Wilhelm Verwoerd: Are we also perpetuators? Unlocking this Good Friday through Black Christ

2020-04-09 16:47
Homeless people look on as members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) patrol the streets of Johannesburg on the first day of a nationwide lockdown for 21 days to try to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Homeless people look on as members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) patrol the streets of Johannesburg on the first day of a nationwide lockdown for 21 days to try to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Johannesburg, South Africa, March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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An invitation to revisit Black Christ for a Good Friday church service convinced me that Ron Harrison's protest painting from the early 1960s has not lost its prophetic cutting edge, particularly for people with my skin tone, especially during the Covid-19 crisis.

In the young Harrison's painting, Albert Luthuli, then-president of the ANC and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, controversially replaces the typical pale-skinned Jesus on the cross. Then-minister of justice John Vorster is portrayed as the soldier in the background, with prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd as the Roman centurion with the long spear.

In trying to come to terms with my shared historical responsibility as a white South African Christian Verwoerd I have often found rather uncomfortable, but profoundly humanising guidance in Black Christ. With the lockdown highlighting the painful presence of our highly unequal pre-1994 past, I am confronted with renewed intensity in the following three ways.

Before we were hit by the coronavirus crisis, Harrison's shocking analogy between apartheid and the crucifixion of Jesus helped me to forefront the fact that apartheid was not "only" a crime against humanity, it was also a systemic recrucifying of Christ, often in the name of a white "God".

The blackness of the Christ figure – instead of Jesus turned into "a whitey in a nightie" (Harrison) – continues to disrupt this domesticated idolisation feeding into a false sense of white superiority.

When I now ponder Black Christ, filled with dread about the potential deadliness of Covid-19 in racialised immune-compromised communities, I am not only confronted by the relatively invisible depth of historical wounding. I am even more challenged by the length of that spear, by the all too visible post-1994 duration of apartheid wounding given the unequal, mostly racialised exposure to the corona threat and lockdown disruption.

Take, for example, the bitter fruits of Verwoerdian "Bantu Education". During lockdown a good friend of mine is trying hard to continue teaching high school Maths to young people from township backgrounds, but remains mostly restricted to instruction via WhatsApp.

Many miss the one good meal provided at school

Many of the learners have only occasional access to a phone. Most struggle to get enough data. They have no quiet place to study, and often no safe place to sleep. Many miss the one good meal provided at school.

Typically there is nobody who can support them at home with Maths. Many struggle to focus, given growing fears of what might happen to them and to older family members since they are not able to practise social distancing in cramped conditions.

The contrast with a typical white middle-class child – highly educated parents, own bedroom, own computer, unlimited access to Wi-Fi, a school with capacity to offer online teaching – often makes me despair.

This glaring, mostly racialised contrast in educational experience and, therefore, future prospects, underline the extent to which people like me and our children and grandchildren continue to be beneficiaries of generations of better quality education provided on the basis of skin colour.

Where does being a beneficiary fit into Black Christ? To put it bluntly: to the extent that someone like me continues to enjoy these racialised benefits without sharing; to the extent that I use my higher income and greater wealth to hoard food and hide behind walls of safety; to that extent I am connected to the Verwoerd figure with the long spear.

I am not directly responsible in the way that he and his supporters are, but as a beneficiary I am morally and politically implicated in this haunting of the pandemic present by the past.

This brings me to the second challenge presented in this time by Black Christ. Before the corona crisis engulfed us, I mostly focussed on the significance of how Harrison painted the Verwoerd figure: as a Roman soldier with a youthful body and the face of an older political leader.

For me, this portrayal helped to guard against a too convenient scapegoating of a few hated politicians and their zealous enforcers in the security forces. As the institutional hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission showed, the systemic violence of apartheid included in complex ways the media, the judiciary, the business sector, the health system and, last but not least, faith communities.

As a beneficiary one is not a perpetrator

But not enough attention was given to the intergenerational dynamics of being a beneficiary of systemic racialised access to education, health, wealth, land, income.

Being a beneficiary, especially as someone born after 1994, does not make one legally, individually responsible in the conventional sense of having caused and intended harm. As a beneficiary one is not a perpetrator, as Michael Rothberg also argues in his recent book The Implicated Subject.

However, the corona crisis rubs the following possibility under mostly white noses. The range of pre-1994 benefits arising from my skin tone usually gives someone like me a greater ability to respond to life challenges.

The sharp point of this kind of "response-ability" in our current context is this: to the extent that I use this ability to only look after myself and my loved ones during the pandemic, to the extent that I do not share at least some of my racialised benefits across ongoing historical inequalities, to that extent I also become a "perpetuator" of apartheid.

Black Christ makes this potential participation in perpetuation even more unsettling for those who dare to call ourselves Christians: to the extent that we are perpetuators, we participate again in the crucifixion of the Christ who is embodied in those suffering more today because of racialised poverty (Mt. 25:38-40).

The third challenge is about the even more urgent present need for relational healing, for transforming separateness.

Before the corona crisis I focussed on the fact that real, humanising relations between those represented by Verwoerd and Luthuli are not possible as long as those represented by Verwoerd hold on to a spear of indifference and denial of shared historical responsibility.

People with my racialisation need to take off our armour of defensiveness, let go of our powerful "white fragility". We are called to engage, in mutual vulnerability, across historical divides towards genuine post-apartheid ubuntu.

Focus is on fearful distancing

But what does this message mean in the context of prudent "physical distancing", including the covering of our faces in public? The heart of my work as a facilitator of racial reconciliation is to bring people closer together, to uncover the masks we tend to wear so that we can become more real with each other.

The Afrikaans word for reconciliation, versoening, has the word "kiss" at its centre, with all the physical proximity and vulnerability of intimacy that metaphor implies. What does "ver-soen-ing" mean when the understandable focus is on fearful distancing, on handshakes, not to mention kissing, as potential infection?

To what extent does the need for physical distancing feed into the maintaining and even worsening of divides based on the enforced physical, emotional, social, moral, economic, spiritual distancings of systemic "separateness" pre-1994? To what extent does "distancing" by someone in my position become another fleeing, under the guise of present health risks, from the long wounding of the past?

I hope that the lockdown gives us more time to sit long enough with Black Christ for its highly unsettling messages to take root. So that especially people who look like me can learn not to run away from our implicated connection with the pre-1994 past.

If we do this together through practical, embodied solidarity with those who suffer (while keeping a safe, but anti-apartheid distance), then Black Christ becomes a key to unlock the paradoxical, non-exclusive news of Good Friday: uncomfortable, cross-division compassion is the route to unmask the lie of separateness, to come home in our skins, to discover our shared humanity.

- Wilhelm Verwoerd is a senior researcher in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. He is the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd, and the author of Verwoerd: My Journey Through Family Betrayals


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