You can never apologise to the dead

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Can an apology for slavery make up for anything? The American Congress has apologised for the actions of America in the slave trade from Western Africa. The 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery to the Jamestown Colony, coupled with a project from The New York Times called the “1619 Project,” has fueled the ongoing national debate over whether reparations can be given to descendants of slaves. Other countries face similar questions about their history

IN the current era, it has become trendy to “apologise”, for almost anything, which makes the person doing it feel good while not necessarily helping the injured party, who may even be long dead.

After a very long time, the British government this month expressed ‘regret’ that apparently, soon after explorer James Cook and his crew on the HMS Endeavour landed 250 years ago in the country that was to become New Zealand, they murdered some Maoris. This was documented in the diary of Joseph Banks, the expedition’s botanist.

Cook’s example is minuscule in scale compared to other historical atrocities. Entire indigenous peoples and modern nations are now demanding apologies and recompense for what was done hundreds of years ago. In some cases, this becomes ridiculous.

America has apologised to black Americans whose forebears were brought as slaves to what became the United States. The Atlantic slave trade began in 1619 with the arrival of enslaved Africans to the British colony of Virginia. Slavery officially ended in 1865 after the American Civil War, when Confederate soldiers of the Southern United States wanting to preserve slavery fought the Union from the north, resulting in 620,000 deaths. The Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the south in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

American politicians had demanded that the apology for slavery and Jim Crow be made since the government had apologized for the internment of Japanese citizens during World War Two, and for atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The World War Two bombs immediately devastated their targets and over the next two to four months, the effects killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000 and 80,000 people in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day.

An extreme example of national guilt is the actions of Germany in World War Two. Not all Germans regret that entire communities of Jews in Germany and elsewhere were obliterated through Nazi policy, amounting to 6 million, and alarmingly neo-Nazis are on the rise again. As a government, however, Germany has officially apologised and has made serious attempts to compensate Jews and eradicate anti-Semitism.

On a more politically complex level in South Africa, black people warrant an apology from whites for European colonialism and apartheid. But given the society’s diverse nature, from whom exactly would such an apology come? And who among blacks would have the authority to receive it? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 tried to lay the ground for reconciliation by allowing perpetrators to tell the truth about what they had done, in front of the injured party, but it only partially succeeded. Many of the true devils of apartheid, such as the people responsible for the deaths of anti-apartheid activists such as Ahmed Timol, Steve Biko, Neil Aggett and David Webster, for instance, slipped through loopholes.

In Southern Africa, a numerically small example of injury against a people is the San, the earliest inhabitants of the region. The San’s demise occurred during the last few hundred years, from the impact of colonialism from the 17th century onward, when they were enslaved and sometimes exterminated. But apologising to them would be an empty act to no-one’s benefit.

One could go through the whole world’s history, finding examples of different peoples taking over and destroying others. Insincere moral grandstanding about this, however, is dangerous and too easy. Cynics might say that the complex human society is inherently prone to those sort of troubles, and that humans are not actually programmed to live at peace with each other.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:

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