Robin Petersen argues that it is not the work of the ANC but the work of white democrats to ensure that there is redress, reparation, healing and restoration. 

Adriaan Basson’s recent article entitled “Leon Schuster, Helen Zille, farm attacks and the crisis of whiteness” (News 24, July 6 2020) is a curate’s egg of an analysis.

On the one hand, his criticisms of Zille’s offensive and disingenuous tweets, of the racism of Schuster’s movies and the misleading propaganda around “farm attacks” are well argued and raise telling points around the narrative of “white victimisation”.

It is also, on the surface, hard to argue with him on the general point he makes that the ANC could have handled many of these issues better, and by so doing have taken the wind out of the sails of the likes of Zille and AfriForum.

But it is this latter critique that requires far greater interrogation.

The claim that structures his argument is found in this telling paragraph: “Sadly, the ANC has not covered itself in glory in the way the party has dealt with white people over the past 20 years. Although a governing party cannot alone take responsibility for introspection and growth, the party has done little to nothing to take white democrats and centrists – the majority of white people, I believe – into the new South Africa.”

Politics of grace 

I would argue, on the contrary, that the ANC, particularly in the first five years of its rule under Mandela, exercised what I have called a “Politics of Grace” which went out of its way to embrace white people and make them feel at home in the new South Africa.

From the profound symbolic re-imagining of the nation as a “rainbow” to the acts that gave this image its visceral imagination – the donning of the Springbok jersey, the drinking tea with Betsie Verwoerd in Orania, the new national anthem which included a redacted and re-tooled “Die Stem”, the insistence that “non-racialism” be included in the founding statement of the Constitution, even Mbeki’s “I am African” speech” – all of these were offers of inclusion and forgiveness to white people that were consistently and insistently made.

“Grace” is a theological construct. It means love and forgiveness offered to those who do not deserve it. In Christian theology, it is exemplified in the notion of God forgiving us when we do not deserve it. Grace is forgiveness before it is earned, love and friendship before it is reciprocated. And what, on the whole, did white South Africans do with this offer? They either spurned it, or cheapened it.

The spurning is easier to spot.

It is seen in those who refused to come to terms with the structures of the new society, in those who either left or remain bitterly opposed to it, either overtly or covertly. It is seen in the vitriolic racism that is only sometimes publicly exposed. It is seen in the hankering after apartheid, in the romanticisation of white superiority.

It is the “cheapening of grace”, however, that is far more pervasive, far more insidious, and sometimes more devastating in its consequences. It was the anti-Nazi resistance fighter, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was hanged by the Nazi’s for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, who first fully developed the notion of “cheap grace”.

For Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace” is grace which is given with no response from the recipient, grace that is grabbed with no reciprocal action. Grace which is deemed to be earned, or deemed to be a right, or deemed to be trivial.


The late Louis Luyt exemplified the crasser version of this. Just two years after standing alongside Mandela at Ellis Park to receive the Webb Ellis trophy, Luyt subpoenaed the president to appear as a witness in SARU’s case against the imposition of a transformation investigation into rugby. It was also exemplified in the response of the National Party and of business to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both of which responses spurned the opportunity to confess, ask forgiveness and offer redress.

It is seen, more recently, in Zille’s and the DA’s breath-taking insistence that laws and regulations passed to correct the inequities of the past, from quotas in sports teams, to black economic empowerment in business, to preferential university admission policy for black people, are actually “racist”.

But the less crass, more insidious version of cheap grace is seen in the almost universal attitude of white South Africans who insist that they have nothing to apologise for and that they have a right to continue their lives of privilege and advantage with no change in attitude or behaviour.

It is seen in their refusing to grapple with their internalised ideology of superiority that we all carry as our inheritance, and in resisting transformation agendas at all turns.

The work of democrats 

So while Basson may be correct that there is more that the current ANC could do to attract the support of the white democrats and centrists – strengthen rural security, be more accommodating on language issues at universities – I am less sanguine about whether this will ever lead to a change in white attitudes.

Contra Basson, I do not think that the work must come from the side of the ANC.

It is, and it remains, the work that white democrats must do to tackle all manifestations of a spurned and cheapened politics of grace. It is seeing the justice of redress, even when it may personally be costly. It is the hard work of reparation, healing and restoration, done with humility and thankfulness.

– Dr Robin Petersen is the former CEO of SAFA and SAFA Development Agency. He is also a former Senior Lecturer at UWC, and completed his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1995.

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