The news of the death of FW de Klerk, apartheid’s last president, caused varying reactions across the country. To some he was a saviour, while to others he was symbolical of a hard-headed racist driven by the instincts of his white supremacist beliefs, a firm denialist who justified the criminality of apartheid.
But alongside the news of his death was a circulating pre-recorded short video of him asking for forgiveness for all the damage done by apartheid system on the lives of its victims. Many people are rejecting his apology and here’s why. First of all, any apology made at the intersection of death and despondency, despite its benevolence, is diminished by its refusal to enter in to a pragmatic agreement with the victim; a withdrawal to apathy for lacking the necessary drive to uphold the difficult task of taking responsibility for the damage that has already been done.
A perfunctory apology whose essence died with its seeker; it did not set a practical example of breaking down the historic barriers of racial disparities that exist between white people and black people in this country, and which denies white people an opportunity to repair what they have broken.
What can one fix with an 85-year-old white man whose apology to black people only surfaced after he is dead? The answer is nothing. De Klerk’s apology is meaningless; it is a dishonest rehearsal of his regrets which is a pretext for the renewal and repositioning of his legacy. It is a cunning appeal; for it leaves us with more questions than answers, unanswerable questions that will frame indelible scars in our memories.
De Klerk did not climb the racial mountain of forgiveness. If anything, he stood at the base and imagined himself at the edge of the mountain cliff, talking to black people. They didn’t hear him as he spoke from nowhere, as he spoke from death; for there is no life in the words of an unrepentant and irredeemable soul.
De Klerk’s apology is nothing less than an insulting performance. A pre-recorded performance of a narrow reflection; whose main objective is to permanently erase, in our collective memory, images of violence and death inflicted on black people by white people and their apartheid government.
White people have always understood themselves as deserving of absolution for the carnage and terror they perpetuated on black bodies, without having to climb the racial mountain of forgiveness. To be white in South Africa has always meant that you are constantly at the mercy of others, despite your undeniable sins; that you should be forgiven even in the absence of an apology; or worse, in the presence of an undescriptive pre-recorded apology made from the camp of death — made when you are already dead having not accounted for your sins.
What De Klerk did is an indication of cowardice; an insincere and immature approach of seeking forgiveness, indicative of the devotion to whiteness deeply embedded in his psyche.
His refusal to admit the injustices of the past, while still alive, was a way of denying himself an opportunity to truthfully and honestly reflect on his own wrongs, that of white people, and that of apartheid. This is the reason why his apology is not felt by many black people. It is because its essence vanished with his presence, it vanished with all the possibilities of rewriting his wrongs. It is true that De Klerk will never really know what black people made of his apology; perhaps he already knew, or he never cared to know.
Why is getting this right important? It is important because forgiveness is a reciprocation of apology, a long journey of healing and peace. Black people will not be healed by a recorded apology of a dead man who refused to do the right thing while he was still alive; they won’t find peace under the economic and social circumstances which were politically engineered by an oppressive regime that he led. But De Klerk’s apology should have a strong resonance with all white people in South Africa. It should inspire them to be courageous enough to do the right thing; to reach out to black people the right way, and embark on a serious labor of fixing what they have broken.
The journey to forgiveness is a very steep one; it is barricaded with temporary exhaustion and multiple reasons for ego, but the ultimate prize is peace and tranquillity. Such prize is not obtainable without the acknowledgement of the inhumanity of apartheid and the inhumanity of racism. On the contrary, it is achievable with humanistic values and humility; not moral decadence and hostility — never.
This is the mountain all white people need to climb, a mountain of accountability and introspection; that of regaining their sensibilities and judging well, to truly understand the impactful complexities of the racial legacy of Apartheid in South Africa — the legacy of whiteness.
To climb this mountain, white people, I mean all white people, would have to empty them of the arrogance of age — an arrogance that forces them to wait until they are 85 years old to face themselves; to face and acknowledge uncomforting truths, to confront deep and wretched internal darkness and dilemmas hidden in their souls.