White South Africans must not follow De Klerk’s example and apologise for apartheid but commit to restoration

A lot has been said about the contradictory legacy of South Africa’s last apartheid president, FW de Klerk. There are undisputable facts about his life of politics, including his birth into a family drenched in the politics of the National Party (NP), brought up and socialised to become one of its leading figures, ultimately taking over from PW Botha as the president of the country in 1989; an ardent proponent of racial discrimination based on the false belief in the superiority of whites and inferiority of black people; and the first apartheid president to cross the Rubicon in 1990, unbanning political organisations, the release of Nelson Mandela and leading the NP to a negotiated settlement.

Questions have been raised about his role and what he knew as a member of the State Security Council with regard to the atrocities committed by the apartheid security forces, causing untold suffering and pain to the families of the victims. To these families who lost their loved ones at the hands of merciless apartheid security forces, De Klerk’s apology on the eve of his death, for the damage caused by apartheid, rings hollow; he departed without having answered their questions about what happened. 

His appearance at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), many say, was a missed opportunity. Families of the victims,  including some of the most gruesome murders, want justice. Questions also remain unanswered in respect of the continued violent attacks on black people in the early 1990s under his watch — remember Boipatong.

Viewed from the angle of the beneficiaries of apartheid, the living white South Africans, one would argue that De Klerk’s apology matters. The vast majority of white South Africans supported an unjust system of laws that was declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations. They had bought into the idea that black people were inferior and thus deserving to be treated as such — a treatment that found its expression not only statutorily but informally. When one of the leading figures of white supremacy and none other than the last president of white South Africa, makes what appears to be a genuine apology on his deathbed, this must pose a serious challenge to the country’s white community.

De Klerk said: “I, without qualification, apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa.” 

White South Africans must follow after De Klerk and say: “We too, without qualification apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa.” Having said that, they must remedy the defect in De Klerk’s apology by not stopping where he ended but go further and say: “From today onwards, we commit ourselves to restoration, including genuine affirmative action and land reform.”

Judging by the inconsistent statements De Klerk made about the nature of apartheid and the continued police brutality into the early 1990s, it can’t be true that he had decided to lead the NP into a negotiated settlement out of a transformation in consciousness — the realisation that apartheid was morally objectionable. What is plausible is that he made this historic decision out of pragmatism to avoid a scorched earth, given the stalemate between the regime and the forces of liberation.

Carina Fourie, in an article entitled What is Social Equality? An Analysis of Status Equality as a Strongly Egalitarian Ideal, considers a notion of social equality that focuses on the social status accorded to everyone in society. She views social equality as a struggle for substantive transformation at the core of which is the elimination of status hierarchies that treat certain individuals or groups of people as inferior and others as superior. Often, when people reflect on the damage caused by social inequalities such as status hierarchies, they only look at this from the point of view of the victim, the one deemed inferior. Fourie closes this gap by pointing out also to the damage that could arise on those regarded as beneficiaries, the “superior”. She states: “A morally distorted social system which falsely deems some to have lesser worth and others greater, is likely to harm not only those deemed inferior but also those considered superior.”

Fourie highlights the damage associated with having higher status as “a distorted moral capacity, cognitive distortion and emotional costs”. With respect to distorted moral capacity, she states, “Being treated as superior, particularly where this is associated with extreme social stratification and with oppression, could foster cruelty, a lack of empathy and inhumanity.” 

In this regard, she cites the example of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s observation as the chairperson of the TRC about the damage caused by apartheid: “… we have all in different ways been wounded by apartheid …Those who were privileged lost as they became more uncaring, less compassionate, less humane and therefore less human … Those who opposed apartheid could also end up … becoming like what they most abhorred.” In highlighting the damage caused to the “superior”, Fourie has no intention of equating that to the damage caused to those deemed inferior, the point is to show the value of social equality for all.

The problem with a racial superiority complex is that it does not come to an end with the abolishment of discriminatory laws but finds its expression informally. For example, historically, corporate South Africa was marked by a status hierarchy that mirrored the prevailing political system. 

This begs a question, post-1994, what happened? In other words, how far has transformation gone in corporate South Africa? Many say that even under a democratic dispensation, corporate South Africa continues to be characterised by a white male-dominated culture. What this means is that everyone else in corporate South Africa stands in relations of dominance to white men. Relationships of domination are oppressive; they are a violation of the idea that humans have equal moral worth and thus deserve to be treated with respect.  

White South Africans must seize the moment of De Klerk’s apology, follow after him and apologise for apartheid, and take it further to remedy the defect in De Klerk’s apology and commit to restoration. Failure to do so would mean a tense coexistence among South Africans that will, in the future, explode.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Siyabulela Tsengiwe
Siyabulela Tsengiwe is former chief commissioner of the International Trade Administration Commission of South Africa.

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