Every week, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa write a thoughtful message to his people — and to the world?– which is posted on the ANC website. The message that Mbeki posted there today is extremely thoughtful and inspiring, and definitely worth our reflection.
(Hat-tip to Dominic for signaling this.)
This message has basically two (or three) parts to it, which are loosely connected.. In the first part, he writes about the importance of staying open to hearing a message of peace when it comes– especially from those of our opponents whom sometimes it is very hard to “hear” accurately.
(This part of the message is also of historical importance, for those of us who seek to understand better how it was that the negotiations between the ANC and thr National Party actually got started back then in 1989-1990.)
- At some point during 1989, in Lusaka, I received a message from Professor Willie Esterhuyse that we should meet in London. Accordingly, I informed our then President, the late Oliver Tambo, about this message. I told him that the indication was that Professor Esterhuyse would be bringing a message for the ANC from the apartheid government.
President Tambo told me that one of his recurring nightmares was that one day this government would send us a message indicating its readiness to negotiate an end to the apartheid system, and that we would fail to understand the message and therefore fail to respond to it correctly.
He said that over the centuries, and especially during the apartheid years, a deep gulf of mutual antagonism had developed between especially the African majority and the ruling white minority, especially the Afrikaners. He feared that so deep was this chasm that we had reached a stage such that the two sides would find it difficult even to hear each other.
Hence his recurring nightmare that when the apartheid regime sent a message that it now wanted a genuine peace and an end to white minority rule, we would read this as being nothing but a ruse intended to demobilise us from struggle, with the aim of perpetuating apartheid. Thus as the possibility for a peaceful end to the apartheid system presented itself, we would decide that this was precisely the moment to intensify our just war against this system.
He said that it might very well be that the message communicated by Professor Esterhuyse signified that the apartheid rulers were now ready to engage the ANC in discussions aimed at achieving a genuine peace and an end to white minority rule.
He said that whatever might have been happening at that time, we needed to ensure that we did not make the grievous mistake of failing to hear a message of hope that our enemies might seek to communicate. He therefore authorised that I should proceed to London, listen to what Willie Esterhuyse had to communicate, and report back, which I did.
And indeed Professor Esterhuyse had brought a message that the apartheid regime wanted to talk directly with the ANC leadership in exile. He conveyed the proposals made by the regime to establish direct contact between its representatives and the delegation that would be chosen by the ANC, and other matters relevant to the convening of the first meeting.
President Tambo and other ANC leaders he consulted agreed that we should respond positively to all the suggestions conveyed by Professor Esterhuyse. The first meeting that began our process of negotiations, and therefore the very first meeting between the apartheid government and the ANC, took place in Switzerland. Jacob Zuma and I represented the ANC. The South African government was represented by two senior officials of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), Mike Louw and Maritz Spaarwater.
This began a succession of meetings, which addressed the demand repeatedly made by our movement, that for any negotiations to take place, the necessary climate had to be created. Accordingly, by the end of 1989 we had agreed, among others, that Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners would be released, and the ANC, the SACP and all other progressive organisations would be unbanned.
By leaping over the gulf that separated the oppressed from the oppressor, to listen to, hear and understand the words communicated by the oppressor, our movement had managed to avoid transforming Oliver Tambo’s nightmare into reality.
We can indeed say that when the drum of peace was sounded, we did not mistake this for a new summons to the war regiments. I have often wondered what would have happened to our country and people if we had allowed our history so to condition our minds that we failed to hear the message of the oppressor conveyed to us by Professor Esterhuyse!
Thank G-d they did! Thank G-d for Oliver Tambo’s quiet good sense and attentiveness to listening for the message of peace!
The other main part of Mbeki’s latest message is his reflection on an extraordinary event that took place a couple of weeks ago when Adriaan Vlok– who had been Minister for Law and Order during the last, and most repressive, days of the apartheid regime– turned up at the office of Frank Chikane, the director of Mbeki’s office… gave Chikane a Bible… asked if he could wash Chikane’s feet … and then pulled out a bowl and some water out of his bag and proceeded to do so.
To understand this gesture you need to recall the portion of the Bible where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as a sign of his humility and love for them. You also need to understand what a ferocious, extremely inhumane and oppressive person Vlok had earlier been– throughout a long career in the security forces and in politics, and in his position as Minister in the 1980s and early 1990s.
For his part, Frank Chikane had been a Black pastor in South Africa in those days. But he was active with the pro-ANC grassroots movement, the UDF, and was defrocked from his church for that… Nonetheless, he became secretary-general of the SA Council of Churches– a frequent target of Vlok’s ire and several of his dirty tricks. In the 1980s, Vlok even tried to assassinate Chikane by poisoning a set of clothes with which he was traveling.
Mbeki, in his commentary today, noted that the recent foot-washing action undertaken by the 69-year-old Vlok had aroused some hostile reactions– both from Whites and from Blacks (for different reasons.)
His own commentary on the affair was this:
- Adriaan Vlok was born on 11 December 1937 in Sutherland, and grew up on a smallholding close to the Orange River, attending Neilerdrift Primary School and Keimoes High School. Following three months of military training in Pretoria during 1957, he began work for the Department of Justice in the magistrate’s offices of Keimoes and Upington. Between 1959 and 1966 he served as a senior official at the department’s head office in Pretoria, and was appointed private secretary to Pelser, Minister of Justice, a post he held for four months before becoming assistant private secretary to John Vorster. He completed his Dip Proc at the University of Pretoria in 1962.
Vlok had an active interest in military matters and following his basic training, voluntarily joined the ‘Regiment Oranjerivier’. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant before he resigned his commission on entering active party politics. In 1972 he was elected to the Verwoerdburg City Council and served on its management committee. He joined the National Party in 1959 and in 1964 began to participate actively in party functions.
He was elected Member of Parliament for Verwoerdburg in 1974. In 1984 he was appointed Deputy Minister of Defence. In 1985 he was appointed Deputy Minister of Law and Order, a portfolio he held concurrently with that of Deputy Minister of Defence. In December 1986 he was appointed Minister of Law and Order.
As Minister of Law and Order, he was also responsible for administering the National Security Management System (NSMS), the mechanism formed to coordinate and oversee the entire repressive machinery and offensive of the apartheid regime. At the end of July 1991, in a Cabinet reshuffle carried out because of our movement’s resistance to the raging state-sponsored political violence at the time, Vlok was redeployed to the post of Minister of Correctional Services. He resigned from active party politics in 1994.
This short biography tells the story that in Adriaan Vlok we have an Afrikaner who grew up and matured within the confines of the Afrikaner society of his day. He evolved, naturally, to join, represent and lead the party of apartheid, the National Party. Again naturally, Adriaan Vlok has been and is a devout Christian. We can safely assume that he was also a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond.
Thus the man who washed the feet of a black man he grew up knowing belonged to a sub-human species, and whom he wanted dead because he represented the anti-Christ, was the product of an age and historical experience that produced people steeped in racism, who were convinced that they had to beat back a ‘swart gevaar’, (black danger), that permanently threatened the Afrikaner volk, and whose deep religiosity was used to justify evil.
At the age of 69, one among these, Adriaan Vlok, took the decision to humble himself before one that he had once considered as being nothing more than vermin, in the same way that the genocidaires in Rwanda had convinced themselves that those they intended to kill and did kill, were mere “cockroaches”. To show the depth of his penitence and remorse, and the sincerity of his apology, he decided to emulate Jesus Christ, who had knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples.
In the Bible he gave to Frank Chikane, he inscribed the words, “I have sinned against the Lord, and against you. Please forgive me.”, and referred Rev Chikane to the Biblical Psalm 51. This Psalm contains a verse that says, “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.”
He also referred to other texts in the Scriptures, and specifically the Acts of the Apostles. One of these quotes Paul as saying: “Lord.when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.”
While I hope that this does not communicate a message of arrogance, I believe that personally I heard what Adriaan Vlok said. I heard him say that he now unequivocally accepts that racism and apartheid were wrong and evil. I heard him say he did grievous wrong by supervising the murder of the martyrs.
I heard him say he pleads for the forgiveness of the millions who suffered from what he and his colleagues in the National Party did. I heard him say he wants to do something to heal the wounds of the past, to close the poisoned chasm of which Oliver Tambo spoke, to join the architects of a new society at peace with itself.
I heard him say all these things and was deeply moved that an elderly Afrikaner, with Adriaan Vlok’s history and pedigree, could speak as he did and break with his past in the manner he has. What his words and actions said to me was that our society, which includes those who matured under circumstances very different from today’s, is gradually growing out of its traumatic past.
His words and actions said to me that even as he embarked on an intensely personal journey, Adriaan Vlok communicated a message to all who will listen, including the Afrikaner people he led, that together we must build a new and humane society of hope, in which we are each one another’s keeper. As a South African, I felt uplifted and strengthened that Adriaan Vlok had spoken and acted as he did.
Remembering what Oliver Tambo had said when Professor Esterhuyse asked that we should meet in London, I have been asking myself whether, as a nation, we are listening to and hearing one another!
Does white South Africa hear what the black people are and have been saying, and vice versa! Does adult South Africa hear what the youth are saying, and vice versa! Does male South Africa hear what the women of our country are saying! Does urban South Africa hear what the communal rural areas are saying! Do the commercial farmers hear what the farm workers are saying!
Do the Africans in the Cape Peninsula hear what their Coloured neighbours are saying, and vice versa! Does the nation hear the voices asserting that each one of us, whether Afrikaner or Khoi or Venda or Coloured or Tamil or any other among our people, are entitled to and must have the possibility to define our identity! Are we succeeding to bridge the chasms of the past, regaining the capacity to hear human messages, and thus empower ourselves to achieve the objective of national reconciliation, which is of fundamental importance to our shared future!
In the midst of all this, and much else besides, I too, and especially my mother, regret that the TRC process did not succeed to unearth the truth about what happened to our own loved ones who disappeared without trace – my brother Jama Mbeki, my son Kwanda Mbeki and my cousin, Phindile Mfeti.
We are each products of our lived past and present. Inevitably, what we say and do is refracted by that reality, all of which impacts on others whose consciousness may be refracted by a different historical and social experience. To weld ourselves into one humane society, united in its diversity, surely, we must learn to listen to and hear one another.
The first step we must take in this regard is to learn that our respect for one another’s humanity includes respect for the reality that each one of us will take his or her unique or special and stony feeder road to join the national march towards the achievement of the objective of a “South Africa (that) belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”, as our Constitution says. This demands that we must cultivate the capacity to hear one another.
In between those two portions of Mbeki’s recent message, there was a short but interesting reflection on how the events of the genocide in Rwanda showed the depth of the depravity to which humankind can sink if we allow outselves to demean and dehumanize each other…
I found Mbeki’s whole message this week inspirational and timely. Today, Bill and I were in a small group who went over to Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, Monticello, which is very near Charlottesville, to take part in a lunch discussion with the former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami today. (I’ll do a separate post on the highlights from that later.) But I couldn’t help thinking: are the present leaders in Iran and the US sufficiently attuned to the need that Oliver Tambo had identified, to be ready to hear the overture of peace when it is sent? Or is all the language of dehumanization, division, and othering so loud that even if a message of peace is sent, then it won’t get heard?
Indeed, during our discussion there today, Khatami spoke forcefully about the need for both sides to ratchet down the level of the hostility in their discourse.
I also thought a bit about what the Middle Eastern equivalent of Vlok’s remarkable– and to me very inspiring gesture would be… I think it would be something like having an Israeli Chief of Staff, or Defense Minister, or head of the Moassad, some 12 years after the conclusion of a comprehensive and final Arab-Israeli peace, volunteer to go to Gaza or south Lebanon and work on a program to rebuild shattered homes, or to stay for a whole morning and serve coffee to Ismail Haniyeh and his guests, or– ?
Vlok’s personal transformation truly seems to have been extraordinary. He had actively taken steps to have Chikane killed, remember… back then. But today, there he was, washing the man’s feet and asking for his forgiveness.
One final note. South Africa’s TRC never required that anyone who appeared before it asking for amnesty should either express remorse, ask for forgiveness, or undertake any reparative action. But though it did not require that, it did create a climate in which former perpetrators– from all sides– were invited to reflect on the moral qualities of their actions. How wonderful that that process, or perhaps something else, spurred Adriaan Vlok to take his recent action. (Yes, even if it was not “enough” as an action, as some survivors of the apartheid era have argued– still, it was a significant step on the path to social repair.)