FULL SPEECH: Allan Boesak



May 7, 2012

An Un-reconciled Society

Since the coming of democracy, as a nation we have been grappling with seemingly unsolvable problems and invincible challenges. Every day brings new stories of corruption in government, revelations of shocking criminal activities at the highest levels of our law enforcement agencies, chaos in education, service delivery protests that turn destructive and self-defeating, horrendous incidents of violent crime. The past weekend also brought us another horrifying racism seemingly rampant among white youth. And through it all, at the basis of it all, is our ongoing, relentless and unaddressed poverty, and the yawning, and growing, chasm between the rich and the poor.

We are still reeling from the recently revealed, vile incidents of rape that ravage both the young women involved and the soul of our nation: the seventeen year-old mentally impaired girl from Soweto, gang-raped over days by young boys who then let the video they made of the crime go viral; the 12 year-old girl from KwaZulu Natal raped by a 15 year old boy who gouged her eyes out for good measure; the 12 year old boy who confessed on television of having raped his 1 year-old sister repeatedly over months. We are a shell-shocked nation. “We suffer from a profound sense of anxiety”, writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “and - increasingly, disillusionment - over the moral and spiritual well-being of the nation”.[1]

“We are”, the Archbishop continues, “a deeply wounded people. We carry the recent scars of apartheid and the ingrained hurt of centuries of colonialism before that. Some of us feel superior to others, and some feel inferior. For generations, instead of following the universal golden rule of reciprocity, to love one another as ourselves, we have been trained to be mistrustful, to dislike, even to hate”.

The Archbishop is right. We are indeed a traumatised people. Among perhaps many reasons, I should like to advance only three. First, we have, despite vehement and angry denials, not dealt as honestly and thoroughly with our past as we should have. Second, we have taken our reconciliation process, its blessings and gifts, for granted – as if we were entitled. Third, we have not had the courage to accept the burden of culpability for our past, nor the responsibility for genuine, all-encompassing transformation necessary for a secure, humane, and dignified future. We have perhaps understood the art of negotiation and political compromise, but we have not embraced the challenges of moral responsibility, and we have not understood the impact of this truth on our political and communal life. We have closed our eyes to the consequences of revelling in a kind of triumphalist political pietism, while remaining, at heart, an un-reconciled society. We have, in other words, sat back and waited for miracles to happen, even as we professed no belief in miracles and depended only on the hard realities of politics. We discarded our responsibility to work for real change and genuine reconciliation while we created new mythologies we could hide behind.  For our guilt we hid behind a demon of our own creation. For our responsibility, we hid behind an angel as gift from God.

Prime Evil, the Ultimate Good, Culpability and Responsibility

Two names have become symbolic, indeed paradigmatic for what I regard as a tragic error, and the dilemmas it now causes for South Africans: Eugene De Kock and Nelson Mandela. This is how I see our mistake and our dilemma: South Africans, I argue, have hidden all our culpability for the injustices of the past behind Eugene De Kock, and we simultaneously have hidden all our responsibility for justice in the present behind Nelson Mandela. Both men have grown to larger-than-life proportions in our minds, have become our over-powering symbols of absolute good and absolute evil, and have been made, each in his own way, to vicariously carry the burdens and responsibilities of reconciliation for the rest of us.

De Kock was found guilty, not offered amnesty and sentenced to 212 years in prison for his past crimes against humanity. Psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who served on the TRC’s Human Rights Violations Committee, was gripped by the story of De Kock, and obtained permission to visit him in prison and despite thinking of him as “the incarnation of evil”, found him, and his situation, more complex than the simplified public image allowed and the public mind demanded. He was, she thought, symbolic of “the compartmentalization of South African thinking, a private world and a public world”, the split realities of “the polite church-goers, the cultured suburbanites, the voters and the ‘grim’ but ‘good’ business of terrorising blacks”.[4]

It is safe to say that in the mind of ordinary South Africans there is no single person as horrifying as De Kock. Jacques Pauw’s Prime Evil television programme presented De Kock and the events at Vlakplaas without adornment and in shocking detail, not to sensationalise the matter or just to demonise De Kock Pauw says, but because he wanted to “horrify and stagger white television viewers in particular with compelling and frightening accounts of a bitter war and a searingly demented past. Never again did I want my countrymen to be able to say: ‘I am as shocked as you are about these many revelations. I didn’t know…’”[5]

De Kock testified that as any good soldier, he followed the orders given by his superiors, who in turn followed the orders coming from the apartheid politicians. This, the fact that he was a soldier, specifically trained for what he did,[6] and his upbringing, were perhaps some of the reasons why Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela found it in her heart to forgive him.  His remorse was another.

But white South Africa could not live with a De Kock that reminded them that he dedicated his life to a cause they had persistently chosen, to protect the white supremacist, privileged life-style they cherished too much; that he tortured and killed because he believed that was expected of him in order to keep them “safe”. He was not just a soldier; he was an apartheid soldier. It became absolutely necessary, as a matter of life and death, to turn him into a person so evil, so much Satan personified, an evil so great that it not only cannot be forgiven, but cannot be imagined in any other person, let alone be recognised as an evil that represented the white community in their perverse lust for the maintenance of apartheid, white power and white privilege, and the benefits these brought them.

But the sheer enormity of De Kock’s evil also made it impossible for him to be called merely insane, following the “mad, lone-wolf” theory so beloved of culpable communities refusing responsibility for someone from their own ranks who commit great crimes they associate only with an “enemy Other”. Madness on such a scale might be excusable and therefore certainly not permissible for De Kock. It had to be pure, unadulterated evil, making any complicity unthinkable, even though it was clear, as Jacques Pauw shows, that he was not a “lone wolf” or just a “bad apple” as F.W. De Klerk called him as he, before the TRC, blithely trivialised the deeds of apartheid’s killing machines by comparing them to mere “theft”.[7] Having built their wealth and privilege through the system of apartheid, that system being defended by men like De Kock, white society was now content to let De Kock vicariously bear the full weight of the guilt they should have felt. Pauw argues that

Eugene De Kock became the incarnation and human face of evil, the inalienable combatant who rose in defence of an indefensible system. In that sense, he stood accused on behalf of every white man and woman who grew fat and prosperous under National Party rule – all four and a half million of us.[8]

And Jacques Pauw’s brutal honesty is the heart of the matter. In a perverse inversion of the truth, De Kock was turned into white peoples’  “suffering servant”, bearing all the guilt and the sickness, the destructive lust and the evil of apartheid. He was not a man in prison, nor an apartheid soldier, he was pure, prime evil, and he truly belonged on the cross. White South Africa could wash their hands of him. Suddenly it was not the cruelty of the apartheid system and its benefits for whites that were “unimaginable”. What became unimaginable was the horror embodied in a single man, disconnected from collective moral responsibility.

After his testimony, and even more after his remorse, he was shunned by white society, by those who were his military and political superiors, and by the justice system. “Then, without preamble, apartheid’s ultimate weapon was not just defeated, but shunned.”[9] While De Kock was found guilty, Magnus Malan, the apartheid defence minister, and Dr. Wouter Basson, the apartheid scientist and head of apartheid’s chemical and biological warfare programme,  were found not guilty by our courts. Jacques Pauw is vivid in his description and in his anger as he tells of De Kock’s “pariahdom”:

“In the name of reconciliation”, Pauw asserts, “they cast him on the heap of yesterday’s putrid offal” in order to get on with the business of “cultivating a new land”. [11]

Mr. F.W. De Klerk’s testimony before the Commission, his failure to recognise the evil of apartheid as we have heard Desmond Tutu say[12], is matched only by his failure to accept governmental responsibility for men like De Kock who merely did as they were led to believe was their sacred duty for God and country.[13] This is not at all an argument to absolve De Kock of his personal responsibility. He himself accepted that responsibility; “went on a remarkable crusade to expose the generals and politicians for whom he killed on the one hand, and on the other to seek forgiveness from the families of his victims”, even though he knew that it was something he “could never rectify”.[14] But still, it was from his victims that he found forgiveness, even though Pauw finds that “ironic” since he himself had for such a long time “resented no one more than De Kock”. But his victims forgave him, “restoring some dignity to his tattered remains”.[15]  

But the other side of this coin is Nelson Mandela, “the father of the nation”, the paragon of virtue, forgiveness and reconciliation. We do not have to introduce Mr. Mandela to any audience in the world – he is by far the greatest political icon of the 20 century. But Mr. Mandela’s greatness is not in dispute here. What I want to highlight is the fact that Mr. Mandela is not merely iconised, he is deified. The late Rev. Leon Sullivan of the United States was the first who famously called Mr. Mandela “Jesus”, but any numbers of articles on any number of websites reflect that view, the most recent one posted by a Methodist pastor in New Jersey.[16] Johannesburg businessman Mxolisi Mbetse formally offered artist Dean Simon 2.5m US dollars for a painting of the “Last Supper” depicting Mr. Mandela as Jesus.[17]

Nelson Mandela is in every way the opposite of Eugene De Kock, and if there are those who might refrain from calling him “Jesus”, they certainly would refer to him in the words Mephiboseth addressed to David: “My lord the king is like an angel of God”. (2 Sam.18:27) In that sense Mandela has come to embody all that is good in South Africa, cancelling out all that is bad, the virtuous glue that holds the nation together. Sharing in his unifying greatness, we allow ourselves to ignore the growing chasms. What we also ignore in the process, is the contradiction with Nelson Mandela’s own magnanimity towards white people, a magnanimity that cannot be extended to De Kock. The more we embrace Mandela, the greater our need to despise De Kock. But such contradictions are not sustainable.

In February 2011 Nelson Mandela became quite ill. The panic that that news engendered in South Africa was astonishing to watch. It was also unusually instructive. Rumours about his health and even his death rotated endlessly on radio, television and the social media. Assurances from government that he was doing better were greeted with wide public scepticism. Pundits were already speculating on the “after Mandela” scenarios; but it was worse than that. For me all this collective hyperventilation raised a question: why are South Africans so panic-stricken at the thought that Madiba – at the age of 92! – might die? It has to do, I think, with Nelson Mandela as saviour of the nation, as the personification of our collective goodness, over against Eugene De Kock, the symbol of prime evil.

Nelson Mandela is our vicarious fulfilment of reconciliation, hope and future. We have made him the incarnation of everything we have been mercifully granted in the miracle of our peaceful transition and which we, like the prodigal son, have wasted with unthinking recklessness in our neglect of justice. He is all the justice South Africans did not seek or work for, all the hope of the poor we refused to be; all the warm human inclusion of the uncomfortable Other we have treated with such heartless carelessness. We have made him the dream of reconciliation and unity we, in hot pursuit of our own interests, otherwise regard with such scorn. He is the moral refuge for our denied racism and our secretly nurtured ethnic selfishness, for all the compassion which we so easily discard except on special occasions like “Mandela Day”; for all the wasted energy we should have spent on love and sharing and instead lavished on self-enrichment and ostentatious self-aggrandizement.

Mandela has become the hiding place of our unfulfilled promises to the poor and now of our unnameable fears; he is the fig leaf behind which we seek to hide the shamelessness of our pursuit of self-indulgence, fiercely protecting our neo-liberal, capitalist Elite Pacts and interests. Mandela is the ever-rising wall behind which we take refuge against the growing anger of the destitute and the wronged; he is the excuse for our failure to be disturbed by the injustice we inflict upon the victims of our violence and greed. Because we re-created him in our own self-protecting, self-justifying, ever-victimised image, we have made him God’s visible pardon for our frigidity towards the weak, the wounded and the downtrodden in our society. We have not done what we should have done because we held him up in our stead. If De Kock is our reflected but unthinkable shame, Mandela is our reflected, but embraced salvation.

So we heap mindless praise upon him, making that the substitute for the systemic justice we withheld from the masses he had sacrificed so much for. He was the one who suffered 27 years in prison, yet could emerge a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation, we point out gleefully. If he could forgive so unconditionally, is the argument, why could not all blacks forget their anger and likewise forgive? Is that not why we call him “Jesus”? He is, in complete reversal of the De Kock image, the “suffering servant” who forgives, loves and heals in our stead. He lifts us up, and offers us vicarious salvation. But it is a completely contradictory image, I would suggest. Every time we break our promises to the people, rob from the poor, deny our festering racism or exploit the vulnerability of the marginalised, we forfeit our claim on Nelson Mandela. South Africans love Mandela because he does not make on them the radical demands that Jesus does. When Mandela talks about reconciliation, he talks about nationhood. When Jesus talks about reconciliation, he reminds us of the story of Zacchaeus; of repentance, restitution, and justice. (Lk. 19:1-10) If Mandela had called Zacchaeus out of that tree to testify and set the example for remorse, restitution and restoration, white South Africans would not admire him so much.

Even so, when Mandela goes, we shall be forced to acknowledge that all along we were the ones we (and the poor) have all been waiting for, that we shall have to do what is right; that the struggle for justice, human dignity shall have to be our life, as the struggle for freedom had been his. We shall have to be the glue that keeps the nation together; we, not him, shall have to be the best that is in all of us.

A Dispossession of a Different Kind

But in creating our own images of ultimate good and ultimate evil, South Africans have deflected and denied our culpability for injustice over generations, and our responsibility for justice in our lifetime. Our greatest error, I suggest, is not that we have made reconciliation an arbitrary instrument of negotiation, as we did, nor a calculated tool for political accommodation serving an elite pact, which we also did. Our greatest error is that we, after delinking reconciliation and social justice, have carefully, in our official national narrative and in the narrative of our private lives, created images of absolute good and absolute evil, of demons and angels to which we cling, and behind which we hide our culpability and our responsibility. If the moral justification of apartheid was apartheid’s heresy, this abuse of reconciliation is our political heresy. 

In this process, however, we have perpetrated a further, grave injustice. We have totally re-disempowered, indeed re-victimised, the people. The people who struggled with and for Mandela cannot deny the existence of prime evil, since they have been its undeniable victims; and they dare not disavow a beloved Madiba, since he is the symbol of their pride and hope, the man for whom they sacrificed so much, even though his generosity of soul has been so shamelessly exploited by the privileged, old and new. We have demonised one person and deified the other, while we have de-sanctified the needs of the poor, which we should have held holy before God.

The same process too, has robbed the masses of their rightful place in history, has dispossessed them of their pride in their heroic role in the struggle for liberation, and has disowned the sacrifices they have made. It is a dispossession, a forced removal of a different kind. Before the TRC, F.W. De Klerk has casually reduced centuries of pain to “theft”, as we have seen. After the dispossession of colonization, the dehumanization of slavery and the thingification of apartheid, the oppressed are now subjected to the trivialization of their suffering.

But in other ways as well, the oppressed masses have been disenfranchised. The process of deification has not only impinged on the issues of justice – it goes much deeper. Reconciliation in South Africa, write Emmanuel Katolongwe and Chris Rice, would not have been possible “without the forgiveness of Tutu”, or “the presidency of Nelson Mandela”, for while it is important to note “the politics of power” behind these processes, “it is just as crucial to see the politics of repentance”.[18] Fairly typical too, is what celebrated American social historian and biographer, Taylor Branch writes:

In 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged from twenty-seven years in a prison to a Cape Town balcony, where he destroyed the iron rule of apartheid not with Armageddon’s revenge but a plea for hopeful consent: ‘Universal suffrage on a common voters’ roll in a united, democratic, and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony’.[19]

No black South African in their right mind would even think of diminishing Nelson Mandela, trivialize or deny his sacrifices, resilience, or exceptional leadership. We speak from the depth of our African soul when we call him “Tata”. Neither would any one of us deny Archbishop’s Tutu’s life of struggle, his inspirational faith, his spiritual leadership at the TRC, or indeed the prophetic leadership he still provides. After all, long before white people and the rest of the world knew, recognised or claimed them and their leadership, they were ours. While the world despised Mandela as a Communist and a terrorist, and his organisation, the African National Congress as a terrorist organisation; and while the world took no notice of Desmond Tutu and white South Africa derided him as a meddlesome irritation, we acclaimed their courage, and embraced them as our rightful leaders. While Western governments supported and benefited from apartheid, backed its white minority regime’s despotism and Mandela’s imprisonment which robbed us of his leadership for twenty-seven years, his people marched and worked for his release, making amazing sacrifices in the process, and with their very blood assured the world that without Mandela’s freedom we would not consider ourselves free and that we would fight until that day would come to pass.

Now it is claimed that Mandela on his own “destroyed the iron rule of apartheid from a Cape Town balcony”, as if the mere act of standing on a balcony and making a speech could do such a thing. It is like stating that Martin Luther King Jr., destroyed segregation in America on his own by merely making the “I Have a Dream” speech. It is an astounding claim, recklessly sweeping aside South Africa’s long history of struggle, de-voicing the masses and nullifying their sacrifices.

By the same token we are told that Desmond Tutu’s capacity for forgiveness made our reconciliation, not the forgiveness, magnanimity and grace of the millions who suffered, were imprisoned, tortured, and whose loved ones were murdered. And the ironic truth is, neither Mandela nor Tutu would ever make this claim for themselves. Their very greatness would recoil at such a crime against their people. But such purposeful unremembering[20] serves the hegemonic narrative, alienates Mandela and Tutu from their people and their ongoing struggles and it eliminates the historic claim of the poor upon the rich, white world whose prosperity and power were built on their blood.       

This is not just a political miscalculation. This is a moral crisis, for whites in the first place certainly, who still benefit from past injustices and the present pain of the poor, but also for those blacks who have become the new imperial heirs to the sinful pacts that secure their enrichment at the cost of justice for the destitute. The dispossession of the poor over the course of our history runs deep; it is more than land, dignity, worth and true deliverance. The rich and powerful have now cynically claimed Madiba, the symbol of hope for the masses, for themselves. So, long before Mandela’s death, the poor have not only been estranged from his life and excised from his story, they have been tragically orphaned, alienated from their own struggle, the unwanted children of a dream deferred.

Embracing our Miracles

This situation cannot be left to stand. The daunting challenges we are facing will not disappear by themselves, nor can they be evaded by political escapism or moral neutrality. The demonization of one person and the deification of another can longer be the hiding places of our own lack of political and social responsibility and dearth of moral concern. To our shame we have, since the beginning of our reconciliation process, made great efforts to try and escape the legacy of our past by forgetfulness, political compromise or selective indignation. We shall have to learn that only deep and abiding justice to what Jesus called “the least of these” – the poor, the weak, the marginalised, the wronged, can help us face the past, confront it, overcome it.

Our lives will not change if we act as if we were mere arm-folding recipients of government largess, nor will they be changed by piously waiting for miracles to happen while the lives of the vulnerable are being destroyed.

In truth the miracle has already happened. We struggled against all odds for over three centuries and we won. We were locked in battle with truly demonic forces and we never gave up. We were traumatised by indescribable violence and dehumanisation but when the time came for fundamental choices we chose life over death, solidarity with and justice for the living rather than revenge for the dead. We chose reconciliation over retribution, the risk of forgiveness over the triumph of justified rejection. These are the miracles South Africans must learn to embrace with enthusiasm.

We do not need to demonise one another because we all too keenly aware of our failures to make this country the great land it is destined to be. We do not need to deify one another because the greater good that is in all of us enables us to do what is right – with honesty, integrity and justice.

For our reconciliation to work, neither angels nor demons are necessary. But we do need ordinary South Africans:  committed, steadfast, single-minded toward justice, together in all our rich diversity. History may be written by the victor, and the past may be manipulated by the powerful; but the future is moulded by those who dream it and believe in it.  


Allan Boesak

Affiliated Professor, The International Institute for the Study of Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice, UFS.


[1] From an e-mail from Archbishop Tutu to the author, May 3, 2012.

[2] See Jacques Pauw, Dances with Devils, A Journalist’s Search for Truth, Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2006, 125-153.

[3]Dances with Devils, 145ff. “Without ever being debriefed or receiving psychiatric care, De Kock was transferred from on fighting unit to the other… After that, Eugene De Kock was not just a highly skilled and professional assassin, but a savage and perverted killer who took great pride and satisfaction in what he did… If De Kock was Atilla, his men were his Huns…”, 145.   

[4] Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night, New York: Houghton, Miffler, 2003, 13

[5]Dances, 146

[6] Pauw, Dances, 144-145; Jeremy Gordin, “De Kock ‘followed orders in murder’, Sunday Independent, 7/10/99: “De Kock was not an out-of-control madman – he was an officer acting under orders.”

[7] Pauw, Dances, 148-149

[8] Pauw, Dances, 147

[9] Pauw, Dances, 147

[10] Pauw, Dances, 147-148

[11] Pauw, Dances, 148

[12] Desmond Tutu speaks of F.W. De Klerk who offered an apology for apartheid, but then “justified the apology out of existence”. Tutu found that hugely disappointing and his view made De Klerk a “small man”, see Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, London: Rider, 1999, 202-203

[13] Pauw, Dances, 148-149

[14] Pauw, Dances, 149

[15] Pauw, Dances, 149

[16] See e.g. Rev. David LeDuc of Vincent United Methodist Church, North Jersey, on Mandela and  Jesus,  posted on February 17, 2011, http//www.northjersey.com., accessed 3/8/2011.

[17] http//www.timeslive.co.za/local/article612624, accessed 3/8/2011.

[18]Reconciling All Things, 102-103

[19] Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, America in the King Years 1965-1968, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006, 771

[20] For the way I apply this term see my The Tenderness of Conscience, chapter 4.

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