The title of this post shows the subtle
nuance that occurs when the topic of forgiveness is brought up in South
Africa. There is a big difference
between the phrases “when whites repent” and “when whites want forgiveness”.
“When whites want forgiveness”, positions
whites as the subjects and blacks as the objects. Blacks are used for absolution. Whites get and blacks give.
This confusion of subject/object places the
white minority at the centre of the discussion – again. They (we) become the axis around which
the universe turns. Whites,
ironically, become the beneficiaries
of a forgiveness dialogue or process wherein they are supposed to confess that they are beneficiaries of
gross human violations – apartheid.
Whites stay the beneficiaries through this process – first materially
and then also emotionally. Desmond
Tutu describes this when he writes that,
white people in South Africa have come to see themselves as entitled to
reconciliation and forgiveness without their having to lift so much as a little
finger to aid this crucial and demanding process.
Let me just state clearly that I believe
that forgiveness is important – because it primarily releases the wronged and
not the wrongdoer. “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It
is the best form of self-interest.”
It is when forgiveness becomes a
manipulating tool in the hand of the wrongdoer that the wrongs are perpetuated. The wrongdoer cannot wield the axe of
forgiveness while guarding the loot accumulated through the act of wrongdoing! For
this will just perpetuate the wrongs.
Scandalously (for that is what grace is),
the wronged will have to forgive the wrongdoer even for this manipulation. But this forgiveness can happen without
condoning the wrongdoer’s manipulation or original wrongdoing.
wrongdoer has to focus on his/her repentance and work it out in terms of acts of
contrition towards the ones he/she wronged. When a wrongdoer approaches the wronged
and asks for forgiveness without acknowledging the wrong – then the wronged is
This is where we as white followers of
Jesus will have to step up to the plate and live into a life of corporate
repentance. How do we do this?
We start by acknowledging racism on an
individual and a structural basis. We acknowledge that we are indeed
beneficiaries of a brutal past.
Yes, I know the discussion is more nuanced than this. Yet without a
baseline acknowledgment of the fact that we have benefited from apartheid as
whites, we cannot talk about a road of repentance – for this will be to live in
denial (which is not a river in Africa).
We have to acknowledge our individual
racism as well as the structural racism that benefitted us. This acknowledgment is described by
When I was younger I often resented being an
Afrikaner, but as I grew older I realised that it didn’t help denying it. In
fact, I became aware how important it was to affirm my Afrikaner roots and to
acknowledge my privileged past, with the benefits that flowed from that for me.
I was not a perpetrator of blatant racism under apartheid. By the grace of God
I discover at the age of 19 that apartheid was fundamentally wrong and
unchristian. So I started worshipping in black congregations and working with
black colleagues and friends to articulate a Christian witness for unity and
justice in an oppressive and divided land. However, all of that did not make me
black or take away the fact that I was a beneficiary under apartheid. I had
economic and educational privileges and many other opportunities that were not
available to the black young people my age. It is for this reason that I
(still) call myself white, to express the fact that my identity was racialised — against my will — by the power structures
As a start I
think that we as whites have to remember the history of our country. This remembrance can then lead to an
acknowledgment of our privilege –what has been called ‘white privilege’. Once this acknowledgment is there, then
we can move on to living lives where this remembering of the past can lead to a
future of grace-based embodied repentance, constituting in a new community.
Maybe we need a
white leader who can write a book entitled “No future without repentance”?
We, as whites,
have been given an amazing gift in 1994.
That gift was one of forgiveness.
Do you still remember how there was fear that whites would be driven
into the sea and chased out of South Africa? Tutu remarks that,
have sadly to note that a very large section of the white community have
forgotten, far too easily and far too soon, that our country was indeed on the
verge of a catastrophe which could have seen us overwhelmed by the kind of
carnage and unrest that have characterized places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, the
Middle East, and Northern Ireland. We
should all be filled to overflowing with immense gratitude that things
turned out differently, that we have been blessed to have as President someone
who has become an international icon of forgiveness and reconciliation, and
that so many in our land have emulated their President. One has longed so
eagerly and so desperately for a like
generosity of spirit to have been evoked in the white community by the magnanimity
of those in the black community who, despite the untold suffering inflicted so
unnecessarily on them, have been ready to forgive their tormentors.
When a wrongdoer receives the gift of
forgiveness he has to work with that gift in an appropriate way. Forgiveness opens the door for a
possible journey. The forgiven who
takes the forgiveness serious, becomes someone else through the
forgiveness. Forgiveness places a
grace-energized invitation to a new journey at the heart of the forgiven.
Jesus taught us that,
Therefore, I tell you, her sins,
which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” 
Yet, when the forgiven doubts
his/her complicacy in the act forgiven, then that same life-giving energy is
“But the one to whom little is
forgiven, loves little.”
 “No future without forgiveness”, D. Tutu p.164
 Ibid,. p.31
 Kritzinger, Klippies in a paper entitled, “Liberating whiteness”
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989
(Lk 7:47). Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville