“Frank, please would you allow me to wash your feet?”
Frank Chikane was one of apartheid’s targets, and Adriaan Vlok was South African apartheid government’s most notorious police minister. When Vlok became a believer, things changed. Riveting story:
Vlok began to quake. As he realized what he was about to do, all the loathing and feelings of superiority inculcated in him since boyhood suddenly rose to the surface. “I’d grown up thinking it should be the other way around: that blacks should be serving whites,” he thought to himself. Waves of physical disgust at the thought of touching Chikane’s toes surged through him.
Fortunately, he had anticipated his own weakness and prepared an explanatory message for the moment, in case he couldn’t find the words to speak. He’d written it on the front flyleaf of a Bible. It read: “I HAVE SINNED AGAINST THE LORD AND AGAINST YOU! WILL YOU FORGIVE ME?” Silently, he handed the Bible to Chikane, pulled a rag and bowl out of his briefcase, slid off the chair onto his knees, and bowed his head. Finally, stutteringly, he asked Chikane, “Frank, please, would you allow me to wash your feet?”
Chikane sat back in his chair, and in his confusion, he laughed. “But why would you want to do that?”
“I must humble myself before you,” Vlok murmured. “For what we did, for what we were trying to do.”
Chikane’s grin vanished. “I can see you are really serious,” he said. He leaned forward in his chair, removed his shoes, and peeled off his black socks. With a quivering hand, Vlok took a glass of water off Chikane’s desk, poured it into the basin, sprinkled it onto Chikane’s naked toes, and dried them carefully with the rag. And then both men dissolved into tears.
Vlok’s transformation began when some men from the Gideons invited him to dinner.
The TRC had just informed him it would call him up to testify about his time as police chief, and he worried the association would cast disgrace on the group. “I said, ‘I have got a bad history. Horrible stories will come out!’”
“And they said, ‘Look at the Bible. Moses killed a person, and the Lord used him. David committed adultery, and he killed people, and the Lord used him. Do you still say no?’ So I joined them.”
As a believer, he began to read the Bible twice daily: the Old Testament in the morning and the New in the evening.
But one particular passage from the book of Matthew caught his attention. He found himself returning to it over and over, increasingly troubled. At the café, he flipped to the passage for me and began to read aloud. It was from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “If you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple,” Jesus says, “and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Only then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”
Vlok snapped the Bible closed. “I realized,” he said, “I had to start making peace with my brother whom I had hurt.”
Unsurprisingly, his actions have been controversial:
When the news of his foot-washing episode went public after Chikane talked about it in a sermon, Vlok became not an Afrikaner hero but an object of withering hate and contempt. One white op-ed writer called Vlok “ridiculous”; another, a “quivering dog.” An Afrikaner friend of mine pronounced him a “traitor.”
In 2007, a prominent Afrikaner comedian named Pieter-Dirk Uys opened his one-man revue with a parody of Adriaan Vlok. Sporting a replica of Vlok’s signature geeky glasses, Uys trudged out onstage hunched over and clutching a dirty rag, then walked into the audience and made to pull off an audience member’s shoes. He did it all silently: Before his predominantly white audience, there was no need to say a word; the ridiculousness of Vlok’s action spoke for itself.
Black South Africans have responded with suspicion at times, too. “It’s not entirely of symbolic coincidence,” T. O. Molefe, a political essayist said, “that, when he washed his victims’ feet, he washed his own hands, too.”
Clearly, however, Vlok’s actions are not in an effort to pay for his sins but in response to a price Someone else has paid. “After I die, yes, yes, the Lord will sit in judgment,” he told the reporter. “But Jesus will be there next to me. If anyone accuses me, He will say: ‘But I already paid the price.’ ”