A pretty young woman raises her hand for the fifth time. She has waited patiently while the more aggressive members disobeyed the rules and spoke out of order. The judge finally calls on her, the only black woman in the room.

“I wanted to say,” she begins, then swallows. She takes a deep breath. “I wanted to say that it is—so hard being the only one coming here and being the only one—” and she bursts into tears.

The reactions from the white audience are supportive.

“Preach on, sister!” a woman shouts.

The young woman, who we’ll call Helena, nods. Others offer their words of encouragement, and she composes herself. Finally, she speaks: “It is so hard being the only one. I have friends who would want to come here. Friends who would want to join. But they can’t pay the membership fees. The location—is too far from the taxi rank. So many good friends who would love to be outdoors, but who never will have a chance.” She breaks down again.

The event is occurring in Cape Town, South Africa. This is not the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the political compromise that let the beneficiaries of apartheid off the hook and gave victims an opportunity to confront wrongdoers. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is nowhere to be found and, indeed, the Arch probably knows nothing of what is going on here. There are no politicians or psychologists present, and the proceedings are presided upon by an off-duty judge of the national appellate court.

This is the Mountain Club of South Africa’s open meeting to decide about how to apologize for its discriminatory policy during apartheid. So far, the discussion has been lively. The old guard have squared off and complained about the waste of their time. Some young progressives have firmly demanded a blanket apology. A white woman has widened the scope of the conversation to include an apology for discrimination against gender and disabilities. (She wears a pacemaker and was not allowed to go on certain hikes). And it was all proceeding in a germane fashion until Helena got up and actually displayed real emotion.

A disabled woman’s husband, wearing a wide mustache and a serious look, raises his hand.

“Go ahead,” the judge says.

“I want to say,” the man begins. “That I went to a meeting once in Khayelitsha, and I was the only white man in a room full of five hundred black people. I know exactly how you feel.”

He sits down with a nod as people shuffle in their seats. An old codger with a cane raises his hand and gets up before the judge calls upon him.

“I’ve been to New York, San Francisco, London, Rome, and China, and it is the same. The Chinese don’t want to be with the Japanese. The Italians and the French. It is the same.”

Tinie Versfeld, the first mountain club member to call for an apology, shuffles uncomfortably in the seat next to mine. He is white, forty-six, and a wiry climber who continues to open challenging rock-routes throughout the country. He is drinking a long-neck lager from Namibia.

“My God,” he whispers to me. “This is appalling.”

And just like many things, he and the other folks are all correct. The man who braved the Khayelitsha meeting in a black township ‘set aside’ and then deliberately neglected by the apartheid regime probably was uncomfortable at that meeting. The old codger is right that people discriminate all over the globe. And Tinie is right that it is appalling to see these opinions expressed in the face of a heartfelt plea by a young black woman. How does one choose between these multiple truths? Which one takes precedence? Tinie has his ideas.

“Why can’t they just bloody apologize?” he mutters. “This is awful.”

The Mountain Club of South Africa has been around since 1892. It has featured some of South Africa’s most prominent citizens, like the consummate statesman Jan Smuts.

“The attraction of the mountains for us,” Smuts said in a memorial to the club in 1923, “points to something significant and deep in our natures.”

Looking around the room, one can see that the members have an intimate connection to the country that most, like Helena’s friends, have never known. Wide topographical maps deck the walls. There are a variety of climbing books and guides that are available at the gift shop. Many of the members have climbed all over Southern Africa, from the famed, crackling Drakensbergs and the Ledge at Table Mountain to the wind-swept deserts of Namibia. The more affluent – and there are many such members – have graced the Rockies, the Dolomites, and the Himalayas.

These are athletic, fresh-air types who hit the trail at break-neck pace in one of the most biologically diverse areas of the planet. The local plant species, called fynbos, has been deemed one of the world’s six floral kingdoms, possessing over 8,600 species. Cape Town’s Table Mountain offers more than 1,500 species in an area of just 57 square kilometers. “There is beauty in fynbos,” writes botanist Richard Cowling, “and to experience it you have to get in close, to browse among the bushes and discover the rich variety of flowers.”

The club maintains lodging huts in select climbing and hiking locations throughout the country.

“I’m joining for the access,” aspiring member Kristi Meyer explains one day in a climbing gym. And this point, of access, and of the denial of access to people of color, is partly why the the club organized the meeting to apologize.

Back at the meeting, another member raises his hand. The off-duty judge munificently calls upon him.

“I joined the club in 1963,” the man explains. “There may have been a policy before I came, but since I joined, I never saw one. Since 1963 I can swear to you that there was no policy of racialism.”

One senses that the meeting will fall apart if no one admits to anything.
Eventually someone says that Jewish members were not allowed until the 1950s. There is agreement that some white farmers would not let members on their land if they brought black, or coloured, or Indian people in the group. This admission is significant because a wide swathe of prime climbing land was, and still is, controlled by white farmers. A call goes round for investigations into specific instances of discrimination.

“I’ll admit it,” one man stands up. “I joined the club knowing that people of color could not go onto some farmland. I joined the club knowing that I would be able to go onto the land and they could not.”

There are murmurs.

“But,” he adds, “I was a school teacher in a township. I spent everyday uplifting blacks from their poverty. I did my part and wanted to get out into the mountains.”

The man has said what everyone else has tried to say. Individually, many of the old members can likely look back on their Mountain Club experience and absolve themselves of most overt acts of discrimination. Individually, they each gave a coin to the black beggar at the intersection, built a latrine in a township, or gave their maid a Christmas bonus. Some may have done more in the club by offering outreach to communities on the Cape Flats.

And that is the trouble with large, societal injustice. Every person can rationalize their behavior by pointing to specific instances of altruism that cut against the grain. In The Theatre of Violence, a recent study of protagonists of apartheid, psychologist Don Foster found that such accounts usually depict the government in a negative way, thereby creating a positive view of the perpetrator.

“We are not talking about individual behavior,” a member explains as others offer similar individualistic justifications. “We are talking about the Mountain Club.”

“We are talking about the Cape Town branch of the Mountain Club,” another clarifies.

The club does not endorse an official religion. The 1942 journal listed safety, compiling maps, and “preventing the practice of rolling stones down the mountain slopes” as among its key tenets. Nor does the club explicitly endorse a political party. This too was typical of South Africa. Rarely did organizations officially endorse apartheid. The most frightening characteristic of the regime, in which 20,000 blacks were killed during the late 80s and early 90s alone, is that there are so few records. Orders were given in code language. Paper trails ended at the shredder. The Mountain Club was similar.

“There was never any written rule that said non-white members were not allowed,” explains Tristan Firman, a young officer of the club’s General Committee. “It was enforced by the people who held office.” This was one of the primary benefits of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that some of the unwritten truths had to come out, but many acts of apartheid in civil society, as opposed to politics, were never aired. Firman supported an in-depth club exposé of the club’s practices for these reasons – he felt an apology might just cover things up again.

Sitting in the room beneath a map of the local mountains, one gets a sense for how the discrimination could happen.

The Mountain Club is a weekend organization. The members head up to the mountains for exercise or to escape the hustle-bustle of daily life. “And so we came back to our daily tasks,” wrote the editor of the 1909 journal after an expedition, “sweeter and stronger for our breath of mountain air, and richer by our memories of jolly comradeship on krantz and slope”. Their political life, if they have one at all, occurs at the voting booth, at the job, on the news, or on the way to work. During leisure time they just want to relax and get out and climb that granite route. Few people have the energy to actively politicize every aspect of their lives.

Apartheid was effective because it allowed people to go to the mountains and deny the politicized nature of hiking on a trail on which no people of color were allowed. As Eugene De Kock, one of apartheid’s most vicious henchmen, related to psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela:

Whites say they didn’t know, but did they want to know? As long as they were safe and they had their nice houses and their second cars and their third cars and their swimming pools and kids at good government schools and university, they had no problem.

The 1948 club journal does not mention the National Party’s 1948 rise to power. The 1960 issue offers no thoughts on the Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 blacks were massacred, and instead features articles about climbing technology and the evolution of mountain zebras. Meanwhile, the club received direct funding from the government for its sporting activities.

So, did such an apolitical brai-ing (barbecuing) group really make things worse during apartheid? Ervin Staub, a psychologist who fled Nazi Germany, has spent his life examining what makes ordinary people do ‘evil’ and ‘good’ deeds. He has found that bystanders can passively encourage perpetrators. Silence may be interpreted as implicit approval of heinous actions. What you do on the weekend is being watched, in other words, by those who run things during the week. The club was clearly such an organization.

But caution is also required in summarily judging the club from on “high”. The truth was not always self-evident during apartheid. The regime in which the Mountain Club operated did a good job of making each situation complicated. While some folks endorsed or turned a blind eye to the unofficial club policies, others may genuinely not have known.

Ultimately, the Mountain Club members did not get together during those many decades to discuss psychology or politics. They joined the club to get outdoors. And that is maybe why they are talking about apologizing, rather than structural and political causes of discrimination.

As the meeting goes on, some members argue that apologizing is too strong a word. The club did, after all, rescue black and white members in distress indiscriminately. One man who is, oddly, one of the first Jewish members, supports putting in this qualification. Others were not even members until after apartheid so apologizing makes them feel culpable for something they never played a part in. “I have a different belief system from my ancestors,” climber Kristi Meyer complains, “why should I apologize?”

Tinie Versfeld gets up, to no one’s surprise. He called for the apology. He is also principled and good natured, the kind of guy you would want to get arrested with; or perhaps you would want to get lost on a trail with him. He speaks passionately. “This is ridiculous,” he says. “Why are we so afraid of apologizing? It is the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong with the word apology. We must just apologize.” He sits down and people stop griping about the word.

His older brother Dirk stands up now that the discussion has become productive again. “We must remember that apologizing is part of a process,” he explains. “Apologizing means we must wait for them to forgive us. We must ask for their forgiveness.”

The question that now springs to everyone’s lips is ‘who’? How do you apologize to a community of strangers that you may never meet, or that may have never wanted to join your club? (As a friend of mine says, “blacks don’t like the outdoors. They have to walk every day to work. Why would they want to do it on their day off?”) Furthermore, why would they listen? How would they be reached? And it becomes apparent that apologizing is not as simple as it seems.

One reason why apology is complicated is that, coming from a person of greater power, it necessarily puts the perpetrator at the victim’s whim. By apologizing, the perpetrator must await forgiveness, and this may not be offered for any manner of reasons.

“Apology requires remorse,” Professor Gobodo-Madikizela explains at an academic debate at the University of Cape Town. For true forgiveness the apology must show a ‘speech act’ that the remorse is genuine. Qualifying an apology cheapens it, and takes away from its genuineness. Expecting forgiveness also sullies the process by keeping the power in the hands of the perpetrator. A perpetrator must make the apology in a genuine manner with no strings attached or feeling of entitlement.

“I want the apology to be sincere,” club officer Tristan Firman explains, “and I have empathy for the people who suffered. But it is difficult for me to be sincere because I was too young and didn’t do anything.”

There have been other outdoor clubs in South Africa that people of color could join. Children from the famous slum of District Six scrambled all over nearby Table Mountain before the neighborhood was razed to the ground. The Cape Province Club, founded in the early 1930s, provided access to non-whites. The South African Climbers Club sprang up in the 1970s to promote non-racial climbing and mountaineering and featured some of South Africa’s best climbers, but folded from a lack of funding. Today, the Hikers Network, a predominantly Muslim group, offers climbing and hiking to non-whites. But the existence of other options by no means leaves the Mountain Club off the hook. Especially not a club that commanded so many resources and acquired exclusive access to premier hiking and climbing locations in South Africa.

And it is especially important to commend the fact that anyone showed up to the meeting at all. “The club’s apology is noble in a lot of ways,” the young black woman, Helena, explains later by telephone. “There are lots of whites who never apologized for anything. A good thing is happening.” In 2005, the government stated that 94 percent of land ownership was still in white hands, when whites comprised only 9.3 percent of the population. The military and police are also overwhelmingly controlled by whites. In light of the fact that apartheid is over, but at the same time much remains the same, it would be perfectly easy, and understandable, for the Mountain Club never to apologize at all.

The members at the meeting eventually reach consensus that the club’s practices were wrong and they want to take steps to do something about it. The steps include a blanket apology and taking affirmative steps to reach out to wider communities. Whether or not they honor these commitments will determine the genuineness of the apology. “Words mean nothing if the club doesn’t change how it gets its members,” Helena clarifies on the phone. “There is a whole constituency to reach out to. Charity and greed are flip-sides of the same coin. They’re about ego. Any outreach program needs to be sustainable or it’s bull.”

The club has indeed run a variety of outreach programs for a number of years. The 1977 journal summarized that in “times of flux on all fronts the Club’s very survival seems more than ever bound up with its reputation for service and responsibility to a much broader community than its own members.” But outreach is not easy and the old stereotypes and preconceptions can be hard to overcome. “We’ve tried,” says member Tristan Firman. “Nonwhites are unwilling to join us. Culturally, black people tend to like soccer. The coloured community is almost torn between the two. There are very few people willing to cross that border.”

The club, for all its homogeneity, has much to offer the Rainbow Nation. Ed February and Tinie Versfeld’s recent outing is a shining example. The two have been best friends for decades. Ed, the first coloured member and an internationally renowned climber, joined the club in 1994. The club has since bestowed him with a Gold Badge and a lifetime membership. The two entered a climbing competition at Silvermine. Although it was raining, they completed eleven climbing routes within a couple hours before the competition was called off due to weather. Together, they bemoaned the injustice of it over a bottle of whiskey.

“It was irresponsible,” Ed says. “We were all climbing together and had to downgrade [our routes]. The water was pouring down the rock. Climbers these days, yissus.”

“Will we get our money back?” Tinie asks.

“That’s not what I care about,” Ed replies.

“They held it again yesterday. Who won?”

“I don’t bloody care,” Ed says. He takes a drink. And smiles, “But it was great fun.”

This is a vision of how the Mountain Club could be. About climbing and nature and friendship. The wild does not prefer races. Every people is capable of enjoying it. The mountains are, in the end, politically neutral yet undeniably spiritual.

“If they discriminated it was wrong, right?” Kristi Meyer concludes at the gym. “Then they should apologize.”

The Mountain Club of South Africa officially apologized in December 2005. The apology was unqualified. It did not feature an exposé of specific instances of discrimination.

Deji Bryce Olukotun