"The Trouble with "Sorry""

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The document seemed mild enough in an era of reconciliation. It called on South Africa's whites to sign a public apology for the sins of apartheid and to pledge themselves to redressing the racial wrongs of the past. But the fierce argument fired by an unusual Christmas goodwill declaration of commitment showed that even in the country that created and conquered apartheid, the nerve ends of race relations are still exposed.

At the heart of the controversy are two former anti-apartheid activists. One is Carl Niehaus, a former African National Congress supporter who as a student was imprisoned for treason. An Afrikaner, he went on to become an A.N.C. Member of Parliament and eventually South Africa's ambassador to the Netherlands. The other is Mary Burton, who headed an obstreperous anti-apartheid group of white women known as the Black Sash and later served as an assessor on the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Backed by an impressive list of eminent signatories, the two last year organized what they call the Home for All campaign. They chose to launch it, appropriately, on Dec. 16. Once known as Day of the Vow, in recognition of the victory by voortrekker (pioneer) Afrikaners over the Zulus at the 1838 Battle of Blood River, it is now South Africa's official Day of Reconciliation.

But the vow the country's whites were urged to sign as part of the Home for All initiative provoked vastly differing reactions even from staunch supporters of racial reconciliation. The declaration acknowledges that all whites benefited from the discrimination against blacks in the apartheid system. "The damage caused by apartheid has not been overcome," it says. "Our failure to accept responsibility for apartheid has inhibited reconciliation and transformation. We deeply regret all of this." The statement has been endorsed by some 500 well-known whites, among them academics, business leaders and national sports figures, including members of Springbok, South Africa's national rugby team. But a number of high-profile names are missing.

To many white liberals who carried on the moral and political fight against apartheid, the hallmark of their efforts is not having to say they are sorry. Tony Leon, head of the mostly white Democratic Alliance the official opposition to the A.N.C. in Parliament slammed what he described as "the politics of apology." Saying it was strange "and faintly absurd" that the declaration had been signed by mainly A.N.C.-supporting whites, Leon asked, "When are the apologies going to end?" There was, he said, also a case for the A.N.C. to apologize for some of its past activities. One of South Africa's most respected liberals, veteran politician Helen Suzman, also declined to sign the declaration. "I've nothing to be apologetic about," she said. "I didn't initiate the system of apartheid I fought against. I don't need to join in a consolidated beating of the breast." Afrikaner artist and poet Breyten Breytenbach, who like Niehaus was jailed for his A.N.C. links, replied to the campaigners by e-mail from New York that, after carefully reading the document, he "went to the bathroom for a quiet, sad puke. Must be something I ate."

Though many white South Africans decry what some have described as yet another exercise in hand wringing about the evils of the apartheid past, organizers of the Home for All campaign are not dismayed by the diverse reaction. Niehaus admits he has had to face some anger and even abuse, but he believes the manifesto's message is getting home. "People can take it or leave it," he says. "But whether they are positive or negative about it, they feel deeply touched and challenged." Niehaus recalls that even when he was imprisoned as a student activist, he was aware that as a white he was getting better treatment than the black prisoners. As he writes in the Home for All campaign's Christmas message: "To be able to face the reality that whites, regardless of whether we supported the apartheid system or not, benefited from that systematic, all-embracing racial discrimination, can be the beginning of a more mature process of taking joint responsibility for the future of our country."

Niehaus is also looking for more than signatures declaring commitment. The campaign aims to set up a Development and Reconciliation Fund to allow white South Africans to acknowledge their debt to blacks materially. Some business figures and wealthy individuals have already pledged substantial sums to the fund. Others have promised to put their expertise and resources into black training and development projects. Yet with the post-apartheid era not yet a decade old, some wounds remain to be healed. If the Home for All controversy proved anything, it is that racial understanding remains elusive in South Africa.