Chapter One: Will White South Africans Take Moral Responsibility For Apartheid? [Opinion]

Dennis Lee RoyleAP Images

“Asking forgiveness without an attempt to appreciate the other’s pain, without making a human connection with the other person, has an empty ring to it. It is tantamount to adding insult to injury.”

The opening words, written by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, echo louder every day in the canyons and across the valleys that crisscross the vast plains of South Africa.

As the first in a series of investigations that will delve into the consciousness of South African whites in the democratic era, this article examines the concept of moral responsibility and why it’s necessary, at the very least, to go back to the drawing board to see where we have strayed and what opportunities for reconciliation we have missed.

It’s been 23 years since the first democratic election took place in South Africa. A watershed moment in the history of a country that had been mired in gross human rights violations that can be traced back more than 300 years to when the first permanent European settlers took up residence in the Cape region.

Despite an unspeakably brutal past whereby white settler colonialists exterminated, dehumanized, and disenfranchised black Africans — the indigenous inhabitants of this soil — we have seen little to no recognition of these injustices from the broader white community.

Moreover, white South Africans have thus far resisted any and all notions of collective responsibility and have rejected the calls — what ought to be a duty — to repair the damage wrought by our European ancestors, Apartheid co-conspirators, and everyone else alive today who witnessed it and did nothing to stop it.

The failures of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) deliberations in the early 1990s, and the subsequent exclusivity of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings — events that released a torrent of absolution to wash over a people who did not ask for it — have resulted in an obscene sense of entitlement amongst whites.

Not only has the collective entitlement of whites seen an upsurge, but European South Africans have unabashedly, quite arrogantly, assumed the status of victims in the post-Apartheid dispensation. How quickly the sole beneficiaries of the “perks” that accompanied a 300-year-long crime against humanity have become “casualties” of restorative justice.

Why is it that we find it impossible to show basic empathy for the victims of past horrors committed in our name and for our benefit? How is it that we continually deny the need for justice that is — as a matter of pure logic — the only conceivable next step after the recognition of European global devastation?

the women raided and set fire to a beer hall in protest against police action against their home brewing activities
South African police beat African women with clubs in Durban in 1959.Featured image credit: File ImageAP Images

Who is responsible?

One of the main hurdles to achieving restorative justice is the question of whom takes responsibility for what, and to what extent an individual can be held to account for the crimes of a group; crimes he or she did not directly partake in.

A most compelling argument for group accountability was proffered by the grandson of the architect of Apartheid himself, Hendrik Verwoerd. In his essay, “On our Moral Responsibility for Past Violations,” Wilhelm Verwoerd identifies and discusses various epistemological theories on the concept of collective responsibility.

Verwoerd posits that white South Africans, as well as their descendants, are morally responsible for the human rights violations orchestrated during Apartheid, but argues that liability must be determined to according to varying degrees.

Importantly, Verwoerd is quick to clarify that collective moral responsibility is not the same as collective guilt, the latter being, in the words of the author, a “problematic imposition.”

According to Verwoerd, in a post-war situation when perpetrators must account for crimes against humanity, it is essential to establish who is guilty, who is morally complicit, who should be punished and how severe the penalties should be.

Vlok, whose name was synonymous with terror in the apartheid era, pleaded guilty Friday to attempted murder for the 1989 poisoning of a former church leader
South Africa's former law and order Minister Adriaan Vlok, second from left, with ex-police chief Johan van der Merwe, left, and three other former high-ranking policemen inside of High Court room in Pretoria.Featured image credit: Themba HadebeAP Images

Additionally, he argues that the victims of atrocities are entitled to restorative justice, reparations and spiritual repentance offered by the perpetrators — both directly and indirectly — and beneficiaries of an inhumane system of oppression.

At this juncture, some readers might object to the reference to post-war circumstances and argue that colonialism and Apartheid cannot be classified as wars. In response, I posit that the comparison is indeed appropriate, as in the hearts and minds of the victims, European conquest and all of its accompanying atrocities, might very well be viewed as a tremendously prolonged militaristic assault.

Criminal, political, moral and metaphysical responsibility

In support of his argument, Verwoerd refers to German philosopher Karl Jaspers’ distinct notions of guilt. For Jaspers, guilt comes in four differentiable forms: criminal, political, moral, and metaphysical.

Criminal guilt, Japers argues, applies to those state officials who were directly involved in the planning and execution of crimes against humanity. According to Jaspers, in the case of Nazi Germany, those who were responsible for carrying out the Final Solution, for example, are criminally guilty and should be tried and sentenced accordingly in a court of law.

In a South African context, criminal guilt can and has been objectively assigned to someone like Eugene de Kock, who admitted to personally overseeing the torture and deaths of many black South Africans under the command of the National Party government. Let it be known that de Kock is one of the few Apartheid government operatives that was caught, tried and convicted. A great number of his former colleagues walk amongst us today, unknown and unpunished.

Torturers and bombers who carried out atrocities defending or fighting apartheid need counseling to ensure they do not repeat their crimes
Police death squad leader Eugene de Kock, who was sentenced to more than 200 years after a killing spree that cost dozens of black people's lives.Featured image credit: Denis FarrellAP Images

In reference to Jaspers’ definition of political guilt, Verwoerd argues that all white South Africans — whether they were opponents or supporters of the regime — are liable for the actions of the National Party and should thus pay reparations to Apartheid victims in the form of a wealth tax. We will delve further into this concept in a future edition of this series.

Here I must agree with Verwoerd and Jaspers. In his 1977 book Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer, a prominent political theorist, posits that by virtue of a common citizenry, all subjects of an unjust regime carry political guilt and are thus liable for the war crimes of their government.

However, when analyzing the concept of moral guilt, Verwoerd cautions against applying the same “all-or-nothing” approach one would use while passing legal judgments on criminal acts.

Moral guilt, according to Jaspers, deals explicitly with the subjects of a regime engaging in crimes against humanity who were aware of, or who could reasonably have known of these injustices but chose to turn a blind eye.

The word “choice,” in my view, is an important one. Very often, as Verwoerd aptly points out, white South Africans are quick to say, “I didn’t know it was happening” or “I didn’t do it” in response to questions about group complicity during the Apartheid years.

Whites only areas were common in South Africa
Whites walk past black demonstrators who made a long line along Durban's Addington Beach, which was a whites only beach during Apartheid.Featured image credit: John ParkinAP Images

While it may be plausible that white people were somewhat sheltered from the National Party government’s atrocities, Verwoerd is right to name Beyers Naude and Braam Fischer as examples of individuals who deliberately set out to know what the government was doing in the areas that were “unseen.”

In fact, these men were often threatened with death by right-wing Afrikaner who saw them as traitors. This begs the question: if Afrikaners, out of fear, were trying to silence Naude and Fischer, how is it possible that they did not know about the horrors taking place against black people?

On the other end of the spectrum of ignorance, while black men were tending to white middle-class gardens and African mothers – far from their own children – were raising the offspring of white women, how is that none of these white people bothered to inquire about the personal circumstances of their so-called employees?

Can it be said, then, that white ignorance was, and still is, willful?

South Africa's past is riddled with signs that demarcated legislated racial areas, keeping the most desirable areas for whites.Featured image credit: EjorGetty Images

Harvard’s Professor Emeritus Stanley Bates argues, in his seminal 1971 paper “The Responsibility of Random Collections,” that in a country mired in racism, the responsibility for injustices committed by institutions is borne by, “mature, rational white [people] who know what the racial situation is, and who either take actions to perpetuate it or worsen it, or who fail to take actions to alleviate it.”

This brings us to the final category of guilt in Jaspers’ theory – metaphysical guilt. By our very nature, human beings are social animals, and as such, there exists a strong sense of solidarity amongst those we see as members of our group. According to Jaspers, this makes humans co-responsible for crimes committed in their presence by fellow members of their group.

Verwoerd pertinently discusses the extent to which white South Africans feel remorse, in its purest sense, for past injustices committed in their name. How are we to make amends and restore the dignity of black people if we aren’t even prepared to show remorse?

Mobs protesting white supremacy laws which require blacks to carry the passes were fired upon by police
This is an example of the type of South African pass books black people had to carry during Apartheid.Featured image credit: AP Images

As Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela points out in her essay, “Remorse, Forgiveness, And Rehumanization: Stories From South Africa’s Truth And Reconciliation Commission,” countries that transition from brutal and oppressive regimes to a democratic state are inevitably faced with the challenge of how to deal with past human rights violations.

While working with victims and perpetrators who were part of the Truth and Reconciliation process, Gobodo-Madikizela observed a remarkable capacity for forgiveness on the part of the victims.

So remarkable, in fact, that Gobodo-Madikizela describes the process as one in which the victims seemed to be actively searching for reasons to forgive the perpetrators of atrocities against them and their families. Nevertheless, perpetrators too, she says, were eager to receive forgiveness from those whom they had wronged.

This immense capacity for forgiveness on the part of black people has not wavered in more than two decades, despite the growing hubris of whites as a whole. The very same white community who for decades stood silently by as black people were being brutalized and oppressed.

So what do we do?

Verwoerd proposes a new way of interpreting the word “responsibility.” Let us instead, he says, perceive the term as describing the “response-ability” of white people. The very privileges that Apartheid conferred exclusively onto whites afford us the ability to respond to the calls for restorative justice.

If you are a white person reading this, I urge you to look up the wonderful Sesotho phrase that reads: “Motho ke Motho ka Batho.” Or alternatively, you can look it up in isiZulu: “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu.” In the coming weeks, we will discover the profound meaning behind these uniquely African phrases that stem from an ancient wisdom, Ubuntu, that Europeans have never understood or practiced.

Next week, however, I’ll present some of the counter-arguments to the concept of collective moral responsibility, including the various individualist philosophical and legal approaches that have become ingrained in Western Society.

I will also look more closely at the distinction between criminal guilt, as applied to individuals, and moral responsibility as applied to groups.

Despite state capture; despite poor governance; despite the long-overdue growth of a black middle class; despite intra-community violence; despite xenophobia; despite certain African nations still battling with slavery and limited human rights; despite any and all arguments that are most often leveled in opposition to white accountability for past wrongs, white people have no justification for not cleaning up our act.