Letter from Africa: Is sorry ever enough?

A woman consoles a 22-year-old man during the 20th anniversary commemoration of the 1994 genocide at Amahoro Stadium7 April 2014 in Kigali, Rwanda It has been painful for those remembering the genocide at memorial events in Rwanda this week

In our series of letters from African journalists, filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers the nature of apologies, as Africa marks 20 years since the Rwandan genocide and the end of white minority rule in South Africa.

Sorry, the pop songs tell us, is the hardest word - but is it ever enough?

Libyan television showed Saadi Gaddafi in his blue prison uniform the other day, clean-shaven and looking well.

The authorities were keen to dispel rumours that the 40-year-old - who led a colourful life as a son of the great dictator - had been abused in prison.

Saadi Gaddafi, the third son of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi pictured in 2005 Saadi Gaddafi, pictured here in 2005, was known for his short Italian football career and playboy lifestyle
Saadi Gaddafi, son of the late Muammar Gaddafi, is seen inside a prison in Tripoli having his head shaved in this handout photograph provided by the prison's relations department on 6 March 2014 Saadi, pictured here after being taken into Libyan custody, was extradited from Niger earlier this month

He told the camera: "I apologise to the Libyan people, and I apologise to the dear brothers in the Libyan government for all the harm I've caused and for disturbing the security and stability of Libya."

There was no immediate indication that the "dear brothers in the Libyan government" would consider this adequate redress for the millions allegedly taken away by the former commander of Libya's Special Forces and former head of the Libyan Football Federation - but chances are they would not.


Start Quote

Farai Sevenzo

South Africans, though, always seem to be expecting Mr Zuma to apologise”

End Quote Farai Sevenzo

As we venture into April with all its anniversaries of history's gruesome moments - Rwanda 1994 or South Africa's removal of her apartheid yoke - how are we to understand the word "sorry" these days and more importantly does it count for anything at all?

The steady stream of Africans appearing at the International Criminal Court (ICC) ignores the central theme of our African atrocities - that it is the little people, the men and women on the streets and in the hills of our villages who take the business of killing very personally.

The events in the Central African Republic (CAR) have thrown up disturbing images of Christians targeting Muslims in revenge attacks.

Young men have filled our news screens to happily declare that they want to kill, have killed and will kill again.

African Union peacekeepers have been keeping a kind of peace where the Christians have refused to turn the other cheek and the UN has warned of the prospect of serious long-lasting conflict in the CAR.

As we remember Rwanda's genocide, CAR reminds us that we have been here before - that the early warning alarms are ringing loud and clear and that sooner or later we shall hear the politicians convening truth and reconciliation commissions and the murdering Christians may have to say sorry not just in the confession box.

But will it help?

Young people with machetes patrol in their district in Bangui, CAR, on 12 March 2014 The AU peacekeepers have been unable to stop all the revenge attacks in CAR this year

Collectively we all expect to hear the word sorry.

A sorry from the great war-mongers of our times would not erase the wars, but it is expected.

'Toxic concoction'

And so, as we remember the 1994 genocide, we are reminded about who has and has not apologised over the world's failure to stop the killings.

In an interview over the weekend, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame mentioned "the direct role of Belgium and France" in the "political preparation for genocide" and repeated his claim that France did more than just "not having done enough to save lives during the genocide".

Prisoners in Rwanda pictured on 2 December 2003 waiting to be transferred to attend a gacaca court session in relation with the 1994 genocide. Rwandan genocide suspects who apologised at community courts were then released

France rejected such complicity, with a former prime minister saying the country took "the initiative to organise a humanitarian operation to prevent widespread massacres".

The fall-out has been such that the French presidency at first suggested a boycott of Rwanda's 20th genocide memorial, then suggested they would be represented by their ambassador, only for that ambassador to say he had been barred from the ceremony.

Apologies though, belong to the victims not to the victor - and there is a silent chapter in Rwanda's history that claims President Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) troops killed thousands, including peacekeepers, in their pursuit of power and peace and that group of souls is too easily erased from his own narrative - accusations denied by Mr Kagame.

SA presidents: Private home spending

Mr Zuma's Nkandla residence in 2013 - satellite image
  • PW Botha: $16,100
  • FW de Klerk: $22,000
  • Nelson Mandela: $2.9m on two residences
  • Thabo Mbeki: $1.1m
  • Jacob Zuma: $23m on rural Nkandla residence

All figures in 2013 financial terms

Source: Public protector report

Over in South Africa, where the country marks 20 years of democratic rule this month, President Jacob Zuma is about to go back to his country and ask for another term in office.

And like all second-term presidents, the gloss has well and truly dimmed from his presidency and scandal after scandal hounds him.

South Africans, though, always seem to be expecting Mr Zuma to apologise - for his past, his friends, his lovers, his money, his way of governance.

Perhaps they have a taste for apologies following their Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated human rights abuses carried out during the apartheid era and granted amnesty to those who showed remorse.

Just the other week Mr Zuma was told that the millions of public money spent on security upgrades to his rural homestead in Nkandla could not be entirely justified and that he had to pay back some of the money spent on the swimming pool, the chicken enclosure and the amphitheatre.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela went further in her report on Nkandla: "The manner in which the Nkandla Project was administered and implemented gave me the impression of a toxic concoction of a lack of leadership, a lack of control and focused self-interest."

But those expecting an apology from the South African president may have a long wait - he has referred the whole matter to the Special Investigation Unit, leaving the nation to tuck into his latest dilemma as they prepare to go to the polls.

Apologies are very personal pleas for forgiveness between individuals.

When they are expressed we expect them to be wholesome and sincere - otherwise they never really stick.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    On another page on this BBC website is an article entitled "Rwanda genocide: 'Domino effect' in DR Congo". It riddled with distortions and half truths and there is no journalist named as author. Why?

    Since when was the BBC set up to peddle propaganda? Who wrote the article? Rwandans are voiceless on this website, many readers will know little of the truth.

    This is disgraceful journalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Forgiveness & apologies can only be effective in an atmosphere of trust & honesty. Rwanda is doing the best it can, not perfectly for sure.

    For those on the outside, our judgements are best served by honesty too. The RPF did not massacre 1000s - unless the bodies were removed in a spaceship.

    France did train Habyarimana's presidential guard. France did assist in the training of Interhamwe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    ref #39

    so calling out South African leaders for their racism is against house rules.

    good to know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Mr Sevenzo.

    What is this "silent chapter in Rwanda's history"? Who wrote this chapter & what was their evidence?

    The (RPF) "killed thousands". Really? In what context? Are you claiming massacres? Prove it.

    As for killing "peacekeepers" what rubbish. Hutu extremists killed 10 Belgian peacekeepers & the world new of it. How would the RPF kill them & it be kept secret in a "silent chapter"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Where's the evidence that "President Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front troops killed thousands"?

    It would be impossible to hide the evidence. Where are the remains? They have never been shown because they do not exist.

    This accusation against Kagame & the RPF is a pathetic smoke screen to confuse people to turn the genocide into a 'tit for tat' act of shared savagery. It wasn't. Stop lying.


Comments 5 of 44


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