Maybe the problem is that we didn’t start.

/, South Africa, things to wrestle with, thorts of other people/Maybe the problem is that we didn’t start.

Maybe the problem is that we didn’t start.

So the other day i posted my first Race with Me video of a series i plan to run on the topic of the white people question, “When can we stop saying sorry?” and “When have we done enough?”. Which you can watch here if you missed it.

Then yesterday i posted this question as a status on Facebook:

Question for white people in South Africa… in 1994 after decades of apartheid, when the laws were abolished and change happened, what steps do you think white South Africans took to [1] apologise [2] make up for it?

23 years later people are asking can we move on and do we still need to stop saying sorry… before we can even take that up, we have to look back at the transition and see if we in fact made any moves towards or did we get off scot free?

[More wanting to hear from people who don’t think we got off scot free, which is largely where i see us, what steps did we take?]

Which was largely followed by this Yoda moment:

Yoda crickets

And then eventually one or two people who think similarly to me jumped in and responded…

So going back to the question, “When can we stop saying sorry?”, is it at all possible that we never really said sorry in the first place? i mean besides the typical parent-enforced-“Say sorry to your sister for punching her in the face!” where the words somewhat audibly make their way through our clenched jaws, kinda, but everyone [especially little sister] knows we’re not sorry. Not really.

With the real answer to that question lying in the fact that if i go right back and punch my sister in the face again, the words are proved meaningless.

Whether i did it directly or not, it happened on my watch [definitely, as a 43 year old, no escaping that one]  but for those younger than me who will cite “Born after the whole apartheid thing happened” it is still happening on your watch. And for that we need to grab a mop and broom and get down on our hands and knees and start scrubbing.

Were some moves made? Absolutely, in terms of BEE work stuff and sporting quotas, for example, there are some things we can point to, but did the majority of white South Africans own it and step towards their fellow South Africans in any significant ways that helped transform lives and families and communities within South Africa? i think we need to honestly wrestle with this question. And if we come to the conclusion that it was not done effectively or significantly, we need to make some plans.

i found this video that my friend ‘Bob’ sent me quite helpful in terms of unpacking some of the specifics:

South African tv interview with Terry Oakley-Smith from Diversi-T


Julia Moore: We didn’t. The TRC was a great idea that helped many people, but it wasn’t a national, collective acknowledgement of the total complicity of every single white person in this country who wasn’t actively out there being a “terrorist” and being treated the exact same way as black South Africans were by the apartheid government (ironically, those white people who were detained and tortured in John Vorster Square, or exiled, or imprisoned, are usually the first to say they did in fact benefit from the system anyway, regardless of the fact that they were treated as criminals by the government).

The simple fact is, the restitution and reconciliation that did happen, in the form of the TRC hearings, was targeted at specific people and entities (like the security police). And it was focused solely on apartheid itself, as if apartheid developed in a vacuum and before that people of colour enjoyed this wonderful equal social and economic status. It was not enough. (To be clear, I’m not attacking the TRC – I think it was a good concept and the people involved genuinely achieved good for many people, and it could logically only extend so far and deal with so much).

White people have never collectively been made to take responsibility for what happened. We have never been made to collectively admit to our privilege, or the fact that our privilege largely exists at the expense of people of colour.

We got off scot free, by pinning the blame on the government and those people who were caught and held directly responsible, instead of accepting that we are all part of the continuing system which benefits us to the detriment of others.

We got off scot free by never having to publicly, as a national collective, admit to our complicity in this great and terrible wrong.

We got off scot free because there was no payment of reparations. Ever. By anyone.

Julia Moore again: one can go on. Take the example of how Germany handled the Holocaust reparations – outlawing Nazism, making it a crime to own or display Nazi symbols, banning Hitler’s book, renaming streets and buildings, removing statues, and paying actual cash money to victims and their families not just in recognition of the lives lost but the wealth that was stolen from Jewish families by the Reich, implementing collective national responsibility through laws and school curricula in such a way that even today, generations later, there is an understanding of the collective responsibility of a people who allowed a madman to take over their country and murder innocent people.

Now compare that to South Africa, where we have part of the old anthem in our new one, where people still publicly display the old flag and sing die stem, where towns and streets are named after apartheid architects, where it’s not illegal to say the k-word, and where no money has been paid to those who were dispossessed and disenfranchised. Ever.

Bryan Telford added: I do recall early after the 94 elections people from churches of different racial backgrounds coming together to have some sort of reconciliation. Some efforts were made. But in terms of the second question the answer is much harder. There have serious job creation efforts, NGO’s created to alleviate poverty and many initiatives started by white people to address some of the equalities- although clearly insufficient. There have been government enforced quotas for jobs or racial quotas at universities, and other affirmative action steps that were made to correct the past. But I do wonder if these could have also had a negative affect because of instead of whites taking their own initiative to right the wrongs of the past, we ended up on the defensive.. And some feeling helpless enough to even choose to leave the country.

Finally Graeme Codrington: A great question. As I think back, I don’t think I did anything specific. I have done more in recent years, but I don’t think I have ever apologised to anyone for apartheid.


i’m really interested to hear from people who can answer those two questions honestly. i’m not interested in entertaining ridiculousness though. So if you’re not willing to engage, don’t waste your time.

In 1994 after decades of apartheid, when the laws were abolished and change happened, what steps do you think white South Africans took to [1] apologise [2] make up for it?

Not simply government, but the white people of South Africa as a whole… If the answer is something along the lines of “Not that much” or “Nothing significant” then is it not easy to understand why 23 years later we are still having the same conversations?

And should we be changing the question from “When can we stop saying sorry?” to “When should we start?” 

With the understanding that genuine apology comes with changed behaviour and doing what can be done to move in the direction at least of putting things right… i don’t think that anyone is looking for more words here…

What think you?

sorry quote

About the Author:

Brett Fish is a lover of life, God, tbV [the beautiful Valerie] and owns the world's most famous stuffed dolphin, No_bob (who doesn't bob). He believes that we are all responsible for making the world a significantly better place for everyone.


  1. Claire May 10, 2017 at 2:09 pm - Reply

    Brett, I love your blog. It so often puts a completely different perspective, from a very calm and humble approach, to the standardised stories we tell ourselves and the questions we ask without really expecting (wanting?) an answer. I know that’s how it is for me anyway.

    Your discussions about white privilege, and the fact that I’ve benefited just from being white. (What, me? No way!, my dad had it tough, I’ve had to work hard etc etc) That was the story I believed and it actually took me a day or so to get my head around your point. In retrospect it’s obvious but the change in my understanding was profound.

    The story “It didn’t happen on my watch ” has also been one I’ve used. You get to feel less guilty, and even a little self righteous that way. And then you come up with “It’s still happening on my watch.” Oops. Paradigm shift yet again.

    So thank you. Thank you for putting in the thought, love and effort into things that people like me who are inclined to be a little too lazy (or self interested) tend to gloss over. Please keep up the good work and keep dragging us forward with you. Much respect.

    • brettfish May 10, 2017 at 10:27 pm - Reply

      Sho Claire, that is really encouraging, thank you so much. Really appreciate you taking the time and the effort…
      love brett fish

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