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"I Have Sinned Against the Lord and Against You! Will You Forgive Me?"

A former apartheid leader is seeking redemption—by washing the feet of those he wronged

Photo Illustration by Pilgrym; Paballo Thekiso/AFP/Getty Images; Getty Images

On August 1, 2006, the South African apartheid government’s most notorious police minister, a slight, 68-year-old man named Adriaan Vlok, stood before the Union Buildings—the presidential complex in Pretoria originally meant to telegraph the timeless glory of European rule in Africa. Sprawling, made of pink and beige sandstone, and surrounded by statues and fountains, the place looks like a cross between Britain’s House of Parliament, Versailles, and a Tuscan villa. Vlok had worked in it in the late ’60s, right at the beginning of his sparkling governmental career, when he still looked up to apartheid’s laws as the apotheosis of good governance and moral power. And as he walked into his old workplace, he was astonished by how much it appeared the same: the same furniture, the same carpet, the same rococo wallpaper and trim. The main difference was that the black people his government had once oppressed now occupied the offices, and Vlok had come back as a penitent. He had come to wash the feet of a black man he had once tried to kill.

Vlok was South Africa’s minister of law and order between 1986 and 1991—strange years when the white government felt desperate to maintain its hold on power, but also anxious to prove to the world it was humane. Paranoid and agitated, Vlok’s police resorted to dark, cloak-and-dagger tactics to dispose of apartheid’s enemies. A secret “counterinsurgency unit” at a farm called Vlakplaas kidnapped, drugged, and murdered anti- apartheid fighters, then burned their bodies on a barbecue pit. The same unit also disappeared a whole group of youth activists by packing them into a bus laden with explosives and pushing it off a cliff. Government-employed chemists labored to find sneakier and sneakier ways to kill off the opposition—there was even talk of introducing contraceptives to black neighborhoods’ drinking water—but no plot may have been more comic-bookish than the one to assassinate Reverend Frank Chikane.

Chikane, a preacher and the head of an interdenominational Christian group, is remarkably baby-faced and warm, no villain from central casting. But the apartheid government believed his group was harboring armed anti-apartheid militants in its Johannesburg headquarters; the leader of an outfit like that simply had to be neutralized. In 1989, a pair of Vlok’s policemen broke into Chikane’s suitcase at the Johannesburg airport, where he’d checked it for a trip to Namibia, and laced his underpants with paraoxon, a potent insecticide.

Chikane got so sick he had to be flown to the United States for advanced medical treatment. But he didn’t die. After South Africa’s transition to a multiracial democracy in 1994, he went on to serve South Africa’s second black president, Thabo Mbeki, as chief of staff, operating out of the Union Buildings on the very same floor where Vlok had worked 30 years earlier.

On the day he came for penitence, Vlok sat down in an easy chair in the reception area. Soon, Chikane invited him in. Both men were active in church groups and knew each other vaguely. Unsure what Vlok had come for, the reverend smiled and chatted gaily.

Paballo Thekiso/AFP/Getty Images
Frank Chikane, the baby-faced reverend whose underwear was poisoned by the apartheid police force.

Vlok, however, began to quake. As he realized what he was about to do, all the loathing and feelings of superiority inculcated in him since boyhood suddenly rose to the surface. “I’d grown up thinking it should be the other way around: that blacks should be serving whites,” he thought to himself. Waves of physical disgust at the thought of touching Chikane’s toes surged through him.

Fortunately, he had anticipated his own weakness and prepared an explanatory message for the moment, in case he couldn’t find the words to speak. He’d written it on the front flyleaf of a Bible. It read: “I HAVE SINNED AGAINST THE LORD AND AGAINST YOU! WILL YOU FORGIVE ME?” Silently, he handed the Bible to Chikane, pulled a rag and bowl out of his briefcase, slid off the chair onto his knees, and bowed his head. Finally, stutteringly, he asked Chikane, “Frank, please, would you allow me to wash your feet?”

Chikane sat back in his chair, and in his confusion, he laughed. “But why would you want to do that?”

“I must humble myself before you,” Vlok murmured. “For what we did, for what we were trying to do.”

Chikane’s grin vanished. “I can see you are really serious,” he said. He leaned forward in his chair, removed his shoes, and peeled off his black socks. With a quivering hand, Vlok took a glass of water off Chikane’s desk, poured it into the basin, sprinkled it onto Chikane’s naked toes, and dried them carefully with the rag. And then both men dissolved into tears.

South Africa’s Democratic transition in 1994 was generally designed not to enforce repentance among whites. Ordinary folks who’d done things like work for the civil service were assured forgiveness, and the new black leaders went out of their way to show appreciation for Afrikaners. (“I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land,” Mbeki, who was then Nelson Mandela’s deputy, declared in a remarkable 1996 speech.) People who’d committed crimes against human rights under apartheid, both black and white, were invited to testify before a tribunal called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC denied amnesty to a few notorious killers like Eugene de Kock, the primary Vlakplaas assassin, but mainly it aimed to air the stories of the horrors that took place rather than to exact strict justice.

The South African white minority, some 10 percent of the population, has prospered in this conciliatory environment. At the end of apartheid, only 10 percent of whites had been to college. By 2012, 60 percent aged between 20 and 24 were enrolled for higher ed. And thanks in part to the end of sanctions and a surge in white entrepreneurship, as of 2011, white households still earned six times more than their black counterparts.

Yet rather than feel grateful, many Afrikaners feel suspicious and embattled. They see reconciliation as something that can’t last. “I’m in love with my country,” goes an Afrikaans country song that plays often on the radio, “but does my country still love me?” Another pop song predicts, “a war is coming ... it’s time to move on.” The Afrikaners look at neighboring Zimbabwe, where ex-colonial white farmers were initially tolerated well after black liberation but were then violently run off their farms 20 years later, and perceive a fearful image of the future. South Africa also has one of the highest rates of economic inequality of any country in the world, and the more whites flourish, the more they open themselves to potential retribution. Starting in the mid-2000s, the populist youth politician Julius Malema began railing against the entrenchment of white privilege in bitter language markedly different from Mandela’s soothing tones. (“It’s time to dispossess our oppressors,” he said in 2011.) Earlier this year, his brand-new political party captured 6 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election, an impressive showing.

All of this has generated an increasingly strong instinct in Afrikaners to defend what they have. Starting in the early 2000s, an Afrikaner-led trade union began to represent white police officers who failed to win promotions because of affirmative action; these court cases were so popular, the union spawned its own “civil rights organization,” AfriForum, dedicated to making Afrikaners realize they’re no longer an oppressor majority but an embattled minority facing marginalization and potential extinction. AfriForum now has almost 100,000 members and creates slick YouTube videos about white farmers targeted by black murderers and organizes pro-Afrikaner protests, including one where a group of white students attacking quotas at a veterinary school marched in blackface. Its leaders have even led missions to the United Nations Forum on Minority Rights to try to rebrand the Afrikaners before the international community as an endangered stateless ethnic group akin to the Basques or the Tibetans.

To explain his enthusiasm for the endangered-minority rebranding, an Afrikaner politician named Pieter Mulder told me about the excitement he felt when he heard that Louis Farrakhan was planning to visit South Africa in 1996.

“An international news interviewer asked me what I thought of it,” Mulder said. “I said, ‘I’m very excited because Louis Farrakhan is coming, because he’s fighting for minorities! So I think he’s going to fight for the Afrikaners!’”

Farrakhan didn’t call. “I was disappointed,” Mulder admitted.

In this context, a person like Adriaan Vlok poses a threat. Someone who would willingly debase himself and suggest Afrikaners still have something to apologize for is working at cross-purposes to much of the Afrikaner community’s goal at this moment in history: to resist more sweeping change. And thus, when the news of his foot-washing episode went public after Chikane talked about it in a sermon, Vlok became not an Afrikaner hero but an object of withering hate and contempt. One white op-ed writer called Vlok “ridiculous”; another, a “quivering dog.” An Afrikaner friend of mine pronounced him a “traitor.”

In the middle of last year, I called Vlok and asked him to explain why he had pursued a kind of repentance no one else had. He agreed to an interview immediately. “Anytime, any place!” he chirped. “You name it!”

The impression of sweetness he exuded over the phone only increased when we met at a south Pretoria chain restaurant, a strange Applebee’s-esque beacon of cheeriness swathed in a moody haze from the nearby black township’s coal stoves. The former prime defender of white South Africa’s right to eternally crush its black majority under its heel was the dorkiest, most vulnerably kindly looking old man I had ever seen. A little late, Vlok shuffled toward my table in a checked farmer’s shirt—his thin white hair a couple of cotton-candy wisps over his head, his features as big and guileless as a Mr. Potato Head doll’s. His cell phone hung in a little bag around his neck; I was reminded of the identification packets children wear when they fly alone.

“As a child, growing up, I was not politically inclined whatsoever,” Vlok told me as we settled down over cappuccinos. His face crinkled into a wry smile, as if he recognized it might be hard for me to believe. He was reared in the 1940s in a rural region, he said, that didn’t feel much pressure yet between black and white interests. Instead, he’d been captivated by the law. He read all the crime-and-justice stories in the newspapers his father brought home from work and fantasized about becoming a judge “in his cloak.”

But his parents had no money to send him to law school. So in the late ’50s, he found a job as a filing clerk in the Department of Justice for the Afrikaner National Party government, which was beginning to standardize South Africa’s systems of formal and informal racial segregation into the strict legal framework called apartheid. Soon, he was put in charge of sorting the applications for sick leave and time off for 5,000 employees.

It suited him perfectly. He found he loved sorting and filing. It satisfied a need to see his environment in order; it was a way of imposing rules as a sort of judge. Distinguishing himself as a filer, he worked his way up to become the prime minister’s own private secretary, then the deputy minister of defense, then the police chief.

“I did not see that there was anything wrong with apartheid, to be quite honest with you,” he told me matter-of-factly as we drained our drinks. For him, it was just a grand social filing system: “The colored people”—mixed-race people—“had their place. They went to their schools.” And as anti-apartheid protests ramped up in the ’80s, the conviction settled in “that we were fighting a just cause. And they are fighting the wrong cause. So I will fight you. I will resist you. And if necessary, I will kill you.”

His first glimmer of doubt about apartheid surfaced on a government-sponsored tour of Taiwan in the ’80s. The Taiwanese took his delegation to a museum that recounted 5,000 years of illustrious Han Chinese political, intellectual, and artistic achievements. In South Africa, apartheid classified the country’s Chinese immigrants as “colored,” making them second-class citizens, by implication less able than whites. Standing before display cases of delicate Chinese pottery, the ridiculousness of the racial classification system suddenly hit home. “I saw then, ‘There must be something wrong. Not with them, but with us.’

“But I didn’t do anything about it,” he went on. “I’m not the type of person who wants to break the things that are in place.”

Corrie, his wife, had a more intensely emotional relationship with apartheid. It turned out she had needed it to live. A sensitive and psychologically fragile woman, she received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder early in life. Oddly, the years of highest public tension in South Africa were her best years. She benefited from the sense of mission the fight to preserve white rule gave her. She relished the importance of being a minister’s wife and adopted a psychic role as Clara Barton to the embattled white nation, making constant hospital visits to comfort victims of bombings done by anti-apartheid activists.

When Vlok retired from public life in 1994, he hoped that Corrie would finally relax. They moved into a house in Melkbos, a gorgeous beach community outside of Cape Town, but she was despondent. She smoked and drank all the time. She barely got out of bed. A couple of months into his retirement, a friend asked Vlok to go on a hunting trip. His maid was also going out to a prayer meeting. Vlok worried about leaving Corrie alone, but she insisted that she would be fine. Instead, she shot herself with a revolver in the master bedroom.

Courtesy of Alon Skuy
Adriaan Vlok, a year after he washed Chikane’s feet

After Corrie committed suicide, Vlok went to see the psychiatrist who’d attended to her during her last couple of months. He told Vlok: “The pressure of apartheid was keeping her upright.” The technical term is “leisure sickness,” the phenomenon by which, when we finally let go of our stress, we fall apart. Our psyches are like the stones in a bridge; pressure holds their shape.

As if in one blow, the sense of certainty provided by both apartheid and his marriage had vanished completely. A couple of weeks after Corrie’s death, while Vlok was still reeling and confused, a man delivered a card to his home. It said, “In remembrance of Corrie, we have placed a thousand books of New Testaments and psalms.” The man was from the Gideons International, the evangelists who distribute millions of Bibles a year to public spaces.

Vlok was incredibly moved by the gesture. “I wanted to thank them,” he remembered. “They invited me to a dinner meeting and asked, ‘Do you want to join us?’”

He did, badly, but the TRC had just informed him it would call him up to testify about his time as police chief, and he worried the association would cast disgrace on the group. "I said, ‘I have got a bad history. Horrible stories will come out!’"

“And they said, ‘Look at the Bible. Moses killed a person, and the Lord used him. David committed adultery, and he killed people, and the Lord used him. Do you still say no?’ So I joined them.”

He began to read the Bible twice daily: the Old Testament in the morning and the New in the evening. Religion gave him a sense of comfort. Its strict rules—the Gideons read only a prescribed set of Bible passages each day, no more, no less—filled in for the rules for comprehending the world that he’d lost when apartheid ended.

But one particular passage from the book of Matthew caught his attention. He found himself returning to it over and over, increasingly troubled. At the café, he flipped to the passage for me and began to read aloud. It was from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple,” Jesus says, “and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Only then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”

Vlok snapped the Bible closed. “I realized,” he said, “I had to start making peace with my brother whom I had hurt.”

A few mornings later, I drove to Vlok’s home in suburban Pretoria, which I identified by the green-and-white sign on the gate: “SOUTH AFRICA, TURN TO GOD!” Inside the house, the cool, dark warren of rooms had an ascetic quality, nearly devoid of furniture. The prayer room was dominated by an enormous wooden cross. Behind the main residence sat two austere huts: Vlok told me he built them to house indigents, a mandate he found in the book of Luke. He was currently putting up two alcoholics and, he added brightly, “a guy who murdered his wife and spent twelve years in prison! And he just got remarried!”

The front yard was a muddy jumble reminiscent of an abandoned flower nursery. Empty cardboard boxes lay in heaps in the carport: Twice a week, Vlok explained, he wakes up early to collect food parcels from the local supermarket and delivers them to four preschools in one of the black townships nearby. This volunteering is the center of his life now.

We piled boxes full of cakes, pita breads, bags of candy, and about 80 individually shrink-wrapped custard pies into the back of Vlok’s beat-up white pickup truck and set out for his rounds to the township. Rather cheerfully, he apologized for the truck’s rattling—it was a cheap replacement for an old one that got stolen, he explained—and for the lack of music. His radio had recently been stolen, too. He found peace by understanding the thefts as a test from God. “God wanted to see, ‘OK, are you going to get angry, or will you keep doing good?’”

As we stopped at a series of dusty little nursery schools, I was struck by Vlok’s overall passivity. It contrasted sharply with the attitude of other white volunteers I’ve ridden with into poor black neighborhoods, who brim with vigor and sharp instructiveness. When he opened the back door of the truck, he simply waited for the kids and teachers to take whatever they wanted. A young boy in a red t-shirt we’d been told was intellectually disabled clambered into the driver’s seat and fiddled with the ignition, which still had the key in it. “Oh, hello!” Vlok said when he noticed the boy. “That’s nice! Why not try turning it on?” At one point, two young men sauntered by the open truck, grinned, and wiggled acquisitive fingers toward the custard pies. “Have them!” Vlok offered, smiling agreeably. Even after the thefts, he told me, he still never locks his truck.

The passivity, he explained, was the manifestation of an unexpected humility he acquired when he started his foot-washing. When he arranged the meeting with Frank Chikane in the Union Buildings, “I thought I was going there to ask for forgiveness,” he said.

But something he hadn’t even known he possessed had broken loose while he was on his knees. It was his deep-seated sense of inner superiority.

Hy vat nie kak van kabouters nie, goes an Afrikaans compliment: “That guy doesn’t take shit from dwarves.” Traditional Afrikaner culture is brashly dominant, self- confident, possessed with a strong conviction of its own exceptionalism. His face level with Chikane’s toes, though, Vlok had a sudden revelation of the fundamental error of these beliefs. That was why he’d cried.

“I regarded myself as better than black people,” he told me. “More intelligent. I work harder. I thought to myself all the time: ‘I am better than you.’

“And it is wrong!” he continued. “It is not so! I saw that I’m not better than they are. ... I started looking at black people through different eyes, because feet-washing put me in the place of the slave.”

He decided he needed to approach black people with a new humility and love. He went on to wash the feet of the mothers of the Mamelodi Ten, the youth activists the Vlakplaas unit killed by sending them over a cliff in a bus; then a group of black taxi drivers; then his own maid.

The transformation has been so complete, it seems almost too good to be true: the former defender of brutal white hegemony turned savior of little black children, flinging candy from bags as they mass, squealing, around his pant legs. Indeed, some black South Africans have suspected Vlok’s repentance is just a way for him to rehabilitate his public image and escape the burden of his guilt. “It’s not entirely of symbolic coincidence that, when he washed his victims’ feet, he washed his own hands, too,” T. O. Molefe, a Cape Town–based political essayist, told me.

But other blacks have found his repentance deeply moving. Earlier this month, Vlok went to talk to 100 parishioners of a tiny church in one of Johannesburg’s poorest black townships. The pastor, a 46-year-old man named Richard Khanyile, had invited him after reading up on his repentance in the newspapers. In the beginning, the atmosphere was challenging. “There were two women—they doubted if the man has changed, really,” Khanyile told me. “They asked him: ‘Tell us, what will be our restoration?’” The women spoke of the everyday humiliations blacks still experienced at the hands of whites: “When you walk into a bank, they look at you as if you are not supposed to be there.”

“But then [Vlok] asked to wash ourfeet as a sign of humbleness,” Khanyile remembered. “That actually changed the whole church. We’ve never experienced before the wave that hit the church. It electrified everything. As he was washing the feet, I saw a lot of tears, even among young people.”

When Vlok finally came to wash his feet, Khanyile described the experience as “explosive.” “I was crying, and he was crying,” he said. Unexpectedly, it liberated Khan­yile to own his pain as a black South African for the first time. “I was not aware I was also the victim of apartheid,” he explained. Though he’d grown up under apartheid, he’d had few direct interactions with whites in his childhood. “But as he was washing my feet, I realized we are all actually affected by what happened in the past.”

In 2007, a prominent Afrikaner comedian named Pieter-Dirk Uys opened his one-man revue with a parody of Adriaan Vlok. Sporting a replica of Vlok’s signature geeky glasses, Uys trudged out onstage hunched over and clutching a dirty rag, then walked into the audience and made to pull off an audience member’s shoes. He did it all silently: Before his predominantly white audience, there was no need to say a word; the ridiculousness of Vlok’s action spoke for itself.

To see a white person acting as a servant is as alien for white people as it is for blacks—and disturbing. A few years ago, an Afrikaner charity released a brochure on white poverty in South Africa describing whites who work as parking-lot attendants as having lost their very humanity: “Their eyes are empty; the glimmer of humanity has fled.” Apartheid posited not only that blacks were inferior, but also that the Afrikaners held the answers to all of South Africa’s problems, and this attitude still operates even though whites have lost control of politics. “The [black-led] government doesn’t really care about their own people,” an AfriForum employee informed me after he elucidated the Afrikaner group’s superior method of measuring the quality of municipal water. “That’s where we come in.”

Vlok’s repentance is unsettling for whites on an even deeper level because many do wonder, deep down, if the whole white way of life in South Africa might be somehow immoral. In the mid-2000s, a punk Afrikaans band released a music video that interspliced grainy, home-video-style bucolic footage of white toddlers playing on bicycles with soldiers goose-stepping: the recognition that every ordinary pleasure of white South African life is associated with a price tag of repression and violence. The Afrikaner poet Danie Marais, who grew up under apartheid, has written of the shame he feels when he thinks even about his first kiss: “It seems unlikely, almost perverse, that one’s own personal experiences of beauty and innocence could have happened in such a time and place.”

The message Vlok sends is both that change will be morally necessary for whites to undertake and also that it will be all-encompassing and very psychologically difficult, excavating deep-seated attitudes most people aren’t even aware they possess. He told me he didn’t think he ever would have found it in him to change at all if his life hadn’t already been upended by his wife’s suicide. “You have to be brought to nothing before change begins,” he mused.

There’s a final, more personal reason, though, that some Afrikaners distrust Adriaan Vlok. I felt it in my last visit to him at his house. As we sat down on maroon couches inside his spartan sitting room, I asked what his greatest wrong was as police chief.

“I hurt my gardener,” Vlok answered instantly. “I regarded myself as better. Many [white] people still believe, ‘I treat my [black] gardener nice!’ But I did not treat him as an equal.”

But what about the killings committed under his watch, the torture, the thuggery? He admitted he had “hurt many people, thousands of people” through his arrogance, including “by locking them up.” He denied having any actual blood on his hands, however. “The guy on the ground would not tell me what he has done! I would not know about it!” he insisted. His brow arched into a pleading loop above the puppy-dog eyes. He seemed at pains to convince me. He said he gave his police deputies only vague guidelines, like “You must do something,” which they took as a license to commit atrocities.

The official TRC decision concluded that Vlok had personally “decided to use explosives” in 1988 to destroy Khotso House, a building thought to be occupied by anti-apartheid militants. But when I asked him about it, he said he told his commissioner of police merely that “we must make a plan.”

“And a couple of months later, they blew it up! I went to him and said, ‘Hey, why did you blow it up?’ And he said, ‘What else were we supposed to do? Should we have painted it black so they couldn’t find it in the evenings?’ ”

Vlok even said his desire to wash Reverend Frank Chikane’s feet had stemmed not from a sense of personal guilt but from a nebulous desire to repent to black people. He claimed he hadn’t been aware of the specifics of the plot against Chikane and had been horrified when he found out later: “If you wanted to shoot a man, that would’ve been OK, but don’t put poison in his underwear!”

Somebody has to take the blame for these acts, though. And by owning up to a thousand subtle sins of ego but denying culpability for apartheid’s worst crimes, Vlok has pushed the guilt onto his former underlings. In 2001, an Afrikaner journalist named Chris Louw wrote a bitter open letter to former white leaders like Vlok. They had won plaudits for declaring apartheid as a systemto be wrong and negotiating its end, Louw argued; former President F. W. de Klerk even got a Nobel Prize for it. But Louw, who served in the apartheid army, was still haunted by the specific actions he took in uniform. “What is left for me?” he wrote. “I’m now nothing but an old sinner, tainted with gun-oil, the sweat of the parade-ground, and the blood of black children. ... I’m too innocent to beg for forgiveness. I’m too guilty to wash clean my hands.”

I got the impression Vlok himself might feel more guilt than he let on. In his house, after we talked about the plot against Chikane, he fell silent for a minute. I stared at my hands. Suddenly, he shifted his weight to pull a small blue plastic-covered Bible from his pants pocket. “Man, I am still struggling with this verse,” he said, frowning behind his enormous glasses.

He opened to the passage from Matthew he had quoted to me in the café, the one that had absorbed him after the death of his wife.“If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person.

My eyes drifted just above the text. I saw there was another line to the passage, one Vlok hadn’t quoted me. “You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.”

I asked him if he was afraid of judgment.

“After I die, yes, yes, the Lord will sit in judgment,” he muttered. “But Jesus will be there next to me. If anyone accuses me, He will say: ‘But I already paid the price.’ ”

Even so, he told me he had gone to visit Eugene de Kock, the Vlakplaas assassin, in prison. Vlok had intended to ask him for forgiveness. But sitting face-to-face with his old deputy, a primordial urge seized him instead: the urge to defend himself. “Eugene!” he cried out. “Did I ever tell you to kill somebody?”

“No,” de Kock replied. “But you gave me a medal when I killed them.”