vlok, say, to stand up and be counted. (Actually, he’d probably do it.) It would be rather fun to hear Eugene Terre’Blanche make an apology, in that sonorous voice, and very poetic too. But spot the second problem: he ain’t gonna do it, and he his ilk are sure as hell not going to sign anything either.

But Vlok or Terre’Blanche do not represent me, anyway. Do they represent you? In Australia, the prime minister did it. But, well, spot problem number three. It wouldn’t really wash, would it, to have Thabo Mbeki apologising for apartheid?

So what, exactly, would be the point of an apology, if those who apologise are those who were against apartheid in the first place, and those who don’t apologise are the ones who really ought to? Wouldn’t it make it rather shallow, and mere window-dressing?

Having said all that, for my own part, I acknowledge that as a white South African I could have done more to oppose something to which I was morally and ethically opposed but about which I did very little.

I can remember having held racist attitudes as a small boy, when in the small town that was my boyhood home we had a “houseboy”, an Owambo man whose name was Simeon. He would work for us on six-month contracts, and I treated him in the most appalling manner, having got this idea from my elders that these men were somehow not in our class. One day he left, at the end of a contract, saying he would be back in three months. He never returned. To this day I wish I could face him and apologise for the devilish way I treated him as a stupid kid.

By the time I reached 14, by which time we had moved to Cape Town and my young mind had done a lot of thinking, I had become staunchly opposed to racism and had many an adolescent debate with grown-ups, arguing that no matter what it meant for the country’s future, black South Africans by right had to be given the vote and that we all had to make a future together. I remember being argued with, eyebrows being raised.

Subsequently, I used my white vote in support of Helen Suzman’s Progressive Party and its various offspring in the naive belief that one day enough of us would come to our senses, throw out the Nats, give everyone the vote and live happily ever after.

In my 20s, in the 1980s when the country was on fire, I continued working as an arts journalist, which gave me limited opportunity to speak out, in print, against apartheid’s evils, though the record will show that when and where it was possible, I spoke my mind. But (and hindsight is a wonderful and fairly useless thing) I wish now that I had had the nous and courage to have actively opposed apartheid in the way that many of my compatriots did. If age brings wisdom, it brings shame too.

I read something this week that resonates. Kader Asmal, in his valedictory speech to Parliament, spoke of the influence on his life of the German ecumenical martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, particularly this philosophy: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

If not to act is to act, I am guilty of having condoned apartheid. For not having fought apartheid with the greatest possible intensity; for, perhaps, having fiddled while Rome burnt, I now apologise. If a public apology is formulated and circulated, so that all white South Africans can choose to sign it by way of adding their own personal apology, I will sign it. And privately, I will sign it for Simeon.

But I know that those who really should be signing it, those who were the true perpetrators of apartheid, those who still today regard black South Africans as lesser beings, as the problem, and even, most shockingly and vilely, as “kaffirs”, will be the least likely to sign up.

And there is another truth, mentioned in my opening words: we have, in a far greater way than an apology subscribed to by the few but scorned by the many, already made our apology.

If that beautiful noise we all made together in 1994 wasn’t an entire nation apologising for the dreadful wrongs of the past, hugging one another, and promising to try to move together into a new future, violets are green, Mondays are yellow, and Martians are blue.

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Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman is a journalist, budding playwright and sometime chef. He's written two plays, An Influence of Ghosts and Blue Train Coming, and back in the day wrote loads of songs. He paints a bit in watercolours...

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