It remains an emotional subject in the country, given that almost none of the leaders of the apartheid government apologised for their actions in a process set up precisely for that purpose. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created in 1995, was designed to steer South Africa through the transition from apartheid to democracy. It allowed former apartheid crime perpetrators to obtain amnesty in exchange for full cooperation with the commission.
Vlok’s death at the age of 85 on 8 January 2023 triggered a wave of angry commentary on social media platforms like Twitter.
He exemplifies the ongoing dilemma presented by apologies. A central member of the apartheid apparatus, he gave evidence to the truth commission in which he confessed to murder and his complicity in the bombings of the headquarters of a trade union federation and the South African Council of Churches. He was given amnesty.
Washing feet is a religious ritual observed by some Christian denominations. It is derived from the Bible account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, and has two primary meanings: purification and showing hospitality. The ritual does not focus on cleansing but on humility.
I examined Vlok’s gesture in a 2017 paper, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word: Apology as a Form of Symbolic Reparation.
I argued that people should be open to the transcendent value of apologies. Although apology does not fit easily into our individualistic, adversarial legal culture, it does fit into the paradigm of restorative justice. As a form of symbolic reparation, apology can be part of a package of restorative justice measures.
Symbolic reparations (such as an apology) have been recognised by a number of courts around the world. For example, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered reparations, such as the changing of street names, to honour victims. In the South African murder case of S v Joyce Maluleke (unreported, 2006), Judge Bertelsmann ordered a perpetrator to apologise to a victim’s family.
In my view even incomplete or insincere apologies have restorative value. Incomplete apologies can have value if the person apologising shows shame, or if the apology involves public humiliation.
I conclude that Vlok’s foot-washing gesture is an example of an incomplete apology with restorative results.
The issue of sincerity
On 15 August 2007 Vlok received a suspended sentence from the then Transvaal High Court in terms of a plea bargaining arrangement with the state for the attempt to poison Chikane in 1989.
Was there a relationship between Vlok’s apology and the plea bargain? Were commentators such as the late South African journalist Jon Qwelane correct in speculating that Vlok apologised in order to receive a plea bargain?
This does not seem to be the case. Vlok was never charged individually. The National Prosecuting Authority charged him with four other accused (Johann van der Merwe, Chris Smith, Gert Otto and Manie van Staden) for the attempted murder of Chikane.
According to the plea bargaining agreement (S v Johannes Velde van der Merwe and Others), Vlok and the other accused assisted the state by pleading guilty in so far as it would otherwise have been difficult for the state to prove its case, since the state is not in possession of any evidence regarding the involvement of accused No 1 and No 2 (Van der Merwe and Vlok).
Vlok’s cooperation in this case was consistent with his cooperative attitude towards the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Vlok and former police commissioner Johann Van der Merwe came forward voluntarily to assist the National Prosecuting Authority in providing information about their participation in the assassination attempt on Chikane. The resulting plea bargaining agreement listed the “sincere remorse of accused No 2 (Vlok)” as a mitigating circumstance.
The Pretoria High Court mentioned the foot washing and stated: This act of contrition must be seen against the background that it was performed voluntarily by accused No 2 (Vlok).
It is true that Vlok failed to make adequate disclosure of his involvement in a range of other activities during his time in office, including disappearances and murders. Nevertheless, I argue in my paper that the way in which he apologised added to the sincerity of his apology.
The act of foot washing involves a degree of mortification. It is a vivid indicator of shame.
It is difficult to argue that a standardised form of apology should be adopted. Apologies are intensely personal, and context matters.
In Vlok’s case Chikane immediately accepted the apology. The apology in relation to Chikane can, therefore, be described as effective.
To the extent that his apology was directed at all victims of apartheid, the reception is, of course, more complicated. The problem with apologies made to an infinite number of people is that it is difficult to establish the direct connection between the perpetrator and the victims.
Although it remains highly problematic that Vlok, and other apartheid-era cabinet ministers, never made full disclosure of their actions, it is difficult to question the sincerity of his expressions of remorse. His apology was powerful and convinced even those who were harmed by his actions.
Vlok’s death coincides with a new wave of apologies, including that by the Netherlands for slavery. Instead of ignoring or denying prior human rights violations, many countries are publicly acknowledging these wrongs in an attempt to come to terms with the past.
This development has been ascribed to the global spread of a human rights culture. Or in the words of the Holocaust scholar, Michael Marrus, a “developing moral consensus”.
This is supported by trends in international law that say past human rights violations are subject to reparations, even if only symbolically.
Official apologies can hold great transformative power, but remain controversial. Some scholars such as Michel Rolph Trouillot have described them as empty gestures that don’t challenge the ideologies and structures that led to the human rights violations. Rather they’re used to restore a country’s reputation or maintain the status quo.
A more difficult issue involves reparations. By drawing attention to an injustice, an official apology could also raise the expectation of reparation.
If one takes the view that there can be no true public apology without reparation, one acknowledges the ambiguity inherent in the concept of apology. In light of the inadequate reparations paid to victims of gross human rights violations, the question of the value of apology and atonement remains alive and acute.
Vlok’s acts of contrition can be seen as “too little too late”. But his actions seem to fall exactly within the spirit of the South African transitional arrangements, arrangements applauded almost universally at the time of the fall of apartheid.
Mia Swart, Senior Lecturer in International Human Rights Law, Edge Hill University.
January 26, 2023