SA not done talking about what the fundamental rejection of apartheid means

In an opinion piece published in Die Burger on 22 May 2012, Stellenbosch University Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Russel Botman asks: “Has the dream of reconciliation that Madiba treasured for South Africa been shattered? Is the dream of reconciliation that Madiba cherished for South Africa in tatters? Has the ideal of nation building yielded under the pressure of prejudice, racial hatred and division? And why do we so easily lose each other when we talk about apartheid – even the younger, post-1994 generation that could only experience apartheid through hearsay?”

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Prof H Russel Botman. (Photograph: WERNER ROUX)

“The recent media reports about two models who used the two objectionable k-words of apartheid in public (k—r and kill) respectively – the one as an expression of her indignation at and aversion to the behaviour of a black man, and the other out of anger at the former’s apparent racism – are symptomatic of the poisonous inheritance of apartheid that is still flowing thickly through our country.

“And the debate that was unleashed in reaction to former president FW de Klerk’s statements that he made in an interview with CNN on the apartheid government’s homeland policy and the interpretation of it as a condonation of aspects of apartheid (separate but equal development) showed anew how intensely the injustices of the past are still being experienced today.

“I believe that underlying the aforementioned incidents is the dilemma with which we as a country are still struggling. Despite the disclosures of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and all our promises and ideals of rectification, transformation and nation building, we still have not yet finished talking about what our fundamental rejection of apartheid means.

“This made me think back to a postgraduate class given by Prof Jaap Durand at the University of the Western Cape in 1978. He led the class through a semester of research based on one incisive question: What is actually wrong with apartheid? From a theological perspective he asked: What is the actual sin of apartheid? For one full semester we basically only read the books of Karl Barth, the great German theologian.

“In the first month our submissions concentrated on the practices of apartheid. At that stage we still were of the opinion that apartheid was objectionable because it damaged human rights, impaired the dignity of marriage, and trampled on the labour rights and human dignity of people. We believed that it was the practices of apartheid that were the problem.

“In the second month our insight deepened and changed. We came to the realisation that we had become so blinded by and entangled in the wealth of evil practices that we had not realised that it is the idea itself that represents the problem.

“We began to understand that the very idea of apartheid was anti-evangelical. The idea is in opposition to the heart of the gospel. It does not only sin in its practices, it is sin.

“At the core of this sin is the chosen starting point that people of different races and ethnic groups are irreconcilable. That is why it always had to be defended as an attempt by the state to prevent conflict between groups.

“Apartheid therefore took as its starting point the opposite of what stands at the heart of the Gospel, namely the reconcilability and reconciliation of all people, regardless of their ethnicity, language, culture and other identities.

“It now is part of history that this debate resulted in the Belhar Confession, that the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (NG Sendingkerk) found, in 1982, that apartheid and separate development were objectionable according to the Bible, and that the World Alliance of Reformed Churches went a step further by saying that any theological defence of apartheid was not only objectionable, but amounted to heresy.

“But back to my point that we as a country have not yet finished talking about what the fundamental rejection of apartheid means – in the context of the apparent increase in objectionable instances in which the younger generation of South Africans are involved.

“It has become imperative that we now need to explain to our children that we reject the principle of apartheid, as well as the evil practices of the past.

“In the post-apartheid era it is easier to agree on the positive aspects of democracy, the Constitution and human rights and the associated freedoms that were earned through the shedding of blood – the principles or starting points of our new dispensation.

“However, it now is not only important that we practise caution in our association with the obsolete practices that can erode these principles, but that we are in agreement with the rejection thereof in the places where we live, where we work and where we relax – the places that act as incubators of racism and racial prejudice and where the foundations of the apparent irreconcilability of people are laid.

“But at another level this also means that we have to be in agreement about the rejection of the evil practices of the new dispensation: the appropriation of and claim to rights in terms of the Constitution at the cost of the rights and freedoms of others, and the corruption of and self-enrichment by some at the expense of the poor communities that they are supposed to serve – which often are ascribed to the lack of opportunities for training and development under apartheid.

“It is an indisputable fact that reconciliation and our reconcilability are central to a hopeful future for our country. Behind this boundary line is to be found the horizon of non-racism and healing of the character of our children through which the dream of Madiba can come true. It demands a ‘a reconstruction of the soul’, as he put it.

“All of us, including the younger generation, owe this to him and to our country.”