Guest Column

Open letter to Mahlatse Mahlase: As a white man who supported apartheid, I apologise

2018-05-21 08:59
AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel in conversation with News24's Mahlatse Mahlase.

AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel in conversation with News24's Mahlatse Mahlase. (Screen grab, news24 video)

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Dear Mahlatse Mahlase

I watched your interview with AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel in amazement and horror. Your dignity and composure bordered on the superhuman. I want to for myself tender an apology to you that in 2018, 24 years after the dawn of a democratic dispensation, you had to endure embedded racism and to put it mildly, proto-fascism in the line of your work.

The awful truth is that you had to sit there and endure gaslighting, not because AfriForum is an aberration of white Afrikaans political thought in this country or an object of morbid curiosity from the past, but representative of a mainstream view amongst Afrikaners.

I am not tendering this apology on behalf of white people, nor am I apologising for Kriel. In fact, apologising for, and dismissing his outrageous views is what brought us to this point. I carry no mandate for anyone except myself. It seems incredulous that the Afrikaner community at large have now seemingly regressed to the point of disputing whether apartheid was a crime against humanity. It seemed like a settled issue in the late 1990s and the failures of Afrikaans political and civil society which brought us to this point is a discussion for another time.

It is sad that much of the discussion around the question of whether apartheid is a crime against humanity settled around legalities and whataboutery. Crimes against humanity and the impact thereof can't be measured by only looking at the numbers of the dead. Apartheid was, besides its physical violence, maybe especially a system of immense psychological violence. The violence on all levels, so prevalent in our daily lives, is irrefutable proof of the deep scars and fault lines that cripple our country.

No one was immune to the damage done by apartheid and no one in South Africa today is immune against the ongoing damage to our society. The true crime of apartheid was in the inhumanity of it and how it actively sought to dehumanise the oppressed rather than kill them. And how, as a result, it also dehumanised the oppressors.

I can attest to this experience personally. I supported apartheid in word and deed. As did the vast majority of white Afrikaners. Not only was apartheid a crime against humanity but it is a crime against humanity in which my immediate family and I am complicit.

In 1991, as a 21-year-old, I disrupted a planned speech by Nelson Mandela at the University of Pretoria. I called Nelson Mandela a terrorist. I was dehumanised by apartheid, and as a result it was easy to dehumanise the "others", or as they are referred to these day by so many on social media, "hulle".

I am in no way attempting to excuse my actions or positions. I am not seeking forgiveness, that is often a way in which the perpetrator shifts the burden of their moral failures onto their victims. Nor am I trying to equate my experiences to the suffering of the oppressed. As part of the class that oppressed and still enjoy the inalienable benefits of that oppression, only the most inhumane would consider that.

What I am trying to illustrate is the ridiculousness of denying that apartheid is a crime against humanity and admit my own culpability therein. I tweeted some random personal experiences which came to mind the other day to illustrate how apartheid succeeded in programming me for inhumanity. That it succeeded at least for a while is my shame. There were those who were not fooled. I was not one of them. This is the crime which some are seeking to deny so that they can deny their own culpability.

My parents were founding, active members of the Conservative Party, in many ways the precursor to the modern day AfriForum. I was raised to believe in white superiority. The holy apartheid trinity of School, Church and State served as backdrop to reinforce the views deeply help by my family.

I remember how as a child I went to a park where black women who were caring for white children (a practice frowned upon by my parents), had to sit on the ground, whilst I could sit on the park bench. The superiority was infused into our DNA. This was not apartheid as a woolly concept as AfriForum has claimed. This was the harsh reality of dehumanising the other. A crime against humanity. And it was almost banal in its simplicity and common occurrence.

In our household the woman who cleaned the house had her own cutlery stored with the cleaning materials under the kitchen sink, because even cutlery had to be separate. When we went to Sun City my mother reminded us not to use racial slurs, because we were in their country now. We watched the Cosby show, but were reminded that the blacks in America were different to the blacks we had here. So, Cosby was OK. An honorary black man. This type of thing survives in white Afrikaner thinking to this day. A black man is often only acceptable to the extent by which he is prepared to embrace Western culture in defiance of his own.

I never knew a black person in any capacity other than that of servant until well after I left school. The local black people on the news were either communist or suspected of soon being communists. Trust was reserved for those we knew to be apolitical. I remember well how Desmond Tutu with his liberation theology was considered to be an agent of the devil himself by white churches and the white community at large.

What the apartheid regime understood was that the personal is political. And there was not a single aspect of the lives of white people that was not defined by apartheid.

Yet, this is no excuse for the myriad of ways in which I personally supported and lived apartheid.

It is irrelevant whether apartheid is legally considered a crime against humanity. It is declared a crime by the lived experiences of everyone in this country and subjecting those oppressed by it having to endure explanations and denials by the likes of Kallie Kriel is committing a new crime against your humanity. The stunning callous cruelty of his words to you angered me. The support for them amongst Afrikaners left me in despair.

I am sorry you had to endure that – and I am humbled by your display of humanity in the face of such cruelty.


Johan Pienaar

- Pienaar is a freelance activist from Stellenbosch.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    afriforum  |  kallie kriel  |  apartheid  |  crime against humanity

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