FACING HIS RUBICON: Former president FW de Klerk and then-ANC leader Nelson Mandela show their medals after they were jointly awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. Picture: Reuters

‘It’s time for all of us to speak the naked truth about apartheid.” I still marvel at the irony of this remark by a fellow UKZN postgraduate student on the day former president FW de Klerk was saying exactly the opposite in a CNN interview.

We were having dinner after a writing workshop. Under discussion were the implications of the “negotiated settlement” that resulted in present-day SA, the value of the new constitution (in practice) and the many faces and places of continuing misunderstanding and discord in the country. The student was responding to my observation that cosmetic reconciliation was – unfortunately or fortunately – rapidly falling apart, and many white South Africans’ refusal or lack of courage to recognise and engage marginalised black compatriots’ growing frustration and anger was problematic.

I repeated the sentiments I shared recently with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu after listening to a radio discussion between him and Archbishop Thabo Makgoba on the progress made in healing the wounds apartheid caused.

I told him I wanted to convey again the apology I express whenever I have the opportunity to do so. I am so terribly ashamed of, deeply sorry for and greatly saddened by the fact that the empowerment I – as a child from a white privileged family – have enjoyed, and am still enjoying, was gained at the cost of black South Africans who remain vulnerable and marginalised because of white supremacy.

I offered, too, an apology on behalf of the many white South Africans who still failed to be honest about the incredible damage apartheid had done, the advantages and privileges they, their children and grandchildren were enjoying and would continue to enjoy because of apartheid, and for the continued injustice and suffering their hard-heartedness was causing.

From those to whom much has been given, much is expected. History has given FW de Klerk a platform and the Nobel Prize has credited him as champion for peace; realities that I reminded him of several years ago in a brief informal conversation. I cautioned him then that many white South Africans were struggling to find their feet in a post-apartheid SA and he, for one, had an important role to play in assisting them. Like other opinion makers in the white community, he had the responsibility to encourage and enable those who were battling to accept “the others” as their equals, to deconstruct their whiteness and dismantle the world view that underpinned apartheid.

There is a question we as white citizens in this country need to answer honestly today: Did we really leave our mental enclave in 1994? Since the mid-1990s – when affirmative action shifted into a higher gear – a new identity of victimhood has emerged among white South Africans. Today the blatant arrogance with which it takes up a central position in debates on reconciliation is quite startling.

In the years since apartheid’s end, the concepts of transformation and reconciliation were introduced in a national vernacular of compulsion. In the white community no content was given to these slogans.

I, like many white fellow South Africans truly committed to the principles entrenched in our constitution and who work hard to help build a just society, understand reconciliation is about a shift in power. It is about individuals’ and society’s ability to recognise and address the alienation between those with power and those without power.

For most ordinary citizens the challenge is no longer to manage the stresses in a battle for political power. It is about dealing honestly with the demands regarding other fields of struggle: the struggle for economic empowerment; for the power education brings, opportunity delivers, and safety and security provides; and a dignified living that gives access to assistance and support. This power relates to being accepted and recognised as an “insider”.

Finally, reconciliation is about not overlooking or justifying inequality, but working for and entrenching equality in all spheres of private and public life.

In SA ours is not a challenge limited to rid ourselves of the alienation between majorities and minorities. In a strange way we are all aliens, having intentionally labelled ourselves thus, or having been pigeonholed and marginalised by tradition, culture, religion, history, gender, loss and privilege. We remain largely disconnected from one another and thus from cohesive, integrated and meaningful human existence.

We – especially those who continue to benefit from the spoils of an unjust past over more than 300 years – have the moral obligation to help give the marginalised, destabilised and vulnerable access to whatever power they need to influence their destinies and get not only what they need, but what they deserve and is rightfully theirs.

De Klerk’s unfortunate reflection on apartheid comes at a time SA can ill afford it. There is growing civil mass action regarding socio-economic injustice, the exceptional brutality of crime and violence, subtle yet noticeable campaigns to reinvent ethnic and cultural power bases, crusades to resurrect dangerous traditions and oppressive rituals, union-style mobilisation of working-class white citizens and, in the same vein, the mobilisation of the black working class and unemployed youth. The constitution – the implementation of which we celebrate this month – is our best chance to steer away from the catastrophe many expected would erupt when power changed hands. It remains the best tool to dismantle discrimination and injustice, and benchmark to evaluate and monitor the progress of transformation.

Apartheid can be forgiven, but not excused. In 1990, and again in 1994, De Klerk faced his Rubicon. Sharing the stage with Nelson Mandela, he had the opportunity to set an example for white South Africans by admitting how unjust apartheid was – that it was not only wrong, but sinful. He had the opportunity to apologise on behalf of all white South Africans, taking responsibility for the staggering challenges related to social injustice as a direct result of apartheid. He failed to do so, leaving white South Africans, in Gerald L’Ange’s words, “painfully stretched across the fateful divide between the old order and a new one, between the failed past and a promising future”.

In essence, deep-rooted and ethical transformation boils down to the ultimate confrontation between all that is good in human nature – hope, selflessness, patience, sacrifice, confidence, empathy, humbleness, dignity, respect, tolerance and acceptance – and all that is bad – fear, anger, greed, bitterness, envy, denial, hatred, apathy, doubt and distrust.

It is about the costs involved in crossing the divide between inequality and equality; injustice and humility. Transformation leads the individual and collective away from alienation – all that is bad – through the maze of myth and misgiving, into the valley of vulnerability, over the mountain of conversion and, finally, on to the plain of liberating reconciliation – all that is good.

A nation lost in the storm raging in the wilderness between alienation and reconciliation, will not survive. People who attempt to navigate their way through this in-between time with old paradigms as compass and narrow perspectives as map, will eventually lose all sense of direction. Whatever residue of humanness they still have, will vanish. Inevitably, they will destroy themselves.

In the words of another Nobel Peace Prize Laureate: “Reconciliation is not for ‘sissies’.” It will take huge amounts of hope and optimism, much incomprehensible and inconvenient treading of water, and unpleasant and sometimes hazardous mouthsful of muddy water before we reach the Rubicon’s opposite bank. But I still believe in SA and South Africans. I am still convinced the majority of this country’s white citizens will do what is necessary to help prevent it from tumbling into the abyss. Meanwhile, I thank God daily for the incredible graciousness of black South Africans who remain committed to reconciliation and peace despite our past’s inhumane legacy.

n Boesak is an Independent journalist/producer and commentator