Sorry, But What Will We Do Now?


A Dutch version of this essay previously appeared in De Gids.


Awe mi ta pidi diskulpa.’ The 19th of December 2022 finally saw the delivery of the long-awaited apology for the Netherlands’ slavery past. ‘Today, I apologise’.

At the National Archives in The Hague—a poignant location for reasons that will become clear—our usually rather neoliberally-minded prime minister acknowledged the fact that the effects of ‘centuries of oppression and exploitation can still be felt today. In racist stereotypes. In discriminatory patterns of exclusion. In social inequality.’ In order to finally put an end to that inequality, so he urged the Dutch people, we must face the past ‘openly and honestly’. At last, the inescapable and long-awaited naming of historical facts, an apology for the centuries spent ignoring the damage caused by the exploitation and oppression of a myriad different population groups, was pronounced. Tide mi wani taki pardon.

There was also the element of confession that so often typifies the genre of the apology: ‘For a long time, I actually thought: the slavery past is history, and it is now behind us.’ However, so the prime minister admitted, he was wrong about that. For whereas some may say ‘let’s forget about it and march forward’, others have undeniably been shackled by the past. ‘I have come to learn how experiences, memories, and feelings can differ from one group to another, and from one person to another.’ Noted.

We may conceive of the prime minister primarily as a mouthpiece of the zeitgeist, rather than a consistent and passionate advocate of an inclusive society. Even so, the selection of the National Archives as the location for the event was an acknowledgement of the now globally accepted insight that prospects for a peaceful future can only be realised by reorientating the shadows of the national past. In this context, the archive undeniably embodies the wealth of knowledge that has thus far remained unused and unshared. Every closet harbours a potential revolution. Every box may offer up the need to rewrite national history, resulting in the need to revise our collective identity. Whether explosive or not, either way the archive stores a wealth of unexplored knowledge. For some, that treasure continues to shape their destiny to this day, whilst others would prefer to put away this labyrinth of documents as the unsympathetic relic of a bygone era (as did the prime minister, initially). In any case, the National Archives hold unprecedented power.


The right to be present in history and society self-evidently, rather than being either literally or figuratively erased, has been the driving force behind the emergence of transnational movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MonumentsMustFall. Via myriad events that have received global support, #BLM and other activist groups have made it clear that the symbolic absence of a given population group turns the actual presence of people from that group into an anomaly—something strange, perhaps even threatening. Being silent, so Derrida writes in his essay On Hospitality, is a modality of the ability to speak. This is precisely what Rutte seems to emphasise in his historic apology delivered at the National Archives. If a community is to welcome newcomers into its national history and wants them to participate in society as full citizens, this requires an effort at the level of speech, language, visual culture, and imagination.

As the prime minister had to admit, it is no longer acceptable to individualise economic and social inequality. Inequality emerges as the effect of age-old structures of stereotyping, marginalisation, and exclusion. This is evident from the National Archives as well as from wider social debate. Rutte himself confided that this is something he has only recently come to understand—sometimes unwillingly—from political activists, scholars, and artists. His thinking about the influence of the past on the present has changed profoundly: ‘I want to be open about that.’ However, the formal, institutional, and political recognition of past human rights violations, as well as the naming of, and grieving for, their effects on the present not only implicates the prime minister, but the entire nation state into a process of change. Eventually, all citizens will have to participate in that process; hence the by now legendary comma rather than full stop after the apology. Action is now required from all parties. How will we achieve that?

‘What are we going to do now that we are sorry?’ This is the question that the father of Melanie, a student of colour, puts to the white Professor Lury in John Coetzee’s Disgrace after having confronted Lury’s sexually transgressive behaviour towards his daughter. Lury seduced the student without having given it much conscious thought, after which he was forced to apologise. Now, there is work to be done. What are we going to do?

Rite de Passage

It is with good reason that, whilst listening to Rutte’s speech on the 19th of December 2022, I kept thinking of this passage in Coetzee’s concise yet impressive novel. It was especially that laconic question to which my mind kept returning: What are we going to do now that we are sorry? Coetzee published Disgrace in 1999, one year after the formal presentation of the Truth and Reconciliation Report to President Nelson Mandela. A winner of the Booker Prize, the novel could be read—amongst many other things—as an allegorical commentary on the deep-seated historical inequality in South Africa under apartheid and the attempt to come to terms with it through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Truth and reconciliation were conceived as inextricably linked: there could be no new future for the nation without knowledge of the past. In other words, before we can speak of post-apartheid, it first has to become clear what apartheid has meant and to whom.

For the perpetrators, in the context of the truth-telling process, saying sorry could be life-saving, as those who were willing to admit to their politically motivated mistakes could be granted amnesty. The idea was that through the possibility of granting amnesty rather than punishment for the offenders, more information about the past could be obtained. What had happened? Where is my husband, my son, my wife, my child? And indeed, histories did surface that would have otherwise remained obscured. Through the confessions of perpetrators, numerous relatives gained more clarity about what had happened to their loved ones, and where their bodies were buried. However, at the same time, the amnesty commission raised many ethical questions, upon which Coetzee reflects in Disgrace.

Apologising, recognising, and acknowledging that you were wrong is important, in the sense that is draws a clear line between right and wrong. The South African Truth Commission documented the human rights violations that occurred under apartheid in a 35,000-page report, and a large number of those responsible have now publicly apologised. It was concluded that, even though boundaries were crossed on both sides of the political spectrum, the South African state had to be identified as the main perpetrator. No one will ever be able to deny that gross human rights violations took place, and that those violations were legalised by the state. In a context of unspeakable suffering, saying sorry may seem futile. However, besides its function as a marker between right and wrong, in some non western languages, the word ‘sorry’ explicitly indicates a process of healing. In many cultures, saying sorry is part of a rite of passage, and it is this rite that is important. It is not the ending of a conflict, but the beginning of a process of repair. Hence, saying sorry is not the easily deployed and virtually meaningless gesture to which the word often refers in everyday language in many geopolitical contexts—as here in the Netherlands – a gesture that particularly serves the transgressor or the perpetrator. I said I am sorry, didn’t I? Have a beer. Let’s move on.

Nevertheless, in Coetzee’s story, Lury initially does not want to apologise, despite being willing to admit his guilt and accept the consequences. Driven by Eros, he has crossed a line—albeit one he was hardly aware of—and he does not want to pretend that this can be undone simply by saying sorry. Instead, he prefers to resign. He refuses the performative power of the word: I give you my word ‘sorry’, one should be grateful for this and in return I get off with a scare. Instead, Lury decides to turn his life around. Hereby, Coetzee asks his readership to consider that whilst the word ‘sorry’ offers a pragmatic solution to conflict, from an ethical perspective, it often misses the mark. Rather than inspiring empathy for the victim, publicly made apologies and confessions often have the effect of eliciting sympathy for the speaker. The more they grovel, the greater the empathy for those on the wrong side of history. Lury could have been forced to say sorry and move on to the order of the day. Instead, in the second half of Disgrace, Coetzee puts him through a disconcerting process that demonstrates he is not at all capable of empathising with the victim: whilst he is able to understand the background of other perpetrators of sexual misconduct, and hence can admit guilt in good conscience, the life of a girl of colour is completely alien to him. For Lury, the word ‘sorry’ remains a formula, a text without a referent. More important, therefore, is the question asked on behalf of the victim: What are we going to do now that we are sorry?

A personal confession (sorry, I was wrong) indeed risks primarily serving the interests of the perpetrator. Or, in other words, the effect of saying sorry often does not directly benefit the recipient. Rutte too, garnered much praise for his speech, and this was partly due to what he related about his own history of gaining awareness. To truly do justice to the effects of centuries of stereotyping and exclusion, other means are required. Hence the importance of the venue: the National Archives.

Nomuso Makhuba

When the researchers of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered their report to President Mandela, they emphasised the fact that behind each recorded testimony lurks a world of nuances and experiences. Those implications were not included in the report. It was impossible for the report to do justice to the complexity and detail of the material collected. The committee therefore stressed that the transcripts of the interrogations, the individual statements, the wealth of newspaper clippings and video material underlying the report, had all been handed over to the South African National Archives and that these materials were publicly available. The report’s record, with all its associated annexes and collected sources, is thus not an end, but rather a beginning: ‘This record will form a part of the national memory for generations yet to come.’ The Chair of the Commission, Desmond Tutu, also noted in the introduction to the report that the Committee’s research should be continued by others. A wealth of material had been collected. Now, it had to be further unlocked and supplemented.

In the years of transition that followed, Albie Sachs, one of the architects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and later a judge at the South African Constitutional Court, repeatedly emphasised that the implementation of sustainable change must explicitly involve the realm of the imagination and the arts. A new reality needs new images. Both established and lesser-known artists from all over the country were involved in the design of the new Constitutional Court. They were asked to work together on the question of how design, human rights, and the rule of law could be linked. The result of that effort is a Constitutional Court that is housed in a building in which aesthetics and truth-telling are intertwined and in which the memory of the past is linked to the experience of the present. In recent decades, this artistic working through of the past has generated a particularly politically engaged and vital South African art scene, with a new generation of artists who use the colonial archive as both their inspiration and source material.

Nomusa Makhubu, Asasibambe Ngani ? (Still Binding?) (2007-2013)
Digital print from archival litho paper
From the Self-Portrait (2007/2013) project.
© Nomusa Makhubu, courtesy of the artist.

For example, the work of the young artist Nomusa Makhubu demonstrates how the shackles of the past continue to haunt the present. In a series of self-portraits (2007-2013), she has worked her own image into colonial photographs. Allowing the archival material to shimmer through in her own transparent body, she visualises how much the free black South African citizen of today has been shaped by the horrors of the past.

For (former) political minorities and otherwise marginalised groups, the fact that the present and the past constantly bleed into one another, and that every individual life is always necessarily embedded within deeply entrenched (geo)political and social structures, is self-evident. After all, they experience the effects in the flesh, every single day. This is true in South Africa, and indeed, in every other country. Essentially, citizens who consider themselves to be less impacted by this—like our prime minister—reveal what it means to be seated in the centre of power. However, the condition of being embedded in destiny-determining structures is not the sole preservative of political minorities. It applies to everyone. Yet, in particular, underrepresented citizens are the ones asked to work tirelessly to correct the situation. There is no self-evident visual culture, no pre-given social structure that affords them a legitimate place or provides them with examples with which to best determine the next step, and where and when such a step should be taken. If you are in need of something that is not there, and you do not want to – metaphorically – drown, you will have to make it yourself. This takes courage and imagination. Creating what is not there, building a foundation under your own feet, mining the tradition that makes your presence self-evident, clearly takes both brains and brawn—work that Rutte did not have to do.

It is precisely this work, this creation of what is not there, that must now be shared. The whole nation must get to work. This much we can also conclude from Rutte’s speech when viewed through the lens of the TRC in South Africa. Means other than mere admissions of guilt and apologies are required in order to (continue to) do justice to experiences of oppression and violence, in a way that law and politics by their very nature are unable to deliver. Ultimately, it is about undoing the inequality that has resulted from the course of history. About working through the stories in the archives. About adding new information. About reinterpreting national history in museums and exhibitions. Rutte too, has come to understand that bringing about structural change in social relations and collective memory is pre-eminently the terrain of the imagination and the arts. Perhaps that is the most concrete message carried by the excuses made for slavery.

Rosemarie Buikema (1956) is a professor in Art, Culture, and Diversity at the University of Utrecht. She has written about the role that art plays in the implementation of political transition, and is the head of the research platform Moed.Online. Her most recent publications are Revolts in Cultural Critique (2020) and Cultures, Citizenship and Human Rights (2020).