Peacework
May 99



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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

Beyond Truth and Reconciliation: Forgiveness

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. She is currently the Jean and Joseph Sullivan Peace Fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radclifffe College.

Bill Moyers' documentary on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Facing the Truth, aired on PBS at the end of March, captures the complexities of a process that tried to bring about social cohesion rather than vengeance. It is an important documentary and highlights for the American public the lived reality of black people under a government that for decades denied them the right to freedom. But complex as the TRC process was, some of its achievements need to be heard. The most remarkable part of the South African story is not that victims who were tortured, or whose loved ones were abducted, murdered, or "disappeared" still suffer the scourge of poverty in post-apartheid South Africa, while many white people continue to enjoy the fruits of their privileged lives under apartheid. The story is made more remarkable by the extraordinary humanness of emotionally wounded people: the capacity by many victims to forgive perpetrators.

As the past played itself out on the stage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the gap between truth and reconciliation became wider than previously imagined. Far from a society that was united in its memory of the past, the commission evoked different historical identities among black and white South Africans. Many black people embraced the TRC process, showing hope for the new fledgling democracy. But only a few white people-as few as those who spoke out against apartheid-had any good things to say about South Africa's struggle with post-apartheid transformation. Many have done nothing but complain, because they have lost the exclusive protection that they had under the apartheid government. Meanwhile, there has been little acknowledgement of their complacency during the years of apartheid.

Likewise, few perpetrators have shown regret for their acts of destruction, and many who appeared at the commission's public hearings presented false statements. Their denials often sounded like carefully practiced refrains, not mentioning vital elements of their deeds, as if they would not have to tell the whole truth and could get away with their murders, once again as they were used to in apartheid's courts-with denial and solidarity in the lie. Yet they demanded amnesty, while claiming there was nothing to be sorry about. Is it not true that they are under no legal obligation to apologize? So why should they be sorry, they asked?

And here lies the dilemma about the amnesty process. Amnesty is framed more by political expediency and the idea of political pardoning than by questions of morality in forgiving perpetrators. Fortunately South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission went beyond political expediency. It was an extraordinary process that sought to do and succeeded in doing at least three things: breaking the cycles of violence that so often repeat themselves historically, exposing the gruesome truth about South Africa's past, and restoring the dignity of victims. It is hard to imagine how all of this could have been possible had South Africa not had two leading figures who are the embodiment of peace and true humanity: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has been on the side of merciful justice all his life, and President Nelson Mandela, whose 27-year prison term failed to dampen his commitment to peaceful resolution of the South African conflict. We learnt from them important lessons about forgiveness, but we also learnt from many families of victims and survivors of past atrocities that perpetrators can be forgiven.

When perpetrators asked for forgiveness from their victims it was as much about restoring the victims' dignity as it was about perpetrators rescuing their own sense of humanity. Pearl Faku's husband was killed by a bomb in an operation masterminded by Eugene de Kock, the man nicknamed "Prime Evil" because of his role in apartheid sponsored atrocities. When de Kock asked for Faku's forgiveness, she extended her hand of forgiveness. Faku later explained why she forgave de Kock: "I was profoundly touched by him. I felt the genuineness of his apology I would like to hold him by the hand and show him that there is a future, and that he can still change."

Victims who were able to forgive perpetrators described their encounter with perpetrators as a transformative process that helped them to unburden years of anger and hatred. Perpetrators spoke about the cleansing power of a victim's forgiveness. Thus, victims needed perpetrators' honest expressions of apology to move beyond their anger as much as perpetrators needed victims' forgiveness to reclaim their sense of humanity, which was lost in a life of destruction.

Nowhere in the history of atrocities have we seen victims and perpetrators sharing a common idiom of humanity in the way that was sometimes observed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But forgiving is not forgetting. Even as victims extend their hand of forgiveness, what does it mean on a day-to-day basis to see the man who killed your son, sister or spouse, going on with his business? What struggles will victims face as they negotiate the journey beyond forgiveness?

And the journey beyond a post-apartheid society? The legacy of apartheid has marked black people with poverty, and bestowed privilege upon white people. South Africa needs another miracle to change that.


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