JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — When I made a public apology for my collective role in the apartheid system at an editors' forum in 1996, it was the beginning of a personal journey of reconciliation I knew would last the rest of my life. Four years later, I still search daily for appropriate ways to transform words into action.
One lesson I have learned is that the only effective way to acknowledge one's role in having been a benefactor of the apartheid system - whether active or passive - is to take individual responsibility for the horrors committed by those responsible for implementing and maintaining apartheid, particularly during its final decade.
In my 1996 apology I wrote: "Today, it is difficult to find anyone who did not oppose apartheid. Funny, then, that it thrived for four decades and became increasingly evil in its chilling and systematic schemes."
The point is that we all had a role in maintaining apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has laid a foundation for reconciliation, but it is now up to each individual to take it forward in word and in deed.
It can be done in so many ways. In human relations, it's about the way we greet people. It's about the way we talk about others. It's about how we contribute - either in cash or in kind - to the rebuilding of schools, to healthcare programs, to self-help initiatives.
The reality is that many people are already involved in nation-building activities. But many more have not yet begun to come to terms with the realities of South Africa today.
It is the visible and symbolic acts countering this perception of indifference that are so important at this stage. My 1996 apology and subsequent elaborations were made with the insight that comes from having been outside the country - in my case, two years in Jerusalem as The Christian Science Monitor's Middle East correspondent.
People returning today from years abroad are alarmed by the deterioration of race relations. South Africans are increasingly talking past each other. Every time a black farmworker is beaten to death, black anger toward all white people mounts; and each time another white farmer is killed, white people increasingly direct their collective anger at black people.
These are dangerous trends. Unchecked, they could lead to greater racial polarization and, ultimately, to an explosion of racial hatred. That is how fragile our new-found democracy is.
In recent months, a courageous initiative called the Home for All Campaign has given white South Africans a new vehicle for atonement. It was launched by Carl Niehaus, a legislator from the ruling African National Congress, and Mary Burton, who headed the women's civil-rights group Black Sash.
Before going public, 500 leading white South Africans signed the statement, which acknowledges that white people benefited materially from apartheid.
It is true that the initiators are mainly people who were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle or have already taken responsibility for the past.
But there are signs that other white South Africans are ready to make a symbolic gesture to their black compatriots. Still, the general response of ordinary white South Africans remains a defensive one: We didn't know what was happening. We were obeying the law. We did what we could to oppose apartheid. There has been a mixed reaction from black South Africans, too. Many support the initiative, but would rather see action than words.
Some prominent whites are skeptical, too. Breyten Breytenbach, the Afrikaner author who was jailed for his efforts to set up a clandestine white wing of the African National Congress, says the declaration makes him ill. Helen Suzman, the human rights campaigner, says she can't bear the breast-beating. F.W. de Klerk, the former president who freed Nelson Mandela, says he has already made his apology.
Clearly, it is a personal choice. Society cries out for a spirit of healing and tolerance. Being able to have anger without retribution and to find acceptance is an important part of finding one's identity in a nation.
Signers include the veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Beyers Naude, author Andre Brink, prominent judges Richard Goldstone and Albie Sachs, who was maimed by a bomb while in exile in Mozambique.
We all need to discover the immense power of confronting the basic truths about our society: Apartheid did terrible damage to the human psyche. While whites benefited materially from apartheid, it was at a terrible expense to their psychological and spiritual well-being.
Black South Africans, on the other hand, suffered both materially and psychologically under apartheid. They became subservient human beings who began to acquiesce in their own oppression. It is not easy to face any of these truths, but until we do there will be no chance of a common understanding of the past, a common identity, or a chance of building a strong, united, nonracial South Africa.
I signed the Home for All declaration in the knowledge that it will help me keep on the path of reconciliation and be reminded that it is a never-ending process.
Detractors of the declaration have called it a cheap feel-good for whites. I can only say that this has not been my experience.
Critics have also said the declaration could discourage white people from criticizing the black government, and suggest that apologies might also be due from the present government for not spending state poverty money and failing to provide drugs to some HIV/AIDS victims.
These are valid warnings. But I predict that the declaration, and the sentiment behind it, will far outlive the predictable maneuvering taking place around it.
John Battersby is editor of The Sunday Independent in South Africa.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society