Our filthy, dirty past: We can’t pretend we aren’t tainted by it
“I have clean hands!” exclaimed the human rights commissioner, loud enough so that everyone around the table could hear she was untainted by our racist past.
I remember feeling a mix of amusement and astonishment. How can anyone who lived on both sides of 1994 ever claim to have been unaffected by our oppressive history?
The occasion was the final stages of the reconciliation and reparation sessions between four white male students who had humiliated five black workers on the University of the Free State campus in 2008.
When I joined the university more than a year later it was very clear to me that the problem of racism was not, as my white colleagues insisted, “four bad apples”. Rather, it was an institution that, through its history and value system, had made such racist behaviour normative — the most natural thing in the world.
Now, as the four boys asked the workers for forgiveness, the black colleagues responded with immediate love and generosity. “But of course, we forgive you,” they said, as many of us around that table choked with emotion.
It was then that I ventured that we all have dirty hands, troubled by our divided past; to which the human rights colleague responded with the triumphant “clean hands” exclamation.
Unless you were born and grew up on the planet Mars, all South Africans are tainted by that horrible past.
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