Former apartheid chief washes feet of those he says he wronged

By Ecumenical News International
June 4, 2009

A former minister of police in South Africa's apartheid regime has again washed the feet of people he says he wronged while head of one of the most feared arms of the State - but this time they were apartheid's 'foot soldiers' themselves - writes Hans Pienaar.

Adriaan Vlok triggered a national debate in 2006 when in a biblical gesture, he washed the feet of nine elderly women, all victims of South Africa's police in the violent crackdown against opponents of the regime in the 1980s and asked their forgiveness.

He did the same for the Rev Frank Chikane, who was director general of former South African president Thabo Mbeki's office and a former general secretary of the South African Council of Churches. Chikane escaped death after being poisoned due to a T-shirt sent to him by a dirty tricks squad of the police.

At the end of May 2009 in the Free State provincial capital of Bloemfontein, Vlok washed the feet of 13 former police officers and soldiers, asking their forgiveness for "setting a bad example and leading people astray". "I have sinned against the Lord and against you," he told them.

The foot washing took place during a "men's evening", arranged as a follow-up to lay preacher Angus Buchan's "mighty men" gathering in May, which had been attended by about 140,000 people.

Vlok asked about 500 people at the men's evening if there were any former police officers or soldiers in the audience "who stood in the trenches for the apartheid regime" and whom he could ask for forgiveness. Thirteen men came to the front, and he knelt before them and washed and dried their feet.

"It was very emotional. There were tears in their eyes and the last man was deeply touched. They forgave me," Vlok said later at his house in Pretoria. "Apartheid's policies were based on lovelessness. They hurt a lot of people."

A former member of the South African Defence Force, Hannes Ferreira, said the gesture was "part of a healing process for Vlok himself, but could also mean a lot for the guy on the receiving side, who may bear a grudge".

Many former policemen and soldiers believe they had been misled by government propaganda and a strict censorship system, which portrayed anti-apartheid activities as being directed from the Soviet Union and aimed at Christianity.

In comments on the Web site, one reader, identified as NJ Mafikeng wrote, "The man destroyed millions of families in South Africa and instead of doing time in jail he is washing people's feet. Vlok must join other criminals in jail and stop using apartheid to score PR points and public sympathy. Black people fill SA jails and Vlok washes feet. What a SHAME!"

Another reader, Sello Maphosa, wrote, "I used to hate you Mr Vlok. You were a nightmare to us in COSAS [a black students' movement] in the 80's. I forgive you whole heartedly. I know you are sincere. You did not invite journalists to witness the washing of feet. I salute you."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.