August 15, 2020

Media and Citizenship

Mellon Project Focus Area

Sorry can be the hardest word!

Nelson Mandela arrives for birthday celebrations of de Klerk in Cape Town

The tainted legacy of apartheid’s former President FW de Klerk has been up for discussion again in the light of the city of Cape Town’s decision to honour him by re-naming Table Bay Boulevard after him.

There is no doubt that De Klerk showed courage, leadership and insight when he led the National Party – and most of white South Africa – along the path out of the political morass created by successive NP regimes. Whatever his motives – and many have speculated about these – I acknowledge De Klerk for his role in the transition to democracy. But that does not mean we should easily forget South Africa’s inglorious past and De Klerk’s role, as a committed member of a white minority government which disenfranchised, separated, removed, relocated and killed.

Given the predominant Christian ethos which underpinned South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commssion – understandably influenced by the leadership of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu – it is perhaps ironic that De Klerk has had such an easy time of dissing the need for penitence and confession.

In terms of Judaeo-Christian understandings of god, the act of penitence is a fundamental pre-cursor to communion with god and with one’s fellows. The Old Testament reflects a supposed desire of god to heal us if we repent.

“if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

This approach had a strong resonance with the penitential church of the late apartheid era. The National Initiative for Reconciliation, formed by church leaders including Tutu in Maritzburg in the 1980s, was forged “in humility and repentance” (Balla 1989). The sense of communion – or reconciliation – so essential to moving the country to a place where a different, non-racial and democratic South Africacould be imagined – could not occur without confession of past – and, perhaps, continuing – sins. These elements were incorporated into the work of the TRC, which remains widely acknowledged internationally as a benchmark for societies transitioning out of historical epochs of injustice or oppression, even as questions remain among South Africans about the efficacy of the TRC in resolving the brokenness wrought in our society by apartheid.

While affirming his “Dopper” Christian roots, De Klerk has eschewed the confessional idea of the TRC, showing no predilection for a full apology for apartheid, even as he has adamantly repeated that he has apologized for apartheid.

In an interview after the 1992 whites only referendum which resulted in a landslide vote in favour of reform, he said that while he apologised for the hurt, apartheid remained a sound political doctrine, albeit he conceded it was unworkable in South Africa.

The appeal to the moral righteousness of apartheid underpins its latter-day political justification. That has ignored the impact on disenfranchised black South Africans; the consequence of brutal enforcement of laws necessary to maintain separate development; the impoverishment of people in Bantustans; the detention and torture of activists; the killings at home and abroad of South Africans and empathetic foreigners; the effects on families torn apart by forced removals, migrant labour and Immorality Act convictions.

In a TRC special hearing in 1997, De Klerk appeared to acknowledge such critique, apologising and accepting full responsibility for apartheid’s “unconventional projects” and the harm caused to millions of South Africans, but equivocating nonetheless as he expressed shock at the revelations of atrocities committed in the name of his government.

More recently, De Klerk responded to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that he had made “the most profound apology” before the TRC for the injustices “wrought by apartheid” but that he had not apologised for “the original concept” of separate development. That concept was “not repugnant” but failed because the “territorial division” between white and black areas was “manifestly unfair”. The racial arrogance inherent in these responses is as stupefying as the revisionist approach to our history – colonial conquerors were entitled to carve up the country and allocate a portion to indigenous people – they simply got the maths wrong.

Fehr and Gelfand (2010) have written that “as a method of conflict resolution, apologies have perhaps never been as popular as they are today”. But they warned that all apologies are not created equal, adding that “the content of an apology should influence how effective it is, and who it is most effective for”.

Apology expert Aaron Lazare of the University of Massachusetts Medical School has written that for an apology to be valid, the offender must clearly and completely acknowledge the offence, provide an assurance the offence was not intentional and unlikely to recur, express remorse and humility, and offer real or symbolic compensation. An analysis of De Klerk’s often-enough repeated apology for apartheid shows none of these markers being present.

On the contrary, as Stanford University’s Karina Schumann (2014) has shown, transgressors like De Klerk avoid comprehensive expressions of mea culpa, preferring instead “more perfunctory apologies or even defensive strategies” that include justification for their offensive behaviour.

De Klerk is not alone and the issues raised in an appraisal of his apology for apartheid have implications beyond a presumed fixation with our apartheid history, as underscored by: President Jacob Zuma’s long list of public gaffes and offences directed at friends and foes alike; the more recent cockroach insult which Baleka Mbete directed at Julius Malema and for which she later apologized; and various non-apologies by corporate entities like Eskom through to former president Thabo Mbeki to Zelda le Grange.

Reconciliation matters today, because of the enduring separateness in our society and the spectacular failure of the state – and faith groups among civil society sectors – to offer an alternative vision of an equal, non-racial, conciliatory community. Introspection which allows us to heed the mistakes made by De Klerk may well offer future generations a different legacy.


Balla, DM. 1989. Christan Resistance to Apartheid. Skotaville Publishers. Braamfontein

CNN, 2012. De Klerk: No animosity with Mandela. Available at [Accessed on 14 February, 2015]

Fehr, R., Gelfand, M.J., and Nag, N. 2010. The road to forgiveness: A meta-analytic synthesis of its situational and dispositional correlates. Psychological Bulletin. 136(5) pp 894-914. Available at: [Accessed on 15 February, 2015]

Fehr, R.and Gelfand, M.J. 2010. When apologies work: How matching apology components to victims’ self-construals facilitates forgiveness. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes. 113 pp 37-50. Available at: [Accessed on 14 February, 2015]

Le Monde Diplomatique. 2005. Britain: Imperial Nostalgia. Available at: [Accessed on 15 February, 2015]

Milne, Seumas. Britain: Imperial Nostalgia. Le Monde Diplomatique. Accessed at

SAPA. 1997. De Klerk apologises again for apartheid. Available at [Accessed on 15 February, 2015]

Schumann, K. 2014. An affirmed self and a better apology: The effect of self-affirmation on transgressors’ responses to victims. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 54 pp 89-96