By Prof JNJ ‘Klippies’ Kritzinger
It is to be appreciated that Pastor Olivier apologised for the statements he made in a sermon on Sunday, 26 June 2016. It is important, though, not simply to forgive him and move on, since his words were not only “poorly chosen” (as he says in his Twitter apology), but reveal deep-seated attitudes and approaches that keep on bedevilling relationships between black and white people in this country.
Let us start with the fact that the short clip from his sermon, which was circulated by News24, was clearly an “aside” during the course of his sermon, in which he digressed from his prepared text and “spoke from his heart”. This is clear when at the end of the clip he says: “Back to the message.” This incident reveals something typical about the life of many white people in South Africa: we have learnt to be “politically correct” most of the time, particularly when we are speaking in public or in the presence of black people. We do this to “avoid trouble” or to prevent being accused of racism. But sometimes, when our guard drops, we reveal what we really think and who we really are. And then our untransformed mind-sets emerge into the open. This usually happens when we are angry or disgusted at a specific incident, like Penny Sparrow’s experience on a Durban beach, or Vicki Momberg’s tirade after the smash-and-grab incident. It also happens around the braaivleis fire, when we let our inhibitions go and say what we really think about black people (and about ourselves).
Pastor Olivier lowered his guard during his sermon on Sunday and revealed his real feelings and thinking about the history of South Africa and the nature of the relationship between black and white people. That is what we need to address; not his unfortunate choice of words.
There are six basic assumptions or thinking patterns evident in Pastor Olivier’s personal aside during his sermon:
- God uses people who are different from us to “speak into our lives;” we should therefore not “drive them away”, but listen to them and let them be “God’s voice” to us;
- White people took nothing from black people; whoever says that is lying;
- White people have the right to get annoyed when such lies are repeated in public;
- White people have money because they work; black people are poor because they are lazy;
- Because white people worked (and are still working) for their wealth, thereby earning it rightfully, there is no need for them to share it with anyone or to “give away some of it”; and
- White people are not “the problem” in South Africa; perhaps the law favoured them, but they worked hard to “build this nation”.
Some time ago, I suggested that white people who want to overcome racism need to bid farewell to innocence, ignorance, and to arrogance – in order to embrace and be embraced by black South Africans and to join the movement to overcome racism. Let me show how that applies to Pastor Olivier.
Farewell to innocence
Pastor Olivier’s denial of responsibility for anything that is wrong in South Africa is baffling. When he says, “Maybe the law favoured us,” he is revealing a false innocence as well as dishonesty, because the apartheid laws definitely favoured white people (there is no maybe about that).
But he is also unhistorical: where did “the law” come from? Did it drop from the sky? Who made those laws that favoured white people and humiliated black people? Who passed the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936 that determined that white people would own 87% of the land? Who passed the Group Areas Act, which forced millions of black people into homelands or racially exclusive townships with matchbox houses, outside the cities and towns of South Africa? One could go on like this for a long time, since there are more than 150 laws that were passed by an all-white parliament between 1948 and 1990 that deliberately “favoured us” and thereby harmed and oppressed black people. And there are even more laws and policies that Dutch and British colonial authorities enacted on this soil since 1652 to give shape to the particular kind of racialised and divided society that we are today. How can any white South African honestly say: “We took nothing from no one”?
Farewell to ignorance
In a way this has already been addressed in the previous section. Perhaps Pastor Olivier really does not know South African history. Perhaps his only sources are the history textbooks of the apartheid schooling that he underwent or possibly the ideological indoctrination he underwent as a military conscript in the old SADF. But as the “senior pastor” of an obviously successful church in upmarket Sandton, he owes his congregation (and South Africans as a whole) more than that.
His view that wealth is produced by hard work and (by implication) that poverty is caused by laziness is something he will begin to qualify when he understands more about South African economic history. There is too much evidence of successful black farmers who lost their land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to various taxes that were imposed on them, forcing them to become underpaid workers in white-owned farms, mines and factories. The destruction of African family life through the migrant labour system, with its humiliating pass laws, is well documented for anyone willing to read.
Pastor Olivier needs to turn away from his pseudo-innocence about the role of white people in South African history, by allowing black South Africans to be God’s instruments to speak into his life the truth about the things that white people have done. And then to admit complicity in all that, acknowledging all the benefits that he has enjoyed since birth, which has given white people a huge head start economically, academically and in every other way.
Farewell to arrogance
Following on directly from the previous section, if Pastor Olivier can acknowledge complicity in the racist policies and practices that have divided our nation and oppressed the majority of its citizens for more than 360 years, then he may be able to find the humility not to be annoyed when black fellow South Africans keep on pointing out just how broken and unhealed our society still is.
It is therefore not merely a question of an unfortunate choice of words; but of the underlying political, economic and cultural assumptions that are revealed in his words. While everyone appreciates his public apology, he can only be forgiven if he admits that he was wrong in his fundamental assumptions, not only in his choice of words. That is the only way to genuine reconciliation and transformation. And then the discussion can begin about how he, along with other white Christians who benefitted from 360 years of colonial rule and 46 years of apartheid, can follow the example of the early church in the Book of Acts by sharing their possessions with the poor.
If we follow this way, we will stop identifying anybody or any group as “the problem”. We will be able to identify the problems that we have as a society, analyse them, and commit ourselves to addressing them together. We do not want to shame or humiliate Pastor Olivier; we invite him into this shared journey. We trust that he will receive this intervention – from people who are different from him – as the way that God is “speaking into his life” at this point in time.
* This piece was written at the request of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, and the views expressed herein are endorsed by the Foundation.