Thanks to Consciousness Café I have developed a close relationship with a black woman in her 50s.
One evening, over a glass of wine she told me: “Every time a white person apologies to me for apartheid, I feel like I heal a little bit more. It’s like a balm being rubbed into my soul.”
I nearly dropped my wine glass. At first I didn’t say anything. I mulled it over.
Later in the conversation I asked: “Say if that apology comes from someone like me, someone younger than you who was a child during apartheid, who didn’t really do anything to create that system, does it still make you feel better?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who it comes from. When someone says sorry, the way it lands in my heart, is that they actually get it. They get how hard it was for me, how I had to virtually crawl on my hands and knees through a system that told me I didn’t belong. It makes me feel like my struggle as a black woman has been seen and acknowledged.”
I was stunned. Over the next few weeks I ran the story past my close white friends.
“How do you think older black people would feel if you apologised to them for apartheid?” I asked.
“I think they would think it was a bit of a cheek,” said one friend.
“I think they would think: ‘I don’t need your apology white girl. Get over yourself’,” said another.
I nodded. That’s exactly what I had thought. I thought an apology would be seen as a kind of arrogance. We have a black majority government, be quiet. Your apology is as irrelevant as a leaf in the wind.
How is it that we’ve got it so, so wrong?
Not long after, I tripped in the car park at the Spar.
“Sorry,” said the car guard.
“Why are you saying sorry? It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything,” I said, in a mixture of embarrassment and irritation.
He looked at my silently, and in that moment, something shifted in my head. Of course.
Every time you trip over, or drop something, or admit you are stressed, the typical response from a black South African to these small misfortunes is to say “Sorry”.
They will personally have had nothing to do with your misfortune – they will merely be bystanders and observers – but the immediate response is “Sorry”.
For too long, I had mistakenly though that black people said sorry because they were acting out an old role of being subservient to the white madam’s pain. But that is not it, is it?
Rather it is a sorry that translates as “I have noticed you and your misfortune, I empathise with you because I see it caused you a little bit of pain, distress, annoyance, embarrassment, and I know what that feels like. I am sorry that happened to you.”
And it’s funny, because white South Africans empathise in a similar way, but we use a different expression – we say: “Ag Shame” or “Shame man”.
I’m cold. Ag shame.
I tripped. Ag shame.
I’m so stressed. Shame man.
Shame is such a uniquely white South African expression which is used to show compassion, though by its dictionary definition, shame is something else. The real meaning of shame is a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong.
Sorry and shame. We have got them confused. Perhaps not surprising given our history.
At a recent Consciousness Café I publicly said sorry to Keke and Anisha for the pain and struggles that they continue to experience – especially Keke – because of the colour of her skin in our society.
As I said those words out loud in a room of people, I didn’t feel contrition, or shame, or guilt, rather I just felt a deep channel open between us, and a sense that our ability to stand side by side against the injust system which continues to divide us, grew stronger and more resilient.
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