SA debates atonement after Vlok apology
The thorny issue of white atonement for apartheid has been thrown under the South African spotlight after a former white hard-line minister washed the feet of a black preacher his forces once tried to kill.
The furore erupted last month when it emerged that Adriaan Vlok, a minister of law and order under apartheid, had apologised to Reverend Frank Chikane, a prominent anti-apartheid activist and a trusted adviser to President Thabo Mbeki.
Vlok also washed Chikane’s feet, a hugely symbolic act in a country where many people count themselves as devout Christians—and where the sores of the recent past remain raw.
Chikane accepted Vlok’s apology and show of humility but many commentators have been sceptical about the actions of a man they hold responsible for past atrocities.
“That Chikane allowed this man to wash his feet was the sickest thing ever heard in this new South Africa,” wrote columnist Justice Malala in the Sowetan, a leading black daily.
“Our people do not want a man like Vlok to wash one leader’s feet and expect absolution. They want the truth,” he said, referring to Vlok’s alleged failure to tell everything he knew about the actions of his security forces.
Vlok, the only former apartheid Cabinet minister to testify before the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, received amnesty from prosecution for a series of bombings.
Twelve years after the end of white minority rule, many blacks remain resentful about the fact that senior apartheid enforcers were let off the hook.
Black commentators have also complained about the perceived refusal of many whites—who maintain lives of privilege—to admit that apartheid was a crime and atone for it.
The son of South Africa’s murdered black youth leader Steve Biko, Nkosinathi Biko, told Reuters in April that white South Africa has shown little remorse for the horrors of apartheid.
But Vlok’s apology has been welcomed in some quarters, notably by Mbeki, who was quoted in the local media as saying that Vlok’s “gesture was from a committed Christian, who said that if Jesus Christ could do it, he could also”.
The incident has stirred both sides of the racial divide.
In a letter to the editor of the The Citizen, a former police officer described Vlok’s apology as hollow and stemming from “self-pity”.
“He washes the feet of Frank Chikane. What about the feet of those in the security forces he now admits were misled and misused by him and his government? He owes them a bigger apology,” wrote the irate officer.—Reuters