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franciscan - January 1999

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

Seeking Reconciliation in South Africa

by Desmond Tutu TSSF

I am amazed, as I look back, how strong our feelings were in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) when we realised that people could get amnesty without being required to express any regret or sorrow, or even just remorse, at whatever it was for which they were now applying for amnesty – that people could in effect be forgiven without expressing contrition! We later accepted that the legislators had been a great deal wiser than we had at first thought was the case. The fact of the matter is that in a very real sense you cannot legislate for anyone to be contrite, just as much as you cannot legislate for someone to love another. Martin Luther King Jnr was reported to have said something like this, ‘Yes, they can’t make you love me; but they can stop you from lynching me, and that is important for me!’

We realised that had contrition, remorse been a legal requirement, then many applicants could have tried to fulfil the letter of the law by shamming repentance. As it is, when applicants show remorse and are considered to be a bit effusive, then they are condemned for laying it on thick, just for show, and they are thought not to be earnest, not sincere at all. On the other hand, when they are fairly matter-of-fact, and perhaps say nothing about being sorry or asking forgiveness from the victims of their actions, then they are accused of being callous and hardhearted and just doing this thing to escape the legal penalties of their actions. They are in a real no-win situation. As it turns out, most of the applicants have in fact expressed at least remorse or have usually asked that the victims forgive them.

It has been a mark of distinctiveness of the TRC that so many religious categories have been associated with it, though not to universal approval, for there have been many who have criticised the Commission for being too overtly religious or, perhaps, too Christian. The President of South Africa, with the consensus of the Cabinet, appointed an archbishop and not a judge to chair the Commission and a former president of the Methodist Church Conference as Deputy Chair (although Dr Boraine long ago left the ordained ministry to go into public life). Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the normal terms of political discourse. They are playing on home ground in the religious area. And so it was to be expected that we would bring our religious insights and perspectives to bear on the delicate business of healing a traumatised and deeply wounded people.

We know that it is not easy to confess even in the privacy of our own bedrooms when husband and wife have quarrelled or one of them has to utter what are probably the most difficult words in any language, ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me!’; even more so when one has to do this in the full glare of TV lights or media publicity. But it has been happening in the TRC process. One day we held a public hearing on the Bisho massacre. Bisho was the capital of the Ciskeian homeland. The ANC was trying to reclaim some of what had become no-go areas in the Bantustan homelands. They organised a march on Bisho. The Ciskeian Defence Force opened fire on the unarmed marchers. Several people were killed and many others were wounded. The hearing was to receive testimony from all sides so as to give a window on such events which had led to gross violations of human rights.

The hall in which the hearing was held was packed to the rafters with many who had lost loved ones or who had themselves been wounded. The first witness was the former head of the Ciskeian Defence Force. He riled people not so much by what he said as by how he said it. Among other things he declared, in that highly charged atmosphere, that as a professional soldier he had been trained not to show his feelings, not to wear his heart on his sleeve. That incensed the audience who had hoped to hear some expression, however inadequate, of penitence, of remorse, but nothing was forthcoming. This general was then followed by four officers of his Defence Force, one of whom, the spokesperson of the group, was white. In that room, you could cut the tension with a knife it was so palpable. This officer said, ‘Yes, we gave the orders to the troops to open fire.’ Well, the temperature in that hall went up as you can imagine. Then he turned towards the audience and said, ‘Please forgive us, please accept my three colleagues back into the community.’ Do you know what happened next? – totally unbelievable – that audience broke out into loud applause. When the noise had subsided I said, ‘Let us be quiet for a moment because we are in the presence of something holy.’ Indeed, there might have been many times when the right thing to have done would have been to take off our shoes because we were standing on holy ground.

People have been quite amazing in their generosity. Mrs Savage, who had been badly injured in a hand-grenade attack, requiring treatment in ICU, and who had her children bathe, clothe and feed her when she was discharged, even now cannot go through the security checkpoint at airports as the shrapnel sets off all sorts of alarms! She said of this experience, which had left her so crippled, that it had enriched her life, ‘I want to meet the perpetrator in a spirit of forgiveness. I want to forgive him.’ That is wonderful in itself, but then she goes on, ‘and I hope he forgives me!’ She did meet the perpetrator later when he applied for amnesty, and he was not gracious, but she was marvellous in continuing to want to forgive.

Not all the victims have been so willing. Some have said, ‘I won’t forgive him: he has not told all the truth and he has not asked for forgiveness from me.’ It all really shows that forgiveness is not cheap or easy, which makes what has been the normal occurrence ever so much more extraordinary.

The Bisho hearing raises the question of collective guilt, confession, or forgiveness. I believe we hold a very atomistic view of life. We belong in a community. We rejoice and glory in the achievements of our community. So we should participate in its guilt or confession. Leaders can speak representatively on behalf of their constituency, so we have had various leaders acknowledge moral or political responsibility. Sometimes the confessions are accepted and sometimes not.

It is not enough to be penitent. If you have stolen my pen, and come along and ask for forgiveness but continue to retain my pen, then we would all call into question the sincerity of your confession. As far as possible, penitence should be authenticated by appropriate acts of restitution or reparation to restore the balance that had been upset. We have provision for reparation and the rehabilitation of victims to be undertaken mainly by the state, though we hope that the private sector and individuals will contribute generously to the President’s Fund from which the reparations will be paid.

A police officer, Brian Mitchell, gave orders the result of which devastated the Trust Feed Farm Community, and eleven people, including children, were massacred one Friday evening. Brian Mitchell was granted amnesty and he promised to go to the Trust Feed Farm Community to help rehabilitate a community that he had been so instrumental in devastating.

Forgiveness in an important way is making it possible for the wrongdoer to make a new beginning and not to be imprisoned in a paralysing past. It opens a door to the possibility of a fresh start, which would not be feasible without that forgiveness. But the only way forgiveness can be appropriated is by the perpetrator confessing because he is penitent.

Something similar is true for communities and people. I visited Rwanda soon after the genocide there. I said that if retributive justice was to be the last word in dealing with that awful happening, then Rwanda had had it, for her history has been one of reprisal followed by counter-reprisal, as first Tutsi and then Hutu took the opportunity for revenge, as each in turn toppled the previous top dogs. Their hope lay in something which went beyond retributive justice, and that something was forgiveness. Hence forgiveness was not some nebulous spiritual entity but was in fact practical politics. Even in the intimate relationship of husband and wife, hope for the future depends on forgiveness.

And so we see that without forgiveness there can be no future. §


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