Restoring Trust Between Black and White in South Africa – More Than Just Saying Sorry

I am a white South African, Afrikaans speaking, forty-six years of age and I love my country. Life has been an interesting journey where I have had the privilege of being exposed to very unique experiences combined with a unique background. This has brought me to a pivotal point and view that will hopefully contribute positively towards the debate around national unity amongst all races. This article will evoke emotion and I strongly suggest you read the entire piece before making a judgment.

I have personally engaged President Zuma, Deputy President Motlanthe, Julius Malema, Roelf Meyer, Mathews Phoza, Jay Naidoo, Helen Zille, Lindiwe Mazibuko, Patricia De Lille, top CEO’s, top sports and entertainment personalities, and many more. One of my uncles was a founding leader of the AWB, and the other, one of the founding Generals of the Freedom Front Plus. I have rubbed shoulders with members of the National Planning Commission and other experts regarding a way to create social cohesion in South Africa; I led a national values campaign where thousands of South Africans across nine provinces voted for SA values; I have engaged retired and current leaders within the white Afrikaans community; I, together with a friend, have met with the newly elected AWB leader to try and convince them to follow a higher law and road, following the murder of their leader; I have engaged the leaders of the Free Market Foundation and the Afrikaanse Handels Instituut (AHI); I have had intense conversations with Jimmy Manyi former leader of the BMF; through a regular column I have tried to drive a Seamless Workplace Campaign in order to confront barriers to a successful workplace; I have had many deep discussions and debates with prominent and ordinary South Africans, directly and through responses via our two leadership columns. I can go on and on.

One of the elephants in the room that is resisting national unity, that seems to chain us, hold us back emotionally and psychologically, is of course our racially divided past and its contribution to societal inequalities. While there are other contributing factors to our societal inequalities and poverty, the race issue plays its part without a doubt. In fact, most of us may be underestimating its negative influence on trust, respect and ultimately performance in all spheres of society. Almost every day I sit with black and white senior leaders one on one and the race issue often surfaces as an obstacle to unity, in some form.

I have experienced conversations with leaders from these opposite ends of the scale and in many instances listened to views on a road to national unity. The case for “moving on” and putting our racially divided past behind us once and for all is a strong one. The case for still needing to “redress the past”, in some form, is an equally strong one. The case that many are involved or getting involved in projects that assists in healing psychological and emotional scars of our racial past is sound, as is the case that not enough is being done. The opposite and different views are many, and mostly sound, depending on who one speaks to. It seems impossible to arrive at a united answer of what needs to be done!

Through all of this I have seriously contemplated what we as a nation can and should do to reconcile and somehow put our racially divided past behind us, in order to step up into a fairly unknown space where true unity and deep trust replaces division and distrust. Collectively we have had a glimpse of this space, but we have simply not yet gained sufficient momentum for lasting change. In fact, many would be of the opinion that the momentum may very well be slowing down fast. We need something noble and extraordinary that transcends ordinary solutions, because our situation is not ordinary. Yet we live in a country with extraordinary potential, which we are not even close to accessing.

Following a conversation with Bobby Godsell several months ago, I came to the conclusion that a crucial component and missing link is if someone, a grouping is willing to take the lead and “do the big or honourable thing”, to walk a “higher road” that somehow attempts to thrust this entire situation on to another and higher plain. To do this requires a radical, selfless yet simple approach, which is based on the deeply universal principle of “Atonement”: At-one-ment, which means “making one” (or whole), bringing together again that which is broken. But for this principle to be effective, at least two elements are necessary. Firstly, what needs to be made whole should seem almost impossible to achieve on its own, therefore needing some form of outside intervention to trigger the movement. Secondly, for all intents and purposes, and where possible, the “outside intervention” should be an innocent party or parties that sacrifice immeasurably in a most relevant way.

Whether one is a Christian or not, a perfect example of an atoning act is the belief that many have that Jesus Christ, an innocent and perfect, sinless being, took all of mankind’s sins upon Him. In other words, despite His innocence He was willing to sacrifice His life and suffer incomprehensible pain for others’ sins, taking punishment for what billions did or were yet to do wrong. The belief is further that this act takes full effect in someone’s life on condition of: firstly acceptance of the free atoning act, and secondly, after recipients do what they can to make right – this is called repentance, that part where an effort is made to rectify or change. In other words, on the one hand the atoning act is free, but on the other hand it opens the door for the parties to do their part as well.

In the spirit of being part of the solution, not in an “excuse me for living” way; for the preservation of our country and our children; and to restore broken trust between black and white, some brave, white and innocent, or largely innocent leader and/or grouping must rise up and openly, publicly, boldly acknowledge that South Africa’s racially divided past has wronged and limited fair opportunities in life for our black South Africans. This courageous leader and/or grouping must recognise that while offering better opportunities for most white citizens, in most cases the system not only scarred many black South Africans psychologically, emotionally and economically, but also many white South African’s, at least psychologically and emotionally.

You see, for human beings, life is about experiencing situation after situation and relationship after relationship, enjoying opportunities from which to exercise our sacred right of choice, while handling obstacles and challenges along the road towards one’s full potential.

But decisions by some resulted in life opportunities being made available based on race, whilst contributing towards limiting this life experience for black South Africans and this was unacceptable, especially as far as their freedom of choice was concerned. In other words, many black citizens were held back on their path towards their full potential. The recognition and apology for the wrongs inflicted upon our fellow black South Africans also needs to be offered on behalf of those that were directly responsible for establishing racially based regulations, including white South Africans who have passed on and, had they been here, may have appreciated the opportunity to stand and be counted.

One can only hope that such a formal and heartfelt apology, together with past and current acts of amends will open the door for all white South Africans to demonstrate unsurpassed courage, should they so choose, by formally apologising to black South Africans. And, should they feel it necessary, in addition to what they may currently be sacrificing to our country, do something more to indicate remorse for what our racially divided past did to black compatriots. As mentioned earlier, many are already doing their part and may feel that such a formal apology strongly contextualises and gives meaning to their current acts of sacrifice. One trusts that such acts will be or are in the spirit of “teaching a man/woman to fish” rather than simply “giving the fish”, in other words a gift that is accompanied by an effort on the part of the recipient, so as not to create an entitlement mentality across our nation. This act should also be accompanied by a lifelong commitment to ensure we will never allow this kind of injustice, and racism to happen again!

I do not presume to speak on behalf of black South Africans by telling them how to react, but I personally believe that when such a noble act is performed by one party the other party often reciprocates. So, while white South Africans should do this simply because it is the right thing to do, and should not have expectations of a specific response from black South Africans, what will probably happen is that most black South Africans will rise to the same level of nobility and accept the public and private apologies and acts of amends and forgive unreservedly. The act of atonement will then become effective in their lives as well, and together with white South Africans they too will probably be willing to commit to never again allowing any form of racism to happen in this country. In essence, this courageous act and sacrifice of white South Africans will likely be matched by how black South Africans embrace it. This will go a long way towards restoring broken trust.

Perhaps most white and even black compatriots will view this suggestion with absolute disdain. But they will miss the fact that embracing it places them in the same noble category as those leaders that society admires so much, like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Both of them rose above ordinary solutions and naturally expected human behaviour and followed a higher road that saved nations. They made noble acts like forgiveness (Mandela), not retaliating with violence (Gandhi), “doing unto others as you want done to you”, and other difficult acts that often go against our nature seem so doable, especially in hindsight. But no doubt at the time they encountered insurmountable resistance or opposition. We cannot all become Mandela’s and Gandhi’s who save nations, but we can act like them in our own spheres of influence.

If it is done courageously, honestly and with real intent, many will be released from these psychological, emotional and even spiritual chains that bind us and contribute towards holding us back as a nation; we will once again be an example to the world; we will show that this nation doesn’t need legislation to fix it; our nation will unite and move closer towards its full potential. The alternative is just too frightening to contemplate! In essence we will continue to pretend, distrust motives and create superficial unity through sporting events and other activities that offer a temporary feeling of unity, much like what happened in 1995 and 2010. But time and time again we will slip back – deeper and deeper – into the sad state of distrust, division, unresolved issues and expectations, and negative perceptions about one another. If this kind of action does not happen now, our only hope will lie in the rising generation, but the problem is that the ticking time bomb may not wait that long and our next generation is unfortunately being polluted by the actions and attitude of many from the current generation.

This article appeared in the:

Business Report




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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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