Afrikaners: Remember the story of your tribe

October 30, 2009

Recently a group of black theological students of the URCSA studying at UP visited the Hector Peterson memorial in Soweto together with some fellow theological students from the DRC and some visiting students from the USA. Some time after the visit, the students said (in a discussion) that the Hector Peterson memorial “is not a place to visit with white people” since “it only makes you angry”. What had made them angry was that the white students said at the memorial: “We were not even born when this happened”, without any acknowledgement of their connectedness with their parents and grandparents who had been  born at the time and without owning up to the fact that they had benefited from their “whiteness”, even though they were never in the position to support or perpetrate apartheid. The unwillingness or inability to acknowledge white privilege flowing from the apartheid system is a serious obstacle to reconciliation in South Africa, and it will have to be addressed in a reconciling mission praxis.

From a paper entitled “RECONCILING ENCOUNTERS IN LUKE-ACTS” delivered by Prof Klippies Kritzenger at a conference in Stellenbosch, May 2009.

More than once I talked about the Afrikaner tribe in a series of posts on Afrikaner identity written after Amahoro 2009. I’ve been thinking about a number of Afrikaans songs for years now, and the song which probably best formulate the thoughts of many young white South Africans is that of  “Nie langer” (“not any more”) by Klopjag, that shouts out that we won’t be saying sorry any more. It’s been bothering me ever since I first heard it.

The reason can partly be found in the paragraph above: it’s not acknowledging the fact that we benefited from being white, since we are connected to our parents and grandparents. But my discomfort has been growing ever deeper, and it’s more than simply the fact that we benefited from the past. What bothers me is the fact that we actually disconnect ourselves from our own history with this song, with these words. The URCSA students maybe have a much more natural understanding of belonging to a group, to a culture, to a tribe.

My thoughts on this found special meaning in an experience at Amahoro, really a conversion experience, where my Afrikaner identity suddenly found meaning for Africa, where I believe I became an African theologian in my own eyes. Not by forgetting the past. Not by disconnecting from it in the way that the story above tells. But exactly by connecting, by remembering, by saying sorry (not out of emotions of guilt, because I honestly can’t say I experience these emotions, but in a process of reconciliation), by admitting that my tribe was wrong.

My call to Christian Afrikaners is to join your tribe. Not in opposition to the South Africa of which you are part. Not on Loftus at a Curry Cup final. But by embracing your connectedness to the past. By visiting the Hector Peterson memorial and not distancing yourself from what it says, but by connecting, working through the pain and the hurt (and my non-Afrikaner and non-white readers must hear this, embracing the connectness is a really hurtful process!), so that we can find the reconciliation on the other side. Also, to find, as a white man, liberation within Africa:

After telling our story, the story of our people, proud at times, standing guilty at times, one of my new Kenyan friends said these words: “You need to come to Kenya and come tell your story! Our people need to hear that someone can admit that they were wrong.” Those must have been some of the most liberating words I’ve ever heard!

Quoted from How one Afrikaner became an African theologian

(and on a side-note, I was part of the group that visited the Hector Peterson museum from the story above)

14 Responses to “Afrikaners: Remember the story of your tribe”

  1. Steve Says:

    Cobus,

    I find both things strange — the one of not saying sorry any more, and the one of forever saying sorry, like phony Tony Blair apologising for the slave trade. Confessing other people’s sins is really a cop out. Yes, at Alahoro i talked quite a long time with Adriaan Vlok, and he indeed had something to confess and something to say sorry for. The people who sang the song are possibly angry with him for doing so, but God has given him that ministry, and in his case it is appropriate.

    I was born in 1976, and I remember that time. When I visited the Hector Peterson memorial, I remembered what I thought at the time. I did not think about who was born then or not. When I heard the news of the death of Hector Peterson, the first thought that occurred to me was that one day there would be more schools named after Hector Peterson than are named after Dirkie Uys. And perhaps there already are.

  2. michaelrowancurle Says:

    Ok. So what if you’re an english south african? Do I have a tribe I should take ownership of?

    I cannot own apartheid and I do not feel responsible for what happened. I can appreciate that I was fortunate (in some ways) to be born white in a country where white people are still generally priviledged.

    I wonder if that “Nie Langer” song isn’t less about saying “I’m tired of saying sorry” as it is about “why should I say sorry?”. I didn’t do it. If a tall person walks up to a midget and says, “I’m so sorry!” He’s just lost touch with reality.

    I wonder if, in years to come, black Christian theologians will feel the need to apologize to white people for affirmative action? I don’t think they should. It wasn’t their choice. They were just benefited by it.

    I think we should all stop saying sorry for what we had nothing to do with. It just takes our attention off of what we are still actually doing to each other. I can’t reconcile my ‘tribe’ to any other ‘tribe’. I can try to bring Reconciliation between myself and the lady who cleans my house. For not giving her a lift when I knew she would have liked one. I can bring reconciliation between myself and the afrikaans guy who beat my up when I was ten for being English. That’s where we should focus. I simply can’t see the point of apologising for the actions of a ‘tribe’ I’m not even sure I’m part of.

    But I could be wrong.

  3. idelette Says:

    Cobus, as an Afrikaner woman born in 1972, I very much identify with the sins of my fathers and forefathers. It has been some of the greatest pain in my life. But I also know God has had us born right into this story for great purpose. I will keep speaking out for equality every opportunity I have. And I will keep saying sorry as many times as it takes, if I could bring freedom and forgiveness in just one more affected person’s heart. I am grateful that God allows me–us–to be agents of reconciliation. Keep preaching it, brother.
    (Thinking of the Laurika Rauch song right now. )

  4. michaelrowancurle Says:

    Does apologising for a sin you didn’t commit sincere repentance (there are plenty specific ones I did commit – I’ll gladly apologise for those – See David Pawson on confessing ‘my sin’ versus ‘my sins’) and does it actually bring reconciliation? Sometimes I wonder if all this national repentance stuff isn’t just a form of catharsis to try (ineffectually) deal with feelings of guilt? These are a real questions, not badly phrased opinions. I really want to know if it actually helps to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’?

    My congregation is busy with 50 days of focussed prayer. This includes group repentance and repenting on behalf of our nation and our ‘fathers’ for sins ranging from witchcraft to apathy towards the poor. I pray these prayers every day, and I’ll continue to (I guess). I just can’t shake this nagging feeling that God is looking down on me and asking: “Do you mean that prayer? Do you even know what you’re talking about?” Maybe I should go see that memorial…

  5. Cobus Says:

    It all depends on how we see “sin” and “repentance”. What I’m saying had nothing to with asking God to forgive the sins of a country, but everything to do with saying sorry to those who still suffer because of the sins my tribe committed against them.

    How will reconciliation ever happen if I can’t say the words: “What happened to you’re people was really wrong”, and “I am truly sorry for what happened to you”. The prayer that I’m talking about is directed to my neighbor, not my God.

  6. Michael Says:

    One of my favourite speakers (Charles Barry) spoke to our congregation on Sunday. He said ‘It’s better to be reconciled then to be right’.

    Prof Kritzenger said:
    “What had made them angry was that the white students said at the memorial: “We were not even born when this happened”, without any acknowledgement of their connectedness with their parents and grandparents who had been born at the time and without owning up to the fact that they had benefited from their “whiteness”, even though they were never in the position to support or perpetrate apartheid.”

    Do you think then what is lacking is the willingness to say: “I’m sorry I was born white” (which I think is ridiculous because it implies that I’m also sorry you were born black”). Or does it mean willingness to say “apartheid was wrong”.

    If it’s the latter, well then I think very few will disagree.

    It was wrong. So was slavery. So were genecides in the Soviet Union. etc… I didn’t do any of those either.

    I wonder if those student’s who were angry aren’t actually ruminating over the past and unable to forgive, not because the white students weren’t willing to say sorry, but because they know that all the sorrys in the world from those (presumably) innocent students wont make a difference at all.

    Forgiveness will bring reconciliation. Repentance (for actual concrete sins committed then and now) will bring reconciliation. Saying “I’m sorry” when I can only mean it in the African ‘sorry you stubbed your toe’ sense will not bring reconciliation.

    At least I don’t think so. A while ago I wrote a blog entry about my feeling on this white guilt stuff. Maybe that will clarify my feelings: http://michaelrowancurle.wordpress.com/2009/09/20/white-south-african-christian-paying-for-the-sins-of-the-fathers/

  7. Cobus Says:

    It’s more than the willingness to say that “Apartheid was wrong”. It’s taking it a step further, and identifying with this wrong, acknowledging how I’ve benefited from this wrong, respecting the cost that some (such as Hector Peterson, a symbol for this cost) had to pay because of this wrong, and by admitting that this was wrong, and saying sorry to those who still have to pay the price of this wrong, actively becoming part of the solutions to what was wrong, which is going to take a number of generations more to change.

    Does that make more sense?

  8. Reggie Says:

    Thanks Cobus for these self-reflections, and for the brutal honesty. This is not an easy road-its a road of the crucified amongst crossbearers…
    @Michael may I respond to your last post
    1) maybe it would better to say ‘to be reconciled is to be right’ (?)
    2) white-ness (or black-ness)is not merely skincolour, it is how skincolour was used as a marker of identity and priviledge. Economic history (Sampie Terreblance, A History of Inequality) tells us that it was a conscious political policy with the aim of economic plunder, where English and Boers colluded. That’s why there are today the ‘advantaged’ and ‘diadvantaged’. This equality was consciously created, by these elites,on the basis of constructed identities. Its roots is way before the NP’s apartheid policy (1948), its part of the broader history of colonialism. (BTW: I agree with you on slavery and the Soviet Union, holocaust, etc)
    3) because of this (our) history, there need to be reconciliation, i.e. a restoring of equality, of equal relationships.
    4) Black people are not unforgiving, as you suggest, but they do get angry when white people are flippant about what actually happened and still happens. Black people, have been pleading for centuries for whites to see this, they patiently hoped for sincere repentance. Yes, there are those who respond to see the depths of the current gap, and have committed to a different lifestyle. Praise God for that!
    We, however cannot force people toward this, personally, therefor public policies (by also secularists)are also put in place to restore (what some Christians deny), to make right this gross inequality, policies like Employment Equity Act, Land Restitution Acts, and various policies on transformation.

  9. Reggie Says:

    Idelette, it does make a difference to black South Africans, when they hear young, white South Africans speak this language. Now, we can sit down and ask the question: how can we make now a difference, together. This is a process of getting beyond a ‘pathological shame’ which actually hides pride, and doesn’t take us anywhere. When the Bible speaks of remorse, it leads to committed action.

  10. Tom Smith Says:

    We need an embodied reconciliation. Reconciliation that moves beyond ‘saying sorry’ to actions. Sorry talk is a beginning – remembering is a beginning. But if our ‘sorry talk’ doesn’t translate into reconciled relationships across the racial (and class) divide then we’re stuck in dialogue.

    In friendships we can (as Reggie said above) live as new communities.
    The most practical application for me is still as simple/profound as becoming friends.

  11. Michael Says:

    Cobus: Yes, that makes sense.

    Tom Smith: Yes! Good comment.


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