Former law and order minister Adriaan Vlok’s recent request for forgiveness from Frank Chikane, director-general of the Presidency, by washing the reverend’s feet, has attracted widespread media attention – mostly because it is an extraordinary symbolic act.
Some even find it bizarre in this day and age.
But what exactly is the religious meaning of this biblical gesture, and how does Vlok himself understand it? When he visited Chikane at the Union Buildings, the one-time apartheid hawk handed the reverend a Bible with the message “I have sinned against the Lord and against you, please forgive me (John 13.13)” on its cover. During the visit, he and Chikane talked about the significance of washing someone else’s feet.
“It is about giving up my pride, my own self, my superiority, my uncharitable attitude and selfishness,” he explains.
“Through my life I set a bad example for many people. Today I am deeply humbled and grateful for the opportunity, after the example of my saviour Jesus Christ, to set a better example to others.”
The 69-year-old former police minister says that the scriptures in John 13, verse 15, is what gave meaning to his act.
Here, Jesus knelt down and washed his disciple Peter’s feet at the Last Supper. Peter, one of Jesus’ most affectionate disciples, denied the Lord at the 11th hour. Peter initially objected, but Jesus – even with prior knowledge of Peter’s betrayal -warned the disciple he would have “no part in Him” if he didn’t allow his feet be washed.
The lesson within this scripture is just as Jesus humbled himself to Peter, so we must humble ourselves to one another.
Vlok says he has thought deeply about his actions during apartheid, and carried the burden of sin against his fellow man for years.
But it was only when he read a column by Pretoria pastor …. in Beeld on July 3, referring to Jesus’ foot washing ritual, and later saw an article in a biblical book called ‘Saam met Petrus op Pad’, also referring to it, that it became clear what he had to do.
Fortuitously, Vlok also heard a sermon by Rev Willie Goosen on RSG radio, also referring to this scripture, the day before Rev Chikane’s office summoned him to come.
“All the pointers were there,” he smiles. He got a copy of the New Testament and wrote his message to Chikane, then packed a small basin, two towels and drove to Rev Chikane’s office, where the ritual took place.
It was an opportunity, he says, to do what Jesus did and “abandon superiority, abandon egoism, not put myself first”.
“I hurt people to enforce Apartheid, I know, but what was the kernel of the sin of Apartheid?” he asks rhetorically.
“I resolved that it was lack of love. Love your neighbour as you would love yourself. We did not do that. I loved myself more, and that’s why I was living with such anxiety until now.”
The act of washing Chikane’s feet served to “get rid of lovelessness for my fellow human beings”, he says, adding: “We live in a ‘me me me’ world. I say get rid of it. Humble yourself.”
Vlok has since been overwhelmed by the reaction to his gesture, and the reconcilliations and discussions it has sparked.
But he understands it as God’s way of using this event, however derided, for the greater good.
“I’ll never forget a saying I heard at school. ‘A Christian in small things is no small Christian,” Vlok smiles. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” – Heartlines Features.
By Helen Grange