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Truth, reconciliation and smelly feet

10 June 2009

amahoroThe Amahoro story continued from previous post.

I broke off the previous post when I had to leave for Amahoro this morning, but continue it here. We split into groups and were asked to describe a situation in which we were in power over someone else, and someone else had power over us.

There was silence. Perhaps the members of the group found it difficult. I could think of two examples quite easily, so I kicked off. I’ll describe them fairly fully, because they are relevant to what followed.

I had been in power over someone else by being an employer. Well, sort of. A woman comes to our house once a week to help with cleaning, washing and ironing. A charwoman cum laundress. I don’t employ her, my wife does, but my wife is seldom home when she’s here, so I give her her pay at the end of the day, and chat to her and so on. But the employer/employee relationship does not sit easily with me. It raises a barrier, I feel.

The example of someone having power over me is a bit more complex, and goes back to the apartheid era. It was in the forefront of my mind because a friend and I have just been writing a  journal article based on the files that the  Department of Justice kept on us, based on reports from the Security Police and others. I was enemy of the state No 1628, and my friend was No 1486. I got my file photocopied in the archives, and it cost R160, and fills two ring binders.

I was in Namibia, and was asked to take communion to an old crippled lady who lived in Ovitoto Reserve, 90 miles (not kilometres) from Windhoek. I was advised to apply for a permit to go to the reserve, so I did, but hearing nothing, I went there anyway, and called on the location superintendent to pay my respects, and show I wasn’t being underhand, but he was out. When I went again a couple of months later, he was in, and said he could not let me go in without a permit, and so I filled in the application then and there, and asked him to see that the magistrate got it. But the form also noted the law in terms of which the permit was issued, and when I got back to Windhoek looked it up, and saw that a permit was not necessary for what I was doing. Outsiders only needed a permit to encamp or reside there, not for day visits. The last time I went to visit the old lady was six months later to bury her, and a few days later I was deported from Namibia, which I have described more fully here, and see also the comments on this post.

What I told the group was that when I saw the Department of Justice file about 35 years later I was aware of someone else having power over me. The Security Police asked the Attorney General to prosecute me for going to Ovitoto with out a permit, but the Attorney General refused to do so. The Security Police recommended that I be banned, along with another church worker, but no one had ever been banned in Namibia before, so they passed it on to the office of the Prime Minister who consulted the Department of Foreign Affairs, where Advocate John Viall recommended that I be deported from Namibia to South Africa and then banned. So I was very aware of all these people, most of whom I had never met, deciding my future.

Another member of our group, Linda, was from Kenya, and said that she had been born after Kenya was independent, and colonialism had divided it into areas for occupation by various racial groups, and that division was still in place, except that the division was no longer racial, but she lived in a comfortable middle-class area, and employed a woman from a poor area to help with domestic chores, and she too felt that put her into a “power over” situation, which she was not comfortable with.

At that point our group discussion came to an end, and we went on to the next thing on the programme, with no one else sharing their experiences.

After tea we were walking back, and other groups were meeting, where people had numbers, and Hierodeacon Nektarius and I as day visitors to the gathering, had no numbers, so we fell into conversation with the next speaker, Mr Adriaan Vlok.

Hierodeacon Nektarius and Adriaan Vlok

Hierodeacon Nektarius and Adriaan Vlok

Now it was one of Mr Vlok’s predecessors, Petrus Cornelius Pelser, who had signed my banning order, and so he was pretty close to the power that had been over me, and had at one time represented that power. It was an interesting conversation. When he was Minister, Mr Vlok’s underlings had attempted to poison Frank Chikane, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, and Adriaan Vlok had appeared before the Truth and Reconciliatian Commission and later the Amnesty Committee and had apologised for that and other things. But he said that no one seemed to hear him, and in 2006 several things he read or heard convinced him that he needed to go beyond making a general apology, and apologise to a person, and Frank Chikane seemed to be one of those people. So he had gone to his office and washed his feet. Frank Chikane was a bit taken aback at first, but later accepted it. Eventually it got into the press, but the media find it difficult to understand repentance or to take it seriously (see, for example Notes from underground: Repentance, reconciliation and Adriaan Vlok and Notes from underground: An image of repentance. Many people who read about it asked if it was genuine. And having talked to Adriaan Vlok about it for about an hour, I’m convinced that his repentance was genuine, and he said that it was when he was washing Frank Chikane’s feet that the Lord spoke to him and showed him exactly how evil apartheid was. And so he repented of his pride, his arrogance, and above all his lovelessness in supporting a system based on lovelessness.

He also brought Sarafina, a woman who had been a domestic servant in his family for 47 years, since she had been 21 years old. So here was something else we had talked about in our groups. And after washing Frank Chikane’s feet, Adriaan Vlok felt he also ought to wash Sarafina’s feet. She objected at first, saying that she had been wearing takkies, and that her feet smelt, but he insisted on doing so nevertheless, watched by members of his family.

Adriaan Vlok, Hierodeacon Nektarius, Sarafina, Deacon Stephen

Adriaan Vlok, Hierodeacon Nektarius, Sarafina, Deacon Stephen

He told much the same story in the session where he was featured, and Sarafina was interviewed as well, and asked how it had been to work for the Vlok family. There was a panel of people on the podium, and they spoke about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One of them mentioned that Frank Chikane was a minister in the Apostolic Faith Mission, one of South Africa’s oldest Pentecostal demominations, and when he was tortured by the Security Police, one of his torturers was a deacon in his own denomination, and knew who he was, yet nevertheless went ahead and tortured him.

I had not heard that before, but it illustrates for me the reason why apartheid is absolutely incompatible with the Christian faith — that someone was prepared to torture a fellow member of the body of Christ for the sake of a system that put unity in Christ second to loyalty to a group based on skin colour. That is idolatry, nothing less. Thou shalt worship the Lord thy Skin, and it only shalt thou serve, for I thy skin  colour am a jelaous God. That is what apartheid demanded, and that is what it was prepared to torture people for.

And so I was glad to see that Adriaan Vlok had truly repented of that, though, sad to say, many others who held high positions in the apartheid regime have not. He said he had challenged several of his colleagues to repent, and they refused to do so, and were angry or scornful because he had washed Frank Chikane’s feet. And that is his ministry, and a testimony that God has given him. He told of how he had washed the feet of others, such as the mothers of young people who had been murdered by the Security Police, when they asked him to help them to find their graves. It is a testimony that repentance is not only possible, but necessary. The TRC, he said, had worked hard to find the truth, but had done less to bring about reconciliation, and it was truth, rather than reconciliation, that secured amnesty from prosecution.

And there was a sequel, when the person sitting next to him on the podium, Sean Callaghan, said he had been a member of Koevoet, one of the most vicious units of the apartheid security forces, who were, in effect, hired killers. He and others had had to have psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress, and his counsellor had told him he should not just curse the system, but a person to focus his anger on, and the person he had chosen to focus his anger on was Adriaan Vlok. So he wanted to wash Vlok’s feet, and in the end the both washed each other’s feet, right there on the podium.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 June 2009 7:00 pm

    wow – sounds like an interesting experience.

  2. Antoinette Halberstadt permalink
    9 December 2013 8:03 am

    What an honour it must have been, Steve, to be in a room with not one but two living miracles!

    I’m still gobsmacked when I hear of Afrikaners who see the Light and repent. And Adriaan Vlok was not only an Afrikaner, brought up from day one to believe in the inferiority of everyone who isn’t white and also indoctrinated into seeing a Commie or Terrie behind every bush, but was also in a position of much power in the Apartheid apparatus.

    And then Sean Callaghan (his name suggests he wasn’t an Afrikaner), working in that terrorizing killing-squad. Repenting.


    • 9 December 2013 9:28 am

      Yes, when people talk about reconciliation, Adriaan Vlok was one who showed what it was really about. Not all Afrikaners accepted apartheid, and quite a number saw through it before it became fashionable to do so. The amazing thing about Vlok’s repentance is not that he was an Afrikaner, but that he was in the heart of the system, not merely assenting to it, but implementing it, and actively seeking to force others to accept it. He was regarded by some, including some whose feet he washed, as a bit cranky. Some even resented his repentance, because they wanted to still be angry with him, and his repentance made them feel a bit guilty about wanting to feel angry, so they blamed him for their guilty feelings, as did, in a somewhat different way, Sean Callaghan.


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