Black forgiveness must be preceded by White remorse

An excerpt from a piece in Business Day, 21 June, 2010, published under the title “Whites’ failure to say sorry holds back SA’. Anthony Butler

In South Africa there is curiously little discussion of whites’ failure, collectively and at the level of their political leadership, to apologise to blacks for the apartheid system, and to ask for forgiveness for the specific atrocities in which it resulted.

Post-apartheid public intellectuals have mostly followed former Anglican Archbishop’s Desmond Tutu’s nostrum that “without forgiveness there is no future”. In 1995, Tutu even described forgiveness as a done deal. He conceived South Africa as “a living example of how forgiveness may unite people”, and insisted that “our miracle would almost certainly not have happened without the willingness of our people to forgive.”

Tutu’s conflation of moral forgiveness with psychotherapy does not do justice to the necessary role of repentance. Although one might conceivably forgive the dead, for example, the normal meaning of the word requires that an offer of forgiveness can, at least in principle, be understood and embraced by the wrongdoer.

If the process of forgiveness is to be concluded, moreover, it requires of the wrongdoer that he understand that he has done wrong. It must therefore be preceded by remorse and then by self-forgiveness — for surely one can only truly accept forgiveness from others when one has forgiven oneself?

Most whites have not begun to take that first step. Former state president FW De Klerk, a formidable strategist but not a statesman, set the pattern of evasion that still characterises white sentiment today. There has been no apology – just equivocation and amnesia, followed directly by the blather of the “open opportunity society”.

When the issue of responsibility is pushed, Afrikaners and English cynically point the finger at each other for a system from which they benefitted together.

The result of this poor leadership and moral cowardice is that whites have been unable to accept, or even to understand, the forgiveness that blacks have offered them. When forgiveness is thrown back in the face of an injured party, bitterness is supplemented with frustration, and new generations grow up with anger in their hearts.

Perhaps because of close relations between adult African women and white children in their care, Africans in this country have continued to treat whites as moral infants who cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. To hold a wrongdoer to account, however, is at its core an act of respect, because it treats that guilty party as a fully moral person.

Tutu’s therapeutic sentimentality has almost had its day. Sometimes, where rights have been violated, the pursuit of retribution is inescapable – and ultimately it can be good for injured parties and wrongdoers alike.

The offering — and true acceptance — of forgiveness still offers the most promising path forward for all South Africans. But until whites can bring themselves to say sorry, they should not be surprised if black people argue for retribution.


One Reply to “Black forgiveness must be preceded by White remorse”

  1. I agree with the piece, but I do wonder how whites in South Africa could offer a collective apology? I can see how that would have been altogether easier in the mid-90s (for example, around the time of the TRC) – but I’m not sure who that would work in 2017.


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