Indigenous people apologise to White farmer: could this be a pivotal moment?

Dr Ruben Richards

Dr Ruben Richards reflects on the spiritual significance of an event he witnessed last week when members of the Citrusdal Khoisan community washed the feet of a White commercial farmer, Tobias Basson and apologised to him for their racism towards Whites. Twelve years earlier, after he accepted Jesus at a Mighty Men Conference in Greytown, the Clanwilliam farmer apologised to his workers on his knees and washed some of their feet. Basson started a ministry with his workers and later launched a farming mission in Uganda linked to a Bible school run by his local church

Khoisan leader Charles Muggel washes the feet of farmer Tobias Basson in the Elandskloof community hall last Thursday as another member of the community prays for him, and his business partner, Dr Ruben Richards, right, watches.

I suspect that the feet-washing ceremony which took place on Thursday July 5 at Elandskloof, will eventually be remembered as a significant day in the much prayed and hoped for turnaround journey of South Africa, 27 years after democracy and freedom.

It was a sunny winter’s day with clear blue skies, a few scattered clouds and a slight chill in the breeze blowing through the Cederberg mountains. A group of elders (over 70-year-old males and females) were brought together by Abre Hector, a child of Elandskloof as well as a Khoisan and Christian leader. The gathering of the Elandskloof elders took place in a dilapidated community hall adjacent to a derelict, vandalised and unusable church building. Also invited were myself and Tobias Basson, my business partner. We are commercial citrus and vegetable farmers in the Olifants River Valley (Clanwilliam) just over an hour’s drive from the Elandskloof settlement.

The feet-washing ceremony took place in the once fertile, but now forsaken settlement called Elandskloof located in the Cederberg Mountains, just beyond and above Citrusdal en route to Ceres. The settlement covers more than 3 000 hectares, including assets such as fruit orchards, mountain fynbos, grazing areas, residential dwellings, primary school, parsonage, cemetery, shop and is occupied by about 117 households.

These Khoisan leaders, led by Abre, humbled themselves, literally went on their knees, washed and anointed with oil the feet of the oldest female, Aletta Titus (80 years old) and those of Tobias Basson, my business and spiritual partner, a white Afrikaner farmer. The feet-washing ceremony was accompanied by some profound acts of humility, confession, singing, prayer, asking of forgiveness and expressions of new vision for a better South Africa.

Interestingly, and spontaneously, and just as we arrived at Elandskloof, Abre enquired if Tobias would be prepared to “stand-in” and represent all white people, but particularly the farming community, as part of a feet-washing ceremony. Tobias, although taken aback, cautiously and in a spirit of obedience, agreed to be the designated vessel to represent the white community with particular reference to the farming community.

A younger-generation leader washes the feet of Aletta Titus, 80

The 80-year grandmother, Aletta Titus, represented the “lost” generation whose hopes and aspirations of a better life were not realised in her lifetime because of the mismanagement of the Elandskloof restitution process. Interestingly, Mrs Aletta Titus was a breeder of white doves and in 1996, as part of the restitution process, she released into the air her white doves as an act of praise and thanks for the return of the land.

The site location, Elandskloof, has a deep significance, being one of the first successful land restitution claims in South Africa, awarded as far back as 1996. The original residents, who were people of colour (classified by apartheid as Coloured people) were initially forcibly removed (evicted) in 1962 as a result of apartheid’s land policies. Then in 1996, a Land Claims Court judgement ordered the return of the Elandskloof land to its original and rightful owners.

Blessing or curse?
Unfortunately, and tragically, the Elandskloof restitution project was a failure and this land remains largely underdeveloped and underutilised 25 years after being handed over to its original owners. This, then, is the context, and the sociopolitical and physical environment in which the feet washing ceremony took place and one is confronted with the question as to whether the land restitution at Elandskloof was a blessing or a curse.

Tobias and I sat next to each other as honoured guests along the wall and next to the stage. We had entered what one would call a praise and worship session imbued with prayer, song, and foot tapping by the aged audience who could not dance per se.

The purpose of the gathering was to enable the younger generation to go on their knees before the elders of the community and ask forgiveness for the neglect and, dare I insert, gross mismanagement of Elandskloof to the detriment of the aged. So much hope and aspirations were invested in the Elandskloof land restitution process and all those dreams have come to nought.

A future of unity between SA race groups
The attention then turned to Tobias, as representative of White people in general and White farmers in particular. The young leaders directed their apology to Tobias, asking forgiveness for the racism of the indigenous people and their descendants, namely Coloured people, towards White people. I listened carefully as this younger generation articulated their understanding of a future characterised by unity between all race groups in our diverse South Africa.
The act of forgiveness and subsequent blessing spoken over Tobias had a deep spiritual significance. This is the first time that this group of indigenous people asked forgiveness from White people, it seems. Normally, it’s the other way around with White people expected to say sorry for the wrongs of apartheid and atrocities of previous generations.

Of course, there are other such ceremonies taking place elsewhere in South Africa – almost as if there is movement underway, indeed a revival of unity and togetherness, within the body of South Africa.

We are a deeply wounded nation and we need help and support to heal. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where I served as executive secretary, was the initial bridge between our traumatic past and our dreams for a better future together. We, no doubt, have a long way to go in achieving our dreams. Like many, I remain frustrated by the slow pace of change in our country and the gross neglect and incompetence on the part of our elected leaders.

But at the same time, I am disappointed at how tolerant and passive we have become as citizens – allowing our elected leaders to run our country into the ground. These are the two sides to our story. We must all take responsibility.

Could it be that this feet washing ceremony in Elandskloof is meant to serve as a catalyst and a model (or perhaps a necessary step) for what is required if we are going to see a reborn country. What it showcased was a brave generation of indigenous leaders not ashamed to ask their elders forgiveness and also not ashamed to ask forgiveness from those who are easy to hate, namely Afrikaner farmers. After all, they (i.e., the Afrikaner farmers), more than any other group have benefitted from apartheid’s land policies and are the ones sitting with our productive land.

Tragically, yet with tear-filled eyes, heads in our hands and bowed in shame, we the people of colour, having been given back the land in an orderly fashion and without bloodshed, were unable to put the land to good use. I am reminded of the indictment issued by the landowner in the parable of the talents in Gospel of Matthew chapter 25 as told by the Lord Jesus Christ. We will do well to re-read that parable.

There are many lessons to extract from the Elandskloof feet-washing ceremony and I am sure it will be the subject of ongoing reflection and discussion. I invite you to celebrate the moment and to recommit to tirelessly working toward the birthing of a more healed and super productive South Africa – free of entitlement, filled with enthusiasm and appreciation for each other, and the love for and of productive work.


Writer: Dr Ruben Richards (PhD, UCT) – commercial farmer, author, nation-builder
Email ruben@namakwalandsitrus.com
For more information about Ruben see: www.rrf.org.za or www.rubenrichards.co.za

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4 Comments

  1. Lydia Richards

    What a truly humbling and necessary act of reconciliation. It can only be for the betterment of relations and relationships amongst all parties

  2. What a beautiful story of hope in our divided country.

  3. Thank you for this heartwarming & generous account of a truly remarkable event, where past sorrows & whether wrongdoing or hurt & shaming could be set aside for forgiveness & moving forward to take place.
    I recall as a young child, then a child in ‘junior’ school not being permitted to sit on the backseat of the bus with my ‘nanny’. She however consoled me by taking my hand & we walked home together. Then, I didn’t understand the implications. It was a truly sad time in our history. We can but hope that the lessons learnt will be put to good practice for how on the road less traveled we may find our way back to unity with humility. We do after all consider ourselves to be a Christian nation.
    May this community find their way into a new future, not according to human principles, rather according to God’s purposes. Nothing is ever finished until God’s stamp is on it. May this community flourish in every endeavour they take.

  4. This is the beginning of a wonderful spiritual awakening in answer to many prayers, may God grant that this humbling but joyful experience will spread through our country like a wild fire, this is the only answer for us.