The Declaration of Commitment by White South Africans

Speaker: Laurie Nathan (Centre for Conflict Resolution)

Respondent: Jeremy Cronin (Deputy General Secretary: South African Communist Party and African National Congress MP)

Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust forum meeting

Cape Town, 20 February 2001






The Declaration of Commitment by White South Africans and its explanatory statement were released on 16 December 2000. The Declaration reads as follows:

We acknowledge that apartheid inflicted massive social, economic, cultural and psychological damage on black South Africans. It undermined our common humanity.

We acknowledge the white community’s responsibility for apartheid. Many of us actively and passively supported that system. Some white people were deeply involved in the struggle against apartheid but they were few in number.

We acknowledge our debt to fellow black South Africans since all whites benefited from systematic racial discrimination.

We acknowledge that the damage caused by apartheid has not been overcome. The legacy of racial discrimination remains evident in the acute deprivation experienced by most black people and in the privileged lives of most whites.

We acknowledge that racist attitudes of white superiority and black inferiority continue to shape our lives, communities and institutions.

We acknowledge that our failure to accept responsibility for apartheid has inhibited reconciliation and transformation.

We deeply regret all of this.

We therefore believe that it is right and necessary to commit ourselves to redressing these wrongs. We pledge to use our skills, resources and energy, through individual and collective action, towards empowering disadvantaged people, eliminating racism and promoting a non-racial society whose resources are used to the benefit of all its people. To these ends, and in recognition of the need for restitution, various initiatives will be undertaken, including the establishment of a Development and Reconciliation Fund.

The motivation/explanatory statement for the Declaration is also available on the website and is an integral part of the Home for All Campaign, but it has received far less attention in the media. It reads as follows:

The Home for All Campaign is a non-partisan initiative by a group of white South Africans who believe that it is necessary for whites to acknowledge the damage caused by apartheid and its legacy, support the empowerment of disadvantaged communities and contribute to eliminating racism. These are essential elements in promoting reconciliation and non-racialism in the new South Africa.

The title of the campaign – ‘home for all’ has several meanings that capture the spirit of the initiative:

We have embarked on the campaign because we believe it is right and necessary. As a result of our historical privilege and that of our forebears, we have a moral obligation to redress inequality.

We are humbled by the remarkable forgiveness and generosity that many black people have shown towards the perpetrators of apartheid. We hope that our campaign facilitates further reconciliation but we do not expect anyone to forget or forgive the terrible things that were done in the name of apartheid.

We know that the campaign may be controversial and that some people will disagree strongly with our approach. We view this an opportunity to engage in dialogue about apartheid and its legacy, without vilifying and ostracising anyone. We want to help bridge the divisions that characterise our society and believe that this can only be done by confronting historical and current inequity and racism. Ignoring these issues will exacerbate the divisions.

We are not unmindful of inequalities based on class and gender. We recognise, in particular, that racial divisions coincide with extreme levels of poverty and wealth, and that black women have experienced and continue to encounter multiple disadvantages.

The names of the steering committee members appear at the bottom of the explanatory statement. I will speak about the consequences of not signing, but would like it to be understood that we put no pressure on anyone, and do not condemn anyone who does not sign the Declaration.

The document does not have a single source, we were seeking to intervene in a debate about acknowledgement of the past, restitution and reparation. No single event caused people to come together. The initiative was informed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, the National Conference on Racism, as well as the activities of many organisations whose members have become a part of this initiative.

We on the steering committee believe a declaration of this kind is morally and politically essential, that it is right and necessary for whites to acknowledge their responsibility for apartheid, to acknowledge its racist damage and the socio-political inequality which resulted from it. We believe an act of this kind and acceptance of our responsibility is necessary for reconciliation. We also commit ourselves to action.

There have been some negative reactions. We anticipated some controversy, but did not anticipate the level of rage it would evoke. We have surprised at how personally people have taken it, and the intensity of some of the negative reactions. There has been opposition from the left and from the right. People on the right have said ‘let bygones be bygones, whites did not benefit from apartheid’. This is false. People on the left have said we are not addressing the collaboration of some Africans, coloureds and Indians in apartheid. We say we speak on behalf of ourselves and whatever collaboration there may have been by others, apartheid was designed for the benefit of whites. Other communities may respond in the way they wish. We have been accused of ignoring government’s responsibility. This is not a valid criticism of us taking responsibility for what whites have done. Government is responsible for what it does and does not do. Government’s failures do not detract from whites having to take responsibility. This debate will be with us for a long time. The debate about the Holocaust continues. The Austrian government has apologised for its actions at the time of the Nazis, there has been an Australian apology for wrongs perpetrated against Aborigines, there has been a statement on racism from African leaders, and there has recently been an apology for slavery. These are issues decades and centuries old, but the debates about them have not ceased. Apartheid is the same – the debate will continue for a long time. Rhoda Kadalie has criticised the campaign on the grounds that it amounts to whites voluntarily stifling their criticism of government. She says because we accept responsibility, we are silencing our own voice. This is a logical non sequitur. People are becoming increasingly reluctant to criticise government, but I am not sure how this Declaration can be seen to have anything to do with that.

We have a lot of support: passive support – people signing the Declaration; and active support – people saying ‘what more can we do?’ The actions we have planned are:

1.      To gather more signatures. We have not actively disseminated this Declaration. We made a big effort to have a group of prominent people as the initial group of signatories, but have done little since then.

2.      To stimulate the debate. We have not hit back at even the harshest criticisms, and have not personalised any response. The more opportunities we have to stimulate the debate, the better.

3.      To establish a trust fund. We do not want to duplicate existing funding institutions, we do not want to draw away funds from poor people who are potential beneficiaries. The preferred model for the trust is that of a conduit to which people can donate money to the institution of their choice. We do not want to set up a heavy operation. Perhaps this could take the form of a ‘virtual trust’, through which we name causes which are seeking money. People we have approached to be trustees include Richard Goldstone, Saki Macozoma, Dikgang Moseneke, Njabulo Ndebele and Archbishop Ndungane. The trustees need to make a decision about what kind of trust should be set up.

4.      To develop a skills register to match needs for skills and resources within the black community with what signatories have to offer. This is fraught with political sensitivities. As far as the extent to which we should co-ordinate and control, I think we should seek to facilitate rather than make things happen. For example, we in the Centre for Conflict Resolution work in schools where the roofs leak, there are no perimeter fences and so on. We advertise such needs through our website, do the introductions, and then we go out of the picture.

On 17 February we held a workshop with 40 or 50 invited people to look at the way forward. Most people support the campaign and have signalled they feel enthusiastic. All of us on the steering committee have full-time jobs. We have no money to spend on the campaign, and feel the absence of serious fulltime staff to promote it. Things move very slowly – we meet only once every two weeks, but the campaign is running ahead of itself. People are offering part-time support. The End Conscription Campaign was very effective because it was staffed by full-time volunteer activists and because it was so broadly-based, it brought everyone in. We will soon have an office to which people can phone and send faxes and e-mail.

It is hard for me to comment on the implications of anyone not signing this Declaration or criticise anyone who does not sign. We only have 850 signatures so far, we would like to collect the signatures of 10 000 people or more.



I am not criticising the initiative. The bona fides of people involved are not in question – they all have an excellent track record in the struggle. But I do have reservations, as I spelt out in an article in the Mail & Guardian. My concerns are as an individual activist in the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. I am concerned that this initiative may block some of the principal challenges we are facing.

I worked with Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings into the complicity of business in apartheid. The hearings took place under the chairpersonship of Alex Boraine, and were limited to only two days. The TRC wanted two things: 1) an admission from big business that it had been complicit in apartheid, and 2) reparations for victims. The model being used in the hearings – ‘admission of guilt with the option of a fine’ – was frustrating to us in the ANC alliance. We wanted to use this opportunity to highlight the deeply structural legacy of apartheid which resulted from the economic trajectory South Africa had been on during that time. Our sense of reparations was not of big business putting money into a trust, but seeking a profound transformation of racial capitalism. Although our approach and that of Boraine were quite different, the chapters in the TRC report on this topic are quite good and they reflect some of the points we were trying to make.

Desmond Tutu said his greatest regret as head of the TRC is that there was no great white leader who came forward to match Madiba. There was tremendous generosity from the black side, but this was not matched by an FW de Klerk to say sincerely ‘we apologise’. For me this underlines the point that progressive whites are not represented by FW de Klerk, they are represented Madiba and Hani and Slovo. It is good that no white leader came forward because there has been no closure. This issue will continue to be with us for 50 or 100 years. Tutu’s statement was based on the idea of a symmetrical paradigm of two great leaders, a forgiving black one and an apologising white one, who represent all of us, and who can achieve closure so we can all get on with our lives. Running through the transition in 1990s has been a set of assumptions based on market exchange, including the idea that the transfer of political power is in exchange for something else. Reparations are also based on the idea of exchange.

Through this transition, the ANC has been confused, strategically uncertain, vacillating between various positions. At our bosberaad in January we discussed the South Africa we are building – one based on non-racialism, non-sexism and prosperity. This is the language that is current in the ANC. There is a language for racism, and there is greater sensitivity around gender oppression. But there is no language for class inequalities – we are now using the word ‘prosperous’. This has the effect of taking the problems of inequality out of their institutional embeddedness. The President said we must deracialise the income structure in SA, but nothing is being said about disparities in income.

Statistics about South Africa in 1990 compared to 2001 show we are as unequal now as we were in the height of apartheid. Along with Brazil and Guatemala, we are one of the most unequal societies on earth. There has been some deracialising of power and wealth up in the highest income quintile, but at the bottom, poor people remain oppressed and marginalised in terms of race, class and gender.

Our economic policies have too often become a kind of neo-liberalism that exacerbates inequality but softens it with a little black economic empowerment – ‘If you want privatisation, you can have it, but there had better be a slice of the action for blacks’. This is a trade-off notion, rather than one based on the need for transformation of the society in terms of race, class and gender. There is an inability in the ANC to identify the real factors which block transformation – we currently talk about conservative racists being the impediment. But just as we have state power, it is being devalued by the neo-liberal idea that the market should decide. This is epitomised by the Tony Leon-end of the Democratic Alliance. Last week in Parliament, a lot of ANC speeches concentrated on the opportunism of Marthinus van Schalkwyk visiting the grave of Albert Luthuli. But this is benign opportunism, the focus should fall on the other crimes of the week – the Oppenheimer family announcing it is about to disinvest billions from the country, something for which we have congratulated them.

Coming to the Declaration, there is nothing in it that I am embarrassed about or proud of. It is common sense. What concerns me is where the initiative goes. It is a deliberate political and moral intervention. I am worried it could reinforce the tendency of the ANC to sometimes focus on the symbolic – on some kind of pacting between whites who need whites and blacks who need blacks. If people want to donate money that is good. But it concerns me is that this could bolster the ‘helicopter state’ approach in which the president flies into a remote place by helicopter to open a school funded by big business. The kind of transformation we need requires us to use state and political power strongly. If private companies have so much money to give away on good works they should be taxed. The resources needed to drive integrated rural development and other priorities should be in the hands of the state, not the private sector.

I have articulated some uncertainties. I am uncertain about signing because I am passionate about ensuring the ANC remains non-racial and is not satisfied with deploying people into certain positions of influence to effectively deracialise the upper income quintile. I am worried the initiative could take attention away from the objective of achieving a just society.

There are two factors which hamper the ANC’s progress towards a more equitable society. First, it took power in 1994 – a terrible year in global time. Social democratic projects had been rolled back by Thatcher and Reagan, the Soviet project had ceased, the national project in Mozambique had been rolled back by structural adjustment and external forces. Just as the ANC came into power, all its progressive bearings had been blown away, it was taking power in a neo-liberal world. Finding allies out there is difficult for us. The second factor has to do with class dynamics in the ANC itself. It is easier to be in opposition than in power where there are fat cheques and opportunities to abuse power.



       I signed the Declaration – it is a statement that many progressive people would agree with. But are we offering whites a marketplace transaction in which we say ‘sign the thing, give a little money and everything will be resolved?’ The problem is what comes afterwards. Many of us should get more involved.

       Why does the Declaration come up now and what was your analysis of what the campaign can do at this time? What is the hope in terms of gathering new people to work towards a progressive project? I feel uncomfortable, it seems too weak, I wonder who I would be associating myself with if I sign it. I am worried it would not get the mass support it needs. It may only gather the signatures of a few pale ANC people. There are members of the white community who are doing more than just signing a Declaration.

       I signed it because I instinctively felt it was right. It is not an apology. People may regret apartheid but no one has to apologise for it. Anybody who agrees with the sentiment should sign it. I believe I have put the best of myself into opposing apartheid. Our struggle was about building broad-based support for the end of apartheid. It is necessary to bring a broad group of people in, and this is a way of doing it. We intellectuals often feel we need to intellectualise. Is opposition to the Declaration being voiced because we did not write this document, or because it suggests taking a political stand? We should not over-intellectualise this issue. Reparations are an individual matter – there is no reason why those who can afford it to do it should not make reparation. To address the criticism of Rhoda Kadalie – I say no one can claim to speak on behalf of a group. On the criticism of the Declaration not taking including the role of black collaborators in apartheid – I believe the document can be read to include collaborators.

       I take issue with the Declaration because it is ahistorical, apolitical and astrategic. It is not strategic because you expect to get only 10 000 signatures out of a population of about 5 million. This level of support is too marginal to achieve the purpose of the Declaration.

       I signed the Declaration with some discomfort. I can’t find fault with it, there is a lot of good in it, but it does not articulate for me what I would like to say. All of us here seem to experience a certain level of discomfort about it. Laurie has spoken about the action of some individuals who have something commendable about their discomfort and who have been led by their own conscience, something like the TRC process – a voluntary act of contrition or regret. My principal concern is about the modest private nature of the act. It seeks not to embarrass or actively enlist, it does not confront, it offers some kind of relatively cheap indulgence. What is called for is something of a significant nature. There is a lacuna, a gap, a need, a wish to do something, but people have no idea of what they ought to do, there is no obvious vehicle available. I am also afraid that only a few thousand people will sign, only a small amount will be raised, but this is worse than nothing. There is privacy in the confession and you declare your intention to do something or other. If people sign this and give only R100 to the fund, it is miserable. If people committed, for example, 10 per cent of their pre-tax income for a period of time, that would be something. The Declaration is in danger of devaluing itself through its own modesty. I would like to see the creation of a statutory fund to which people could be invited to contribute in the nature of a voluntary tax, a place for which would appear on your income tax form, and which would be tax-deductible. A precedent for this exists in many European countries in the form of a voluntary church tax.

       I initially thought the Declaration was an apology for being white, but now I feel differently. I did not benefit from apartheid – I became an intellectual in England. This Declaration might reinforce the differences between black and white, but President Mbeki has highly commended the initiative. One of the problems with the Declaration is that race is thrown in, but not considered seriously. There is an absence of serious consideration about racism in this society. The tensions in society are not just about white and black, but occur along class lines as Harold Wolpe discussed in his book Race, class and the apartheid state. The notion that racism accounts for everything is now widespread – the idea that racism equals apartheid equals classism. Black racism towards whites and towards other blacks is being glossed over. Our former analyses of class difference did not include discussions about black embourgeoisment – black capitalists are the same as white ones. We also need to pay attention to the lack of knowledge of history among our black and white youth – we assume there is a shared knowledge of our history, but this is not the case.

       Please make an explicit statement that this Declaration is not an apology. I don’t believe there is a single white person in South Africa who did not benefit from apartheid. Read Brian Bunting’s biography of Moses Kotane – being a black activist was more difficult than being a white one. I predict the Declaration will collect many signatures. Don’t become stuck on having to solve every problem before moving ahead. What individual black people think does not matter to me – there is no individual black person who can speak on behalf of all black people.

       When I was in exile, I did not have a sense of myself as white. In the last few years it has been rammed down our throats. The politics that are creating this are not progressive politics. There are not going to be thousands and thousands of white people signing the Declaration, but maybe this could be the start of broader forum for action.

Laurie: At the time of the TRC hearings at their most gory, some of my staff did an informal survey of views about reconciliation. Whites said ‘let bygones be bygones’, blacks said ‘how can you talk about reconciliation, look at how we live!’ I don’t disagree with Jeremy’s analysis, but we need a minimalist declaration to get broad support. The Declaration points to race and class without mentioning them by name to avoid alienating people. The explanatory statement mentions race and gender, inequality and multiple disadvantage. I am not sure if there is a grand solution to the points which have been raised. In the meantime, we have to do what we can to make a difference. We should not set the goalposts so high we do nothing, that we become immobilised. I am not convinced that contributing as little as R100 is demeaning. There are a small number of whites who are deeply involved in making a difference. Let us encourage whites to engage in making a difference.

Jeremy: All of us present here are white. We are all probably coming out of a battle to assert ourselves in the new reality of South Africa 2001. Only progressive views have been expressed, how can we find a point of insertion? A broad front has been complicated for progressive whites for a variety of reasons, and there is a sense among some that this Declaration provides that. We should not be surprised that there are differences, maybe there is no progressive white project. We are over-theorising and over-intellectualising. Over-theorising means never having do anything. There is not a home for whites called the Congress of Democrats anymore, this is no longer a feasible project. Is this Declaration a place where white people who want to be progressives and who want to make a contribution can do so? As an individual I don’t have a problem with signing the Declaration. However, I represent a couple of organisations, I am part of the leadership collective of the SACP where my role is to be part of a non-racial collective. I am not looking for a white person to represent me, I want a South African to do so. My energies are located there. Let’s see where this goes to, and I will continue to raise queries about it. Is the Declaration not inadvertently playing into other agendas, being a ‘good white’ being patted on the head by the president who has now voiced his approval of the initiative? Be careful of becoming the pet whites of the society – reactionary forces rather than progressive forces with a transformatory agenda.