The spectacle is meant to infer that the state or the government is willing to right a historical wrong, when in reality the apology is generally meant to close off a chapter of history, and to keep the traumatic questions and injustices of the past beyond any chance of restitution or reparation.
In the United States for instance, there is no law that says that white is better or white people are better. But centuries of slavery and discrimination build up, and can't be overcome with the election of a black president or the celebration of the first nomination of an Asian American to the Supreme Court. An entire nation became rich off of genocide, the taking of massive amounts of land and the use of slave labor, and all Americans (of any color) today benefit from that historical fact. So as a nation, the United States and all its people do owe particular groups a chance at justice for those wrongs. But there are those who benefit in particular from that history, those for whom specific privileges or powers have emerged, and they are the ones whom resist reparations the most, because frankly its not in their best interest at all to revisit that past which has given them so much by taking from so many others.
There are two basic ways in which an apology of this sort functions.
First off, we should all come to an agreement that justice is always impossible. But that in no way means that when violent acts or oppression, aggression or colonization take place, that simply because what is lost or killed or banished can never authentically be replaced, or the clock turned back, that nothing should or can be done. Justice is all about what happens to the power or the privilege that has been built up taking that sin as its foundation.
Thus an apology can function as a gesture which closes off that foundation. An act meant to take the place of any further action. By apologizing for those things I seal myself off from any further demands, any further criticizes. I take verbal responsibility, I put up a big show of how I feel terrible, but I only do this so you can't ask for anything else. My apology is therefore a forcefield, to keep my ill-gotten gains. If you think about this from the perspective of a fighting couple, you apology for something so that it never needs to be mentioned again. You apology in order to move on, to try and keep the other person from remembering what happened or asking that you do something to make up for what has happened.
This of course naturally brings us to the second function of an apology, which is, if justice is the intent, to open up the foundation built upon that violent injustice, and to pave the way through which a process of restitution and reparations beyond simply saying "despensa yu'" or "I'm sorry." In the previous version, an apology is meant to make that foundation, to make that source of power impenetrable, to keep it from being attacked or keep it from giving anything up that it feels it owns. This type of apology though is offered to make that foundation vulnerable, to admit that something terrible happened and we must correct it somehow, even if it means we who have profited, we who have benefited from that injustice, have to give up something in the process. In the example of a relationship, this type of apology is the one which comes with presents attached. If you fight with a friend, it could mean letting him punch you and hit you to get you back for what you've done. In a partnership it could mean giving up something to show that you truly are sorry.
Obviously one is far more relevant to justice and to actually apologizing for something, or providing the means for getting past a foundational trauma, but naturally communities or privilege and governments tend to act in their selfish interest and operate based on fantasies that if you ever gave an inch, then all the natives would take their land back. But that is precisely what justice, not in the criminal justice system sense, entails. It is about giving more than you feel you can. It is about shocking your system, rocking it and leaving it open for critique or for judgement because of someone that has been wronged in your name, on your behalf, even if you weren't the one doing the slaughtering or the whipping. This is why justice is about the most debilitating form of gineftao or generosity.
Outside of the Parliament House in Canberra where Kevin Rudd gave his apology speech to the stolen generation, a memorial of thousands of lit candles which spelled "Sorry is the First Step" was placed on the lawn. But this is always the issue with "sorrys" or with apologies, is it truly meant to be the first step or is it simply meant to be the last one?