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Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, and Andre Brink: Guilt, Expiation, and the Reconciliation Process in Post-Apartheid South Africa
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Journal of Modern Literature 25.2 (2001-2002) 50-68

Sandra Chait has noted that the transfer of power from oppressor to oppressed is usually characterized for the former by shock, sorrow, and anger at the chaos of the upheaval. She adds that the oppressors are finally compelled to confront their culpability and that their authors invariably attempt through mythology to account for what went wrong. Chait notes that, in the case of South Africa, the transition to democracy had been sufficiently gradual to allow white South African writers "a gestation period in which to ponder collective guilt and, as in Germany, to search the past for answers to that inevitable question, 'How could it have happened?'" Yet for South African whites generally, as for white South African writers, there has been, perhaps expectedly, no consensus about the appropriate ethical response to the historical guilt of apartheid, just as there has been a deep anxiety to acknowledge the culture of violence in post-apartheid South Africa as part of the enduring legacy of apartheid. Perhaps no single incident has highlighted this with such dramatic intensity as the initiative championed in 2000 by the former African National Congress legislator and diplomat, Carl Niehaus, and a former president of the Black Sash, Mary Burton, to have whites collectively apologize to blacks for the sins of apartheid.

Reporting that only five hundred of South Africa's four and one-half million whites had agreed to sign the so-called "guilt list," Chris McGreal notes that the statement was hardly more than an acknowledgement by whites of what for blacks was a mere truism, an acknowledgement that apartheid had inflicted massive social, economic, cultural, and psychological damage on South African blacks. As McGreal cites the document:

We acknowledge the white community's responsibility for apartheid since many of us actively and passively supported that system. Some white people were deeply involved in the struggle against apartheid but they were very few in number. We acknowledge our debt to fellow black South Africans since all whites benefited from systematic racial discrimination. We therefore believe that it is right and necessary to commit ourselves to redressing these wrongs. We pledge to use our skills, resources and energy . . . [toward] promoting a non-racial society whose resources are used to the benefit of all its people.

Writing further on the incident, McGreal identifies the novelist Andre Brink, the actor Richard E Grant, and the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd, among whites who agreed with the sentiments of the declaration. He notes nonetheless that the dissenters, far from being only white racists, included many staunch anti-apartheid whites, such as Breyten Breytenbach. Where some of the dissenters, such as F.W. de Klerk, claim that they had already apologized to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, some contend that blaming all whites and only whites would reinforce racial divisions; still others are of the opinion that they had in fact atoned for the sin of apartheid by giving up political power in the first instance. Reporting on the same incident, David Beresford notes that besides the objection to reinforcing racial stereotyping, the dissenters had also argued that the "confessional approach" advocated by the declaration was "an unhealthy intrusion by the churches into politics." Quite significantly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission itself has often been criticized for advocating a form of the expression of guilt expiation which has tended to perpetuate rather than to propitiate and absolve the sins of apartheid.

Acknowledging that the TRC was potentially a heroic ethical project, David Attwell and Barbara Harlow have noted that it was nonetheless not without ambiguities: "Apart from the cost of giving amnesty to torturers and assassins, the militant youth culture of the 1980s . . . has left an uncomfortable legacy of seemingly apolitical crime and vigilantism." They go on to observe that the TRC, in elevating forgiveness in the name of peace above justice in the name of principle, excludes natural justice; and that by "emphasizing individual acts of abuse, it has tended to obscure the systematically abusive social engineering that was apartheid. Therefore, apartheid's legacy remains evident in extensive poverty, educational deprivation, and a warped criminal justice system which, because it was...



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