South African anti-apartheid activist and liberation theologian Allan Aubrey Boesak visited Howard University recently to talk to students about his country’s failure to achieve much-needed reconciliation at a time when the citizens of the nation need to come together.
Boesak made the address at the Howard University Divinity School on Oct. 18th with a lecture that also touched on the country’s past oppression and independence. The lecture was a benchmark of the school’s 96th convocation.
“We have taken our reconciliation process, its blessings and its gifts, for granted as if we were entitled,” Boesak said. “We have not had the courage to accept the burden of the culpability for our past, nor our responsibility for genuine, all-encompassing transformation necessary for a secure, humane and dignified future.”
Boesak was one of the most pivotal figures in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He shared leadership in the United Democratic Front (UDF) with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, held the title of chairman of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape and at the age of 36, was appointed head of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
During the apartheid era he was a radical, young activist thrust into leadership at a time when South Africa was experiencing great turbulence. Now, having reached the status of elder statesman, he reflected on the current duality where South Africans hide behind the country’s complex history of good and evil.
“Two names have become symbolic for what I regard as a tragic error for South Africans. The two names are Colonel Eugene de Kock and former President Nelson Mandela,” he said. “South Africans have hidden all of our culpability toward injustices of the past behind [former death squad commander] de Kock and simultaneously have hidden all of our responsibility for injustices in the present behind Mandela. Those men have become our overpowering symbols of absolute good and absolute evil and have been made to vicariously carry the burdens and responsibilities for reconciliation for the rest of us.”
Boesak told the students that Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been iconized and deified. He now represents the savior of the nation and everything good and virtuous about South Africa.
“He is the fig leaf behind which we seek to hide the shamelessness of our super self-indulgence, fiercely protecting our elite backs and interests,” he said.
“Because we recreated him in our own self-protecting, self-justifying image, we have made him God’s visible pardon for our fragility towards the weak, wounded and downtrodden in our society. We have not done what we have should have done because we held him up in our stead.”
While Mandela represents the savior and hope for South Africa, de Kock represents the shame and guilt of South Africa’s past, he said. De Kock was the head of the South African Police Force during apartheid, eventually garnering the nickname “Prime Evil” for his brutal use of torture and murder against anti-apartheid activists. In 1996, he was convicted of 89 charges, including six murders, and was sentenced to 212 years in prison.
“There is not a single person as horrifying as Eugene de Kock. White South Africans now wash their hands of him,” Boesak said. “It was not the cruelty of apartheid and its benefits for whites that were unimaginable, what became unimaginable was this horror embodied in a singular man, but disconnected from any political responsibility.”
For the country to move forward, Boesak said, South Africans have to shake their need to deify Mandela and demonize de Kock.
“For our reconciliation to work, neither angels nor demons are necessary. What we need are ordinary people, South African citizens who are committed, steadfast and single-minded toward justice,” he said.