Theissen, G. (1996). Between Acknowledgement and Ignorance: How white South Africans have dealt with the apartheid past. Research report based on a CSVR-public opinion survey conducted in March 1996.


by Gunnar Theissen
Brandon Hamber, Catherine Garson, Lauren Segal and Martin Terre Blanche

A research report based on a CSVR-public opinion survey, September 1997.

Gunnar Theissen is a former intern at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.  




Chapter 1: Dealing with the Past - A Political Culture Perspective
1.1 The Impact of Political Culture on the Consolidation of Democracy
1.2 The Function of Memory in Political Legitimacy
1.3 Dealing with the Past: A magic hexagon
1.4 Possible Impact of the Truth Commissions on White Political Culture

Chapter 2: Survey Research on Dealing with the Past in West Germany
2.1 Limits of the Comparison: South Africa - West Germany
2.2 Sources of Public Opinion Research in West Germany
2.3 Nuremberg in the Public View
2.4 Denazification
2.5 The Position of Former NS Office Bearers
2.6 Responsibility for the Outbreak of the Second World War
2.7 Change of Democratic Attitudes
2.8 Perceptions of the NS Regime
2.9 Views About Resistance Against the NS Regime
2.10 Perceptions with Regard to Victims and Attitudes Towards Compensation
2.11 Forgetting the Past
2.12 Attitude Change Through Media Broadcasts
2.14 The German Experience - What can be learnt?

Chapter 3: White Post-Apartheid Myths
3.1 Reasons for the Denial of Support for Apartheid
3.2 Support for Apartheid in General Elections
3.3 Attitudes of White South Africans Towards Repressive Acts
3.4 White Attitude Change in the 1980s

Chapter 4: Methodology of the CSVR Survey
4.1 Telephone Surveys Compared to Other Methods
4.2 Sampling and Respondent Selection
4.3 Response Rate
4.4 Sample Size and Error Margins
4.5 Socio-Economic Characteristics of the Sample
4.6 Questionnaire
4.7 Calculation of Indices

Chapter 5: Perceptions of the New South Africa
5.1 Attitudes Towards Policies to Promote Socio-Economic Justice
5.2 Racism and Racial Attitudes
5.3 Attitudes Towards Human Rights and Civil Liberties

Chapter 6: The TRC and Perceptions of the Past
6.1 Attitudes Towards Apartheid
6.2 Attitudes Towards the TRC, 1992-1995
6.3 Attitudes Towards the TRC, May 1996
6.4 Equalising Moral Differences: The struggle against apartheid and human rights violations
6.5 Acknowledging and Denying Responsibility
6.6 The Compensation of Victims and the Desire to Forget about the Past

Chapter 7: The 'Rainbow Generation' and the White Post-Apartheid Syndrome
7.1 The 'Rainbow Generation': A new political generation?
7.2 A White Post-Apartheid Syndrome?

Summary: Challenging the Apartheid Mind

Appendix A: Questionnaire the Apartheid Mind



It was an exciting pleasure to work with the staff of Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation who assisted me tremendously during my work-intensive stay in South Africa. I want to thank especially Brandon Harnber, Catherine Garson, Lauren Segal and Martin Terre Blanche for their time spent editing my "German" English. Without the encouragement and the support of my supervisors Prof. Peter Steinbach at the Department of Political Science of the Free University of Berlin and Prof. Gerhard Werle from Humboldt University in Berlin this text would probably not have been written. The Department of Political Science at the Free University of Berlin supported my work with a travel cost assistance in 1996, and the grant of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) allowed me to return to South Africa in 1997. Cheryl Africa (Institute for Democracy in South Africa - IDASA), Ian Hirschfeld and Diana Ehlers (Centre for Socio-political Analysis, HSRC) and Hanna Fourie(Market Research Africa) made interesting South African survey data available. I have to thank Tanya Samuels (CASE) for her very helpful comments on the questionnaire. I also well remember the friendly hospitality of Heike Spiegelberg, Catrin VerLoren Themat and Jean Knopperson during my stay in 1996. Last but not least I owe a lot of credit to Corinna Fischer and my parents for the multiple forms of support given to me.


In his show "Truth Omissions" well-known South African review artist Pieter-Dirk Uys wonders how apartheid could ever have happened, as hardly any white South Africans today admit to having ever supported it. It is as if the discriminatory legislation which characterised South Africa's past was enacted by a mysterious invisible hand and as if the illegitimate order was enforced by courts which had no magistrates, judges or public prosecutors. One wonders how a handful of security officers could have detained, tortured or killed some ten thousand South Africans; how 3.5 million people could have been uprooted by forced removals, with hardly anybody now willing to accept responsibility for the deed. Is it being forgotten or conveniently denied that the regime which implemented and entrenched apartheid, and ruled the country from 1948 to 1994, could only exist by virtue of the support of a majority of white South Africans since the general elections of 1958?

There is perhaps a positive aspect to this denial of support for the apartheid regime, namely that the majority of white South Africans no longer like to identify with the past order. However, the question remains to be answered whether they have really changed and deeply disassociated themselves from all aspects of apartheid practice and ideology.

This report examines the way ordinary people (Germans after 1945 and South Africans after 1994) deal with an authoritarian past. Not every white South African actively supported the apartheid regime - some were extremely critical of it, while a few actively opposed it. The same applies to the West German population. However, both these nations are confronted with the fact that some members of their society were allowed to participate in extreme violations of human rights while others passively looked on.

The report considers how the past is perceived by ordinary South African and German citizens; to what extent they accept the new political order and its democratic values; and how they react to institutions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which try to deal with and uncover the legacies of the past. Previously published survey data from Germany and South Africa is reviewed and new empirical findings are presented from a nation-wide telephone survey of 124 white South Africans. This survey was conducted in March 1996 by the author in cooperation with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) in Johannesburg.

In Chapter 1 of the report, the importance of democratic attitudes for the consolidation of a fledgling democracy is discussed. It is suggested that a particularly important political task in dealing with the past is the building of a human rights culture and the delegitimisation of the past authoritarian order. The chapter goes on to discuss how institutions like the Truth Commission affect the public's awareness of human rights and its perception of past human rights abuses.

Chapter 2 presents a review of the German experience. The way West Germans have reacted to the National Socialist (NS) past, the Nuremberg trials, and the issue of reparations illustrates that the transition to a new democratic order is a lengthy process and that a glib condemnation of white South Africans should be avoided. The fact that responsibility for past atrocities is often denied is not unsurprising. However, the German experience does show that how the past is remembered is of importance for a society. Forgetting past atrocities is not a solution, as it can sustain undemocratic traditions and attitudes as well as impede and slow down the democratisation of the political culture. West Germany has helped to generate some hypotheses about social and psychological factors which contribute to the way people deal with the past authoritarian order. These can, to an extent, be tested in the survey conducted in the South African context.

Chapter 3 examines the issue of collective responsibility. It shows that the apartheid regime was able to rely heavily on the support of the majority of white South Africans. Without this public support, it is unlikely that as many repressive acts would have taken place. This chapter also aims to dispel the myth that only a few white South Africans had been politically responsible for the continuity of authoritarian rule, racial discrimination and political repression. In addition, it provides a backdrop to the human rights attitudes of white citizens during the 1980s.

Chapter 4 details the methodology used for the CSVR survey. This is necessary for assessing the quality of the work as well as for drawing conclusions other than those presented in Chapter 5. It also integrates the outcomes of previously-conducted public opinion surveys which covered the Truth Commission. The sample sizes of these surveys were larger and they contained information on the views of Coloured, Indian and Black1 South Africans. They did not, however, include information on how attitudes about the past and the Truth Commission are related to other important opinions and beliefs.

The final three chapters stress two important findings of the survey which could stimulate further research. Firstly, young white South Africans show a markedly more positive attitude towards the new democracy (and are a more negative attitude towards the apartheid period) than do older white South Africans. There is therefore a distinct possibility that a new white political culture may emerge from this generation. Secondly, it is possible to detect among both young and old white South Africans a certain "white post-apartheid syndrome". The syndrome involves a desire to forget about the past, low human rights awareness, racist views, a denial of the right to compensation for apartheid victims, an unwillingness to undo the legacy of socio-economic injustice and a residual desire to glorify apartheid. How long it will take for a possible new white political culture to supersede the white post-apartheid syndrome remains to be seen.


1 As has become common practice in post-apartheid South Africa, these terms are used without quotation marks. This should not be construed as support for the idea of racial categories as anything more than social constructions.

Chapter 1

Copyright © 2021 CSVR. All Rights Reserved.