Writer and social analyst T.O Molefe spoke on the “totalising effects of the transition period’s concepts – of reconciliation ideology” at the recent IJR event on Radical Reconciliation. See his insightful presentation below:
Reconciliation ideology, or why I will not let Adriaan Vlok wash my feet T. O. Molefe
I’m going to use a personal anecdote that explains the title this to speak to the theme of radical reconciliation.
Because I write about racial politics, apartheid and socioeconomic rights, I am occassionally approached for comment on news items related to those things. A lot of the time the expectation seems to be that I will say something incendiary or controversial, which is why I say no often. I’m wary of dial-a-quote journalism’s fetish for talking heads who say fiery things but do not contribute to a deeper understanding of the issues.
But every now and then I am tempted, which is what happened when approached by a journalist who was working on a long-form article on white repentence in South Africa after 1994. She was using Adriaan Vlok as the foil for the piece.
Kim presented earlier the SARB’s findings on perceptions of historical truths by race. And we saw that there exists what strikes me as generally higher than normal disbelief across the board that apartheid wrongly oppressed blacks and that apartheid is the reason why blacks are poor. But among whites though, this disbelief is noticeably higher.
So I imagine for this journalist, someone like Adriaan Vlok made an interesting study of post-1994 white repentance. In him we have a former apartheid minister of law and order going around washing black people’s feet and handing out food parcels to make amends for what he did. He started with Frank Chikane, whom he tried to have asssassinated, and he hasn’t looked back since.
It’s a compelling narrative and what for me seemed a good opportunity to illustrate the effect of what I’m calling reconcilation ideology on an individual, a white individual deeply complicit in apartheid oppression. The journalist’s question to me was what I made of Vlok’s footwashing as a form of contrition for his role in apartheid.
I tried my best, before I gave her my answer, to redefine apartheid as more than just a random series of brutal acts. Those brutal acts, many of which Vlok signed off on, were to protect a socioeconomic order that placed whites at the top and everybody else below. Today, if you look at the structure of South African society, that socioeconomic order remains, with the exception that a few blacks have joined the ranks of middle income (not middle class, which is a different thing entirely) and the super wealthy.
So what I said to the journalist that Vlok is hung up on apology, on saying sorry, without doing enough reflect on what he is apologising for. The language he uses to speak about what he is doing is almost verbatim from the language created during the transition to democracy, particulalry the langauge created by the TRC. He speaks of “forgiveness”, “saying sorry”, “perpetrator”, “victim” as singular concepts whose precepts he has not interrogated. And he speaks about the necessity of perpetrators seeking forgiveness from their victims, which is what he has been doing.
These are terms defined either specifically by the TRC or through common use during its proceedings and subsequently. Its definition of perpetrator of apartheid is limited to state agents, like Vlok, and its definition of victim is those who befell harm as a result of perpetrator’s actions. In addition, the commission narrowed its scope of the crimes of apartheid to gross human rights abuses – in other words, acts that were crimes anyway under apartheid.
This is why commentators like Aubrey Matshiqi came out in recent days with the contention that Mandela’s legacy is defective: the ideology that came out of the transition period drew an equivalnce between acts of violence by the state and acts of political violence in resistance to state oppression.
But, like I mentioned earlier, these gross human rights abuses committed by apartheid state agents and others in defence of apartheid were to create and protect a social order that was, in essensse, a state-sponsored criminal enterprise that directed national resources disproportionately among the population and used national resources to deny huge swathes of the population opportunties for development, economic activity and education—even going to the extent of perpetrating brutal acts of violence to enforce that denial.
Thus Vlok’s actions—the crimes he perpetrated were more than the gross human rights abuses, as grotesque as those were.
But because of how totalising the constructs that came out of the transition process were—the contructs of perpetrator, victim and the crimes of apartheid—they’ve come to dominate public understanding of that era, including Vlok’s understanding of his actions. This is the situation, despite the TRC’s efforts to communicate that its scope was, perhaps necessarily, very narrow and limited.
So I said to the journalist that Vlok has not thought independently and deeply enough about what he is apologising for, which is why he feels content to wash feet and hand out food parcels as a way of making amends. Arguably, he should be doing more. I told her that Vlok’s footwashing is largely self-serving and that it is not entirely of symbolic coincidence that as he washes black people’s feet, he is washing his own hands, too.
Unfortunately, all that made it into the article was that one line: it’s not entirely of symbolic coincidence that as Vlok washes black people’s feet, he is washing his hands too. And that quote was juxtaposed with a scene in a church in an unnamed “poor black township” in Johannesburg where Vlok had arrived to wash the congregants’ feet. I did some digging around. That township was Orange Farm, by the way.
The congregants were initially suspicious, but they let Vlok wash their feet anyway, and were moved by the experience, which was especially cathartic for the pastor, a 46-year-old man named Richard Khanyile, who’d invited Vlok to the church. The segment of the article that quotes what Khanyile said about the congregants’ response to Vlok is as follows:
“There were two women—they doubted if the man has changed, really,” Khanyile told me. “They asked him: ‘Tell us, what will be our restoration?’” The women spoke of the everyday humiliations blacks still experienced at the hands of whites: “When you walk into a bank, they look at you as if you are not supposed to be there.”
“But then [Vlok] asked to wash ourfeet as a sign of humbleness,” Khanyile remembered. “That actually changed the whole church. We’ve never experienced before the wave that hit the church. It electrified everything. As he was washing the feet, I saw a lot of tears, even among young people.”
And this is how Khanyile is quoted as relaying what he describes as the “explosive” experience of having Vlok wash his feet (emphasis my own):
I was crying, and he was crying,” he said. Unexpectedly, it liberated Khanyile to own his pain as a black South African for the first time. “I was not aware I was also the victim of apartheid,” he explained. Though he’d grown up under apartheid, he’d had few direct interactions with whites in his childhood. “But as he was washing my feet, I realized we are all actually affected by what happened in the past.”
This was devastating for me read; not because the juxtaposition of what I said about Vlok’s actions could be read to negate the validity of Khanyile’s response to the footwashing. What gutted me about the scene is the fact that, until that point, Khanyile thought that because he’d not been a victim of gross human rights abuses, he was not a victim of apartheid.
That, folks, was the converse, from the victim’s perspective, to what I’d told the journalist of Vlok’s view of his role as a perpetrator.
Until that point, I’d only peripherally considered the totalising effects of the transition period’s concepts – of its reconcilation ideology, in other words – on the victims of apartheid … on people classified as “non-white”. Not only does Vlok understand his only crimes as gross human rights abuses and perhaps a white supremacist mindset that he’s shed through bowing and washing the feet of black people; but there are also people who apartheid oppressed who believe, even if at a subconscious level, that their lives were untouched by the crime that was apartheid.
But that is simply not the case. It’s just that for Khanyile, and like for many others, life just went on within the limiting parameters of the oppression.
So, if ever Vlok offers to wash my feet, I will refuse. I might reconsider if he applies his mind independently of the transition period’s received knowledge of what constitutes victim, perpetrator and crime of apartheid, and what constitues actions that make victim and perpetrator whole again. I suspect that if he does this, and if he’s genuine about the change he’s undergone, he’ll stop making a show of washing black people’s feet and become more actively, and humbly, involved in dismantling the socioeconomic order he defended so brutally.
Washed feet and food parcels do almost nothing to dismantle the socioeconomic order he defended so brutally. They only extinguish his moral anguish and do little reparative work for his victims – all 46.9 million of them.
This is what radical reconciliation is to me: In addition to the psychological and interpersonal work popularised by the TRC, it means also dismatling the socioeconomic order apartheid, and Dutch and British colonialism before it, created in this country. It is not, as some seem content to do, changing only the racial composition of the socioeconomic order such that we attain racial representivity among the strata of the elite, petty bourgeoisie, proletariat and unemployed and marginalised. It’s that we ought to be flattening this hierarchy and constructing an egalitarian society wherein everybody has, at minimum, their basic human rights – particularly their socioeconomic rights – met.
I have my own ideas of how this society might be constructed.
However, until we have consensus that this is the society we want to construct, and that this is a society that will be good for us all, we will continue to experience intergroup strife, like Marikana, Boer separatists, service delivery protests, etc – whether among races, social classes, ethnic and religious groups, or which ever way the inequitable socioeconomic order ends up being reconstructed among us when the current project of “transforming” the country ends.
Stay tuned for video’s of the event to come.