How to forgive the unrepentant?

The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness
October 22, 1999

In The Burden of Memory , Wole Soyinka goes beyond merely revealing the form and function of power in Africa, pondering the difficult question: "Is it possible for the victim of inhuman treatment to forgive his tormentors genuinely?" At any rate, would such forgiveness, if forthcoming,offer the required healing for both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime?

Soyinka's inquiry has been inspired by South Africa's attempt to deal with its apartheid past through the Truth Commission, a national forum convened to record the crimes committed under apartheid, which guarantees immunity from prosecution to anyone who testifies.

To drive home the peculiarity of the South African arrangement, the reader is invited to imagine a Pol Pot-type character going to a Truth Commission and, confessing all, promptly returning home having gained immunity from prosecution. Soyinka considers this resolution inadequate, as it lacks the most vital ingredient of a wholesome and lasting reconciliation - visible and unequivocal restitution of the victim's lost humanity and the return of all he is owed.

The introduction gives a good example of how the rush to forgive without due regard to the efficacy of such an act can be counterproductive. While the South African government was promoting racial reconciliation among its citizens, David Duke, a confirmed member of the Ku Klux Klan, was allowed to enter the country to express his solidarity with the white inhabitants of Balmoral who had declared their town an enclave of old apartheid. His mission was facilitated by the tolerance of ideological diversity that the Truth Commission unwittingly legitimised and which, as Soyinka demonstrates, would not be entertained by the United States government.

Duke's visit provides a link between apartheid and the unresolved relationship between white America and its African population. His unbridled racism is seen as a symptom of America's own failure to implement a genuine reconciliation with those it held in bondage for centuries. His visit is thus the haunting return of a historical spectre that had been hurriedly interred, without justice being done - a lesson to South Africa.

The wrongs requiring a proper settlement are not only those perpetrated by the Christian West, but also those committed by the Islamic Orient. Convinced that frank and lasting reconciliation can only come out of the baring of the totality of historical truth, Soyinka dismisses the various apologias for excluding Arab enslavement of Africans from the catalogue of the unforgiven past.

Arguing that charity must begin at home, he extends the need for conditional reconciliation to African leaders, urging Africans to demand that leaders who have looted their countries are only pardoned when they bring back the loot, since if stringent principles of reconciliation are not applied at home no one will take a campaign for the reparation for slavery and colonial damage seriously. The trial of former dictator Hastings Banda of Malawi is seen as one form of reconciliation that demands that justice is also done.

What emerges is a multicultural category of slavers in which oppressive African leadership takes its rightful place. The chapter ends optimistically, observing that there are signs of a desire to put some of the historic atrocities to rest, as exemplified by the American government's recent public apology for unethical medical experiments on black men in the 1930s and 40s and by Switzerland's attempt to confront its financial complicity with Nazi Germany.

The second chapter argues that a particular brand of the Christian idea of unconditional forgiveness informs the South African model of reconciliation. This notion is equally evident in the literature of the African world, especially that of "negritude" writers such as Leopold Senghor. Soyinka accuses the Francophone writer of proffering reconciliation without recompense to the coloniser, and also of doing so partially, by pleading for France to be specially forgiven, as, unlike other colonial nations, she is deemed essentially good. Soyinka finds this proposal abhorrent, noting that it underlines an unhealthy conflict within Senghor's own identity - the permanent warfare between his love of Africa and his French cultural heritage.

The Christian view of forgiveness is not wholly dismissed on account of Senghor's abuse of it: Soyinka favourably cites Martin Luther King's letter from prison as an expression of a progressive form of Christian forgiveness that does not limit its radical potential by eschewing the contingency of oppression and the means of its erasure.

Nevertheless, Soyinka does practise what he preaches: he rehabilitates Senghor in the end because he brought out the deepest resources of an African humanity and sensibility which continue to inform Africa's resistance of colonialism.

The tensions in Senghor's work are artfully transformed into a discussion of the internal heterogeneity of negritude itself in the last chapter. An array of negritude poets parade before us and are either dismissed for their Senghorian charlatanry or are retained as allies in the need for justice. In this new conceptual and ethical space, Soyinka apprehends the possibility of a reconciliation of forgiveness with reconciliation as a commitment to the historicisation of the contemporary, so that, in the name of a shared humanity, the ethical shortcomings of the past may be overcome in deed rather than merely in word.

The Burden of Memory will delight the student of literature for the beauty of its prose and its combination of cultural and textual criticism and will greatly enrich the student of international politics and African history. It should certainly offer plenty of food for thought for those concerned with healing the wounds of violated humanity.

Mpalive-Hangson Msiska is a lecturer in English and humanities, Birkbeck College, London, and author of Soyinka (1998).

The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness

Author - Wole Soyinka
ISBN - 0 19 512205 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 208

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