“One has to say sorry”, was my dad’s response. It was during one of our braai-side discussions which we occasionally have whenever I leave the Boland for a weekend visit to my parents’ home along the Garden Route. He responded in that manner which tells me he has thought about this one before, he’s been pondering this question on other weekends too, when it’s only him watchfully guiding the fire from wood to coals. This was in or around 2009 I believe, not long after I returned home from some time spent in Australia during the previous year. I arrived Down Under a few days after their government delivered a public apology, on behalf of the people of Australia, to those who formed part of the so-called Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children who were taken from their families to continue living with white, English-speaking families. Of course, the circumstances which lead to this are debatable, which meant the apology – whether it ought to occur or not – turned out to be debated as well. This is what I discussed with my dad, also mentioning Adriaan Vlok’s feet washing apologies a few years before and whether such apologies are good or necessary.
I recently came across two more such public apologies for events which took place many years before. In Stellenbosch, members of one of the university’s residences extended a public apology for their residence’s participation in racially driven feuds and vandalism in town 72 years earlier as well as their association with the country’s former Apartheid-regime through former res members’ involvement in these events and government of the day. Similarly, the mayor of Brussels in Belgium apologised to the Jewish community for his city’s role played in the Holocaust as they assisted in the deportation of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps 70 years before. It was in reading this and the mixed responses it received from both parties, those ‘guilty by association’ as well as the ‘offended’ ones, that my dad’s words came to mind once again: “One has to say sorry”.
Typically, our culture considers an expression of sorry to be a good thing. You bump into someone at the grocery store, you spill coffee over a colleague’s keyboard, you lose your friend’s favourite jersey which he was hesitant to lend you at first but you just had to wear that to the thing you went to. It’s a no-brainer right? You say sorry – although for the jersey situation there would be many additional reasons of course for why it’s not actually your fault it got lost.
But it’s not always that easy. I mean, Sir Elton didn’t sing “Sorry seems to be the hardest word” because it only ‘seems’ so but really isn’t. It is in fact difficult, and we are often slow to engage in any activity communicating the word ‘sorry’. We like to say and do things that might, possibly, given the other party is a good listener or interpreter of body language, suggest that we would rather have transferred the (very same mind you) message in a slightly different manner. A simple sorry, however, is often simply too much to ask.
But what is it that keeps us from doing so? What keeps us from just saying it? “Sorry.” “I am sorry.” “I am very, very sorry.” “I wronged you.” “You. are. right.”
I am usually hesitant because there is a certain level of risk involved. On the one hand the risk that sorry may not have the wished effect this magic word is supposed to have while on the other that of making myself vulnerable before someone (who may or may not even be in the right and I may or may not even be responsible or to blame!). The former has a concern about proper reconciliation while the latter holds that same concern to some extent but has an even greater concern to not see it happen at the cost of oneself or one’s reputation. Or, think of why it would be easier to say sorry after you have bumped something out of the hand of a random passer-by in a grocery store than after a decision you made affected others negatively along the way?
I recently interviewed UK-based author Ruth Jacobs on her Soul Destruction series of novels which contains strong themes of revenge and forgiveness. She has gone through some grave personal hardships herself but also happens to come from a Jewish background which means, by association, a few of these ‘public apologies’ have in effect been extended towards her over the years. I thought it wise to ask her thoughts on the matter and practise of apologising. On a personal level, where she’s been sexually abused as a child and raped more than once later in life, she feels an apology could ruin the healing process and bring about new, unnecessary anger. On the issue of saying sorry so many years later for a wrong committed publicly and on a larger scale, she said that it does bring a sense of relief to her to know that current generations oppose the deeds of former ones and that they do not plan to go down that same route again. But full-on forgiveness? That, she says, does not necessarily come so easily. To draw a parallel between Ruth’s reality and our own in South Africa I’ll quote a ‘sound bite’ from Khaya Dlanga’s recent address delivered at the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies Censor/tivity Conference: “Sadly, when you have been a victim of a mass humanitarian crime, the crime of the past becomes part of one’s identity…Asking black South Africans to get over apartheid is like asking Jews to get over the holocaust. We will never get over it, and we should never forget what happened. The criminal cannot tell the victim to get over it.” Similarly, and to me somewhat surprisingly, there are still white Afrikaner people who have issues with the British (or English, to be more exact) for what happened during the Anglo-Boer War too but regardless of my surprise, those issues do exist.
Then, onto the media stage stepped Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge – potentially one of the best things to happen to Britain since JRR, CS and the grand mother QE II herself – after having been shamed to some extent as topless photos of her were published in a few international magazines. She has reportedly been continually apologising to her husband William and the royal family afterwards for having possibly tainted their image through her ‘risky behaviour’, regardless of whether the paparazzi who captured those images of her acted ethically or not. Many theories would of course also have arisen as to why exactly she apologised and the issue at hand may not be nearly as major as the others mentioned, but to me it did beg this question: is guilt even a prerequisite for saying sorry? Or do we say so for some other reason? Because, those parties hesitant or unwilling to apologise usually act apologetic in another sense rather, defending their innocence in the whole matter at hand. The grand wikipedia would have us believe we say sorry for two reasons, either out of regret for what we have done or because of condolences with someone in pain or anguish. The question remains though, does it matter whether we are personally responsible for their painful reality or not that determines whether we qualify or are obligated to say sorry? This probably depends on whether we are more concerned about keeping our own slate clean or otherwise seeing others set free from their bondage of unforgiveness?
Although sorry does not heal or bring restitution in itself, it does acknowledge – and I believe this is many times what the offended party needs to hear, an acknowledgement of wrongs committed to them. However useless the word sorry may be, it remains the only word fit to serve as cornerstone in the building of a platform from which healing and restitution can take place. I agree with Dlanga that ‘the criminal cannot tell the victim to get over it’, yet I believe it is in the best interest of the victim to do all they can to get over it. This is what makes apologies even more uncomfortable and cruel: it shifts the responsibility of letting the utterly useless word sorry become useful and even powerful, to the victim – he now has to engage the platform and choose to forgive in stead of repaying the evil committed towards him in kind or continually harbouring the bitter pain of unforgiveness.
While some sorries are better left unspoken, as Ruth pointed out, what then is the criteria for the times we should consider saying sorry, whether personally guilty or not? I would think it is whenever there exists a need for reconciliation and restoration of a relationship. And, if indeed reconciliation or restoration of some form of relationship is what is being sought, is it realistic to hope that it could be achieved while by-passing some form or expression of sorry? Do we play it safe, approach this risk with fear and remain apologetic; or take the leap of faith, put ourselves out there and consider the relationship worth the risk of extending an apology?