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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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