The incredible whiteness of being by Joanne Joseph (IOL), 15 January 2016

18 January 2016

On 30 September 1989, at the height of apartheid Archbishop Desmond Tutu leads a group of protesters for a walk on a "whites only" beach at the Strand. White South Africans need to acknowledge the hurt resulting from apartheid, says the author. Picture: Willie de Klerk

Apologies are still needed for the pain caused by apartheid, writes Joanne Joseph.

When my dad dreams of home, he dreams about a place I’ve never seen. It’s not the apartheid house where he’s lived for the past 40-odd years. It’s not where his parents grew old, where he brought his new wife a home or raised his children.

He dreams of a house where the voices of his loved ones echo alongside the resonance of his brother’s piano; a ghostly gate that clicks open mysteriously at midnight; a vibrant room where light splashes on to wooden floors through French windows.

He remembers a fire there, his father scarring his legs smashing windows to get his family out.

But that house doesn’t exist. It hasn’t for years, falling prey to hungry bulldozers that razed its life to the ground.

The land became a cricket ground for white children. Haunted, he went back several times to re-map that demolished place in his mind. And as the bricks re-formed and the rooms reconstituted themselves, so his thoughts would be shattered by some authoritarian white official chasing him away from what was once his home. Each time he walked away, I think he left a small piece of himself behind.

After all these years, no one has had the courage to look him in the eye and say sorry.

He was never tortured by the Security Branch. He didn’t go into exile or face prison time for the struggle. But he needn’t have done any of this to warrant an apology.

It’s enough that he, like the millions of other oppressed who carried apartheid like a yoke every day, had their dignity stolen and lived lives of deficit because the country where they were born chose to legislate discrimination.

Somewhere in our transition to democracy, that daily struggle – the weeks and months and years of their undignified lives – was forgotten.

Euphoria suddenly gave birth to what we called the rainbow nation. We began to believe that despite the grave crimes against humanity, no apology was needed, no purging of the hatred that gave rise to apartheid was required; there was to be no mass outpouring of trauma for the abuse of decades suffered.

Reconciliation was a miracle balm smeared over the population, making us all colour-blind, repairing broken people, magically restoring unity and re-establishing connections between divided races.

Forgiveness seemed easy, heightened by a model like Nelson Mandela, who emerged from prison free of bitterness after 27 years.

It’s possible that ordinary people began to critique their own suffering through Madiba’s prism.

On the scale of human suffering, how do I compare my forced removal with nearly three decades in an apartheid jail?

But human suffering cannot be measured. It’s unquantifiable, determined only by the level of damage it causes to a particular person.

For the last 21 years, black South Africans have denied the extent of their trauma. But we are reminded of it when the country’s Penny Sparrows surface on social media. Sparrow, like many South Africans, cannot perceive her own role, active or passive, in the apartheid system. And divorced from this, she is emboldened to express her racist views.

If apartheid were the simplified story of abused and abuser, what sort of punishment would we wish upon the perpetrator? And if restorative justice was allowed to take its course, would the perpetrator enjoy the privilege of demanding that the past be forgotten without a sincere admission of guilt?

This is what justice means – the offending individual introspects deeply, bears the discomfort and shame, acknowledges his actions and their consequences and makes amends.

In the process of de-Nazifying Germany, there was no room to hide from the Holocaust.

It was on everyone’s lips, in public and private spaces. Germans ran into its spectre in their workplaces and schools.

The populace was shamed by the degeneration of its own morality.

This resulted in a new awareness among Germans of just how reprehensible the Holocaust had been.

Instead of a Truth and Reconciliation scenario which addressed the pain of a few, the Nuremberg Trials were held. Convicts were jailed.

Nazi war criminals are still being hunted down, facing the atrocities committed in their youth.

But we are not Germany. We were blessed with leaders who prevented bloodshed at all costs. But where did our ‘de-apartheid-ification’ go? Where were the real attempts to talk it out, to name it as naked racism, to paint white South Africans a gritty picture of life under apartheid in our own words and images, to build an understanding of the de-humanisation it caused and the repercussions for the lives of people destroyed by it?

Where is the moral shame our nation should have felt? If this had preceded the reconciliation project, perhaps it might have laid stronger foundations for the democracy we hoped to build.

A diversity specialist tells me she had wanted to lead an “apology march” in 1994 to actively say white South Africans were sorry for the overwhelming privilege they’d enjoyed.

But our democratic leaders seemed to believe this would upset the fragile balance and just court trouble.

It was also probably too simple a gesture for a country looking for more grandiose demonstrations of reconciliation at the time.

But I think many would have been grateful for such an uncomplicated act of humility and acknowledgement that affirmed our common humanity.

And today, perhaps people like my dad would close their eyes and dream differently.