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Repentance, reconciliation and Adriaan Vlok

A few days ago I commented on Adriaan Vlok’s repentance and washing of Frank Chikane’s feet in my LiveJournal.

Now the Weekly Mail & Guardian has an interview with Vlok, in which he casts additional light on his time as the apartheid regime’s chief cop.

And he described former president PW Botha’s “intense interest” in security and central role in getting police to maak ’n plan (sort out) unrest. Botha had congratulated Vlok for police operations, including the bombing of the South African Council of Churches’ Khotso House headquarters in Johannesburg.

And it emerged this week that he had extended his journey of repentance by washing the feet of 10 widows and mothers of the “Mamelodi 10”, who were lured to their deaths by police agent Joe Mamasela. Their bodies were burned and buried in a field in Winterveld, near Pretoria, where the remains were recently found and identified by the National Prosecuting Agency.

But the M&G goes on to say that Vlok’s action had sparked off an atonement debate in South Africa.

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.

And it is a debate that should probably go far beyond South Africa. Will we be seeing Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic doing the same for the widows and mothers of the former Yugoslavia, for example? Leaving aside people like Osama bin Laden and Ehud Olmert, for the moment, since they aren’t Christian, and presumably Christians have more common ground in such matters than others, how do we respond? As I noted in my LiveJournal post, at least one person found Vlok’s action “deeply offensive”, and others seem to take a similar view:

“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.

There is also something rather disturbing in the Mail & Guardian’s reporting, when they refer to “white atonement”. While Vlok was white, they have still generalised it into a racist assumption. Joe Mamasela, the police agent who lured the “Mamelodi 10” to their deaths, was black. Do people like him not need to repent? It seems that the M&G slips too easily into the assumption that all the victims of the National Party regime were black, and that all the perpetrators were white, and then to go on to imply that all whites were perpetrators, and all blacks were victims. If one does that, the ideology has triumphed after all. As Paolo Freire points out, the oppressed internalises the image of the oppressor, and though the oppressor is overthrown, the image lives on, and oppression triumphs in the end.

And, to paraphrase Alexander Solzhenitsin, the line between good and evil is not drawn between East and West, between communists and capitalists, between black and white, between secularists and Muslims, or between Christians and Wiccans. It is drawn through every human heart.

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3 thoughts on “Repentance, reconciliation and Adriaan Vlok

  1. Sam van den Berg on said:

    I have been sickened by the parade of “penitent” former Broeders and apartheid politicians, who have been giving us their words and crocodile tears – while (as far as I know) not a single one of them has returned to society even a fraction of the wealth they accumulated during their years in power.

    I am also sickened by the smug and “deeply moved” way in which ANC leaders accept these public displays of “contrition”, leaders whose own hands are stained with the blood of countless innocents, and whose bank accounts are often in a healthier state than even those of the former apartheid nomenklatura.

    Repentance and reconciliation are not compatible with hypocrisy. And to repent of what you have brutally taken from others, without giving back as much as you can, is not repentance. It’s politics.

    If Mr. Vlok and his friends are truly as repentant as they pretend to be, they would follow in the footsteps of Saint Frances and go naked into the world to do some good, and to undo some of the harm they have done.

    As for those ANC leaders who must share in the blame for the murder of Dr Edelstein (where is his monument?), the innocent, random victims of bombs placed in public places, and the countless victims of politically managed gossip and rumour who were tortured to death by necklacing. I fear we shall never hear their words of repentance, nor witness their acts of contrition. Unless, of course, they suddenly find themselves stripped of power and privilege, and must find ways to protect their ill-gotten gains and keep the evil they had done in the distant past hidden.

    Sam van den Berg

  2. Anonymous on said:

    Why can’t we just take this for what it is and give thanks that someone of Mr Vlok’s ilk has repented, there is no need to demand that people repent “more” , he is on the road to further repentence and has set an example. I’m sure that Nelson Mandela , the ultimate in role models will praise this attempt by Vlok to ask forgiveness for his sins. He could have sat and sulked in Wilderness like PW for the rest of his life, without even trying to act for absolution. Every bit counts.

  3. Pingback: Truth, reconciliation and smelly feet | Khanya

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