Forgive and remember

No Future Without Forgiveness
September 22, 2000

Wole Soyinka ponders the process of reconciliation in South Africa

This account of the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a debt that the commission owes itself, if only in order to make the rest of the world appreciate and be humbled by the sheer immensity of its task. It is one thing to think magnanimously, to defy post-conflict convention with a truly innovative approach to healing; it is another to muster the logistics and sensibilities required to tackle what amounts to an indaba for which there was no model, an intimidating concourse of witnesses, accusers, victims, questers, counsellors - legal, psychiatric and socio-political - a balancing act on a trampoline of trauma, ego, humiliation, guilt, defiance, denial, concealment, opportunism but above all, memory - managed by a highly motivated but amateur collection of humans in this uncharted field, no matter their expertise in individual disciplines and political adroitness.

Desmond Tutu is most forthcoming about what he considers weaknesses in the enabling laws, functioning and implementation of the commission. Some of Tutu's regrets are simply a case of demanding too much of the commission and the circumstances. Others are more troubling, such as the fact that transgressors walked free immediately after amnesty, while victims had to wait longer for due reparations. Also the commission's inability to subpoena members of the judiciary, which had overwhelmingly functioned as a pillar of the apartheid edifice, lending it legality and thus becoming accessories to crimes against humanity. It is this same judiciary, demonstrably not absolutely reformed, that is charged with the final word in granting or rejecting the decisions of the committee on amnesty, a crucial instrument of the commission.

Despite these shortcomings, however, let us consider the numbing achievement - the excavation of long-interred truth, of the horrors of a past that, but for this process, would have remained permanently interred. When confronted with the sheer figure of over 20,000 statements, and 7,000 applications for amnesty, some of which account individually for multiple crimes, it becomes possible to imagine the sheer criminal deadweight of apartheid on the South African majority and its debasement of the human psyche. Just what species of humanity passed before the patient lenses of these would-be healers of society? Easy to quip: the good, the bad and the ugly. But such an easy dismissal would fail to win the approval of Tutu, for whom the potential for good and evil exists in all humanity. More troubling is his forgiveness theology, even though he does sound the occasional reassuring note for the demurring secularist: "In forgiving, people are not being asked to forget. On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities happen again. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means... drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our existence." He continues: "It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so to have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes, and to appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have brought them to do what they did." But yet again, the reassuring insistence on an essential preamble to genuine contrition: restitution. "If someone steals my pen and then asks me to forgive him, unless he returns my pen the sincerity of his contrition and confession will be considered to be nil."

Tutu invokes ubuntu to temper such concessions to the imperative of restitution. He defines ubuntu variously as the spirit of sharing; being caught up inextricably in the bundle of humanity of others; being open to and available to others; affirming rather than feeling threatened that others are able or good; the ability to feel diminished when others are humiliated or diminished. Ubuntu speaks, he says, of "the very essence of being human". This ties up with his implicit injunction that those responsible for the horrendous deeds of apartheid be not regarded as "monsters, not deserving to be considered as human beings any longer". Ubuntu logic goes even further, asserting that "even the supporters of apartheid were victims of the vicious system that they implemented and that they supported so enthusiastically", and effectively enjoins us to empathise with the "perpetrator of apartheid's atrocities" since their humanity was "bound up in that of his victim whether he liked it or not. In the process of dehumanising another," professes Tutu, "the perpetrator was inexorably being dehumanised." In confronting no matter what hideous crimes, ubuntu and Christian theology meet and fuse in the dictum "There but for the grace of God, go I".

After a visit to the Holocaust museum in Israel, a clearly moved Tutu nevertheless asks his hosts: "But what about forgiveness?" This work in turn moves one to ask: "But what about choice? Ethical choice? Somewhere in ubuntu philosophy - as in Christian theology - surely, this dimension of the human will, of responsibility, is addressed. It is a cogent aspect of African world views, and deserves greater recognition, otherwise we surrender to the seduction of fatalism in human conduct. Tutu acknowledges this, albeit by implication, since his own account registers moments of moral choice, embraced with courage under risk. These range from a moving account of the humanity of a white female warder, Sergeant Crouse, towards her "terrorist" charge following "hours of brutal interrogation" by the security police, to the moral and political courage of F. W. de Klerk, to whom the author pays deservedly generous tribute, even while criticising him later for his failure to measure up in the province of the confessional. It is scenes such as the public reunion of the tortured prisoner and her "angel of mercy" - as Crouse was dubbed by the media - that reinforce Tutu's faith in the innate goodness of humanity and the validation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nevertheless, the ethical rigour of choice implicit in such instances appears to be constantly submerged under the pietism of ubuntu and the Christian catechism of forgiveness. We cannot say, for certain, how deeply or broadly the spirit of ubuntu penetrated the hearts of the major participants in the drama of the commission. We do not learn of those many who came before the commission and said to the perpetrators: "Don't tell me you're sorry, and don't ask me for forgiveness. I am not interested in your contrition. Just tell me what happened to my son/daughter/husband/wife/family..." They were not negligible. May we not also pose the possibility that many who did not avail themselves of the ministrations of the commission were inhibited by an innate rejection of such forgiveness theology? Still, the narrated instances of transfiguration do remain valid offerings on the altar of social healing, and humanity is ennobled. No one can deny that, at the very least, the Herculean labour of the commission, indeed its very ability to function, was premised on this passionately argued case for an inclusive view of humanity: the ability of good and evil to embrace in a symbolic affirmation of human oneness.

Considering the commission's undeniable success in the direction of its stated goals, it is hardly surprising that this account is an uncompromising act of proselytisation. Tutu expands the validity and potential scope of the process of the commission through comparative encounters in other parts of the world, encounters that took place before and after the South African hearings, one of the most telling being his reception in the Middle East. The first generated deep suspicion and hostility, even threats and verbal abuse, the latter testified to a transformation in thinking. Yet his thesis remained the same on both occasions: forgiveness and reconciliation. In a zone of permanent combat whose history has all but sanctified the theology of retribution, this is no mean tribute to the enticing powers of this model offered to the world by South Africa.

And yet, one is inclined to urge - proceed with caution. South Africa is a unique nation in many aspects as Tutu himself takes great pains to stress. And this reader at least finds himself assailed by an underlying, deeply troubling proposition, one that appears to constitute an unjust exaction from the victim over and above like demands on the perpetrator. For while, as already remarked, Tutu is careful to stress the place of remorse, even of "restitution", "reparation", etc as essential prerequisites to the meaningfulness of reconciliation, he stresses that we need not wait for that first stage in the aggressor's self-redemption for us, the aggrieved, to commence our own process of healing through forgiveness. Anticipating the many South Africans who must be asking themselves when the pen will be returned, if ever, Tutu sidesteps the moral equation and socialises the process of restitution: "The huge gap between the haves and the have-nots, which was largely created and maintained by racism and apartheid, poses the greatest threat to reconciliation and stability in our country... That is why I have exhorted whites to be keen to see transformation taking place in the lot of blacks. For unless houses replace the hovels and shacks in which most blacks live... all things which the vast majority of whites have taken for granted for so long - we can kiss goodbye to reconciliation."

This does indeed appear to place a moral onus on the whites, as do other hinted-at modes of reparation. Of these, the case of Brian Mitchell, an ex-police captain in KwaZulu-Natal, provides the strongest expression of the specificity that is required to humanise the discharge of moral responsibility in a reparation project. Brian Mitchell had been responsible for mowing down 11 people, "mainly women and children who were at a vigil... devastating an apolitical rural community". Mitchell not only asked for forgiveness from the community, he pleaded to become actively involved in reconstructing the community. Tutu's comment on this is most telling, and acknowledges the major source of disquiet for many both within and outside South Africa, who fear that the union of the accommodating face of ubuntu and Christian beatitude, if uncritically embraced, may lead to a spiral of the culture of impunity. He concedes that: "Perhaps this kind of reparation should have been a required condition for amnesty to be granted." This, surely, reinforces Tutu's plea for "restorative" justice. It restores both victim and violator to ubuntu 's bundle of humanity.

Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate, is the author of The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness.

No Future Without Forgiveness

Author - Desmond Tutu
ISBN - 0 7126 7013 0
Publisher - Rider
Price - £14.99
Pages - 233

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