A guilty man pleads for redemption after Apartheid. Is he sincere?

A notorious South African police leader wants to wash the feet of a black man he once tried to kill. Is he trying to wash his hands in the process?

Adriaan Vlok, the South African apartheid government’s most notorious police minister, has come into his old workplace to wash the feet of a black man he once tried to kill.

The 68-year-old police chief once viewed apartheid laws as “the apotheosis of good governance and moral power,” writes Eve Fairbanks in The New Republic, and now struggles to move past his involvement in an era characterized by “dark, cloak-and-dagger tactics” of drugging and murdering anti-apartheid insurgents, burning their bodies in a barbecue pit.

During his attempts to crush the resistance, Vlok plotted to murder Reverend Frank Chikane, the head of an interdenominational Christian group. The government believed Chikane was harboring anti-apartheid militants in Johannesburg. Policemen working for Vlok broke into Chikane’s suitcase at an airport in 1989. They laced Rev. Chikane's underwear with the toxic insecticide paraoxon, causing him to become violently ill. Chikane flew to the United States for treatment, and returned to his country after apartheid fell. He would eventually serve as chief of staff to Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s second black president.

Twenty-five years later, Vlok and Chikane meet in calm politeness. Even though the thought disgusts him at first, Vlok asks to wash Chikane’s feet as a sign of respect and redemption. Chikane obliges, and soon, both men are in tears.

Open confessions and repentance remain controversial in South Africa. After the abolition of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was founded as a restorative justice measure; victims of Apartheid-era violence could recount the human rights abuses they suffered, while the perpetrators of those injustices could confess and seek out amnesty from prosecution (with the exception of a few notorious pro-apartheid killers).

Despite strides in favor of political equality, stark economic inequalities remain between South Africa's blacks and whites. Some members of the white minority feel embittered by affirmative action policies and take to the streets, while others establish “civil rights organizations” to rebrand Afrikaners as “endangered stateless minorities.” Amidst the rising racial tensions, some Afrikaners view Vlok’s apology as “ridiculous,” even branding him a traitor to the Afrikaner cause. Accepting the immorality and bigotry of the past is ‘psychologically difficult,’ Fairbanks writes; many Afrikaners grasp the concept of treating blacks well (or well enough, as the case may be) — it’s the action of treating them as equals that proves challenging.

Fairbanks and Vlok sit down for cappuccinos and conversation about Vlok’s past. He tells stories of his first civil service position, where he was in charge of standardizing racial apartheid. He worked his way up to police chief through diligence and an unwavering commitment to order. Even as the anti-apartheid movement grew in the 1980s, Vlok maintained “the conviction that we were fighting a just cause.”

His change of heart came piece by piece, the sum total of a number of life-altering moments: Vlok’s wife committed suicide; he travelled to Asia, where he saw the economic and cultural successes of people he considered to be from inferior races; he faced tremendous anxiety about publicly testifying in front of the TRC and airing his crimes to the public; and he was exposed to the Bible by evangelists with Gideon’s International. Adriaan Vlok was born again. The former police chief retells a favorite passage from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice … go and be reconciled to that person. Only then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”

Fairbanks joins Vlok on a mission to deliver much-needed food supplies to preschools in a predominantly black section of a neighboring town. Giving away free custard pie, Vlok loses his “deep-seated sense of inner superiority,” writes Fairbanks: “The former defender of brutal white hegemony turned savior of little black children, flinging candy from bags as they mass, squealing, around his pant legs.”

Vlok appears remorseful, yet still denies that he gave any direct orders to use explosives on anti-apartheid buildings or to harm Chikane. His interest in washing Chikane’s feet stems not from personal responsibility, but, says Fairbanks, from “a nebulous desire to repent to black people.”

And so it goes: Vlok sidesteps accusations, and blame shifts to underlings “too innocent to beg for forgiveness” for obeying the orders of their superiors. Visiting a former assassin in prison, Vlok loses his cool: “Eugene! Did I ever tell you to kill somebody?” he demands, incredulous. “No,” the assassin replies, “but you gave me a medal when I killed them.”

Despite his denials, Vlok shares a sinner’s guilt like many before him. Fairbanks reads Vlok a passage from the Book of Matthew about murderers being subject to judgement. Vlok is confident of Christ’s forgiveness: “If anyone accuses me, He will say: ‘But I already paid the price.’”

While some black South Africans applaud Vlok’s efforts to redeem himself, others remain skeptical. T.O. Molefe, a Cape Town-based political essayist, notes that “it’s not entirely of symbolic coincidence that, when he washed his victims’ feet, he washed his own hands, too.”

The Source: "I Have Sinned Against the Lord and Against You! Will You Forgive Me?" by Eve Fairbanks. The New Republic, June 30, 2014. Photo by Annette Kurylo, CC BY-SA 3.0.