Putting It Together
During the last tense years of South Africa’s apartheid regime, the University of Notre Dame awarded a number of fellowships to members of the South African clergy to study at the university. During their stay, they boarded at Moreau Seminary, and the halls rang with their laughter. Their laughter is what I remember most about them. It possessed a joyous tone that was as infectious as the complex harmonies of South African song.
That laughter was all the more astonishing because of what the South Africans had suffered. The first of these remarkable men was Malusi Mpluana. Malusi was an Anglican priest of the Order of Ethiopia. A confidant of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, Malusi had been imprisoned for three years and exiled for six.
In prison Malusi had endured the torture known as the helicopter,’ a perverse torment in which the victim’s hands are handcuffed behind him, over a spit, to his ankles. This inhuman device permitted the interrogators’ to spin their victims as they questioned them. Remarkably, while he was manacled on the helicopter,’ Malusi found himself converted to nonviolence.
Malusi’s joy and his commitment to nonviolence inspired many of his American friends, but to others his attitude seemed quite incomprehensible. To many outside observers, the peaceful transition to a multi-racial democracy in South Africa, and especially the work of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, seems just as unfathomable.
Early in his book on the commission, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Tutu offers an explanation for the magnaniminity of apartheid’s victims that, coincidentally, also helps explain the joyous laughter of Malusi and his companions: ubuntu, a distinctive virtue of the South African peoples, for which sociability offers only the palest translation.
To praise a person for displaying ubuntu, Tutu explains, is to say: You are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound with yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.
He continues, Social harmony is for us the summum bonumthe greatest good.... Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive of this good. To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanized you inexorably dehumanizes me. It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite the efforts to dehumanize them.
Tutu admits that ubuntu gave South Africans a disposition for forgiveness and civic amity absent in other divided societies, such as Rwanda and Burundi. Tutu seems to stretch to find parallel examples in post-independence Kenya and majority-rule Zimbabwe. While his ubuntu hypothesis may make the case of the South African transition an exceptional one, it may prove to have only limited applicability to other post-conflict situations, whether in Central Africa, the Balkans or the Middle East. All the same, it should encourage social scientists, international aid workers and civil servants, even military personnel engaged in peacemaking exercises, to examine the cultural preconditions for reconciliation in such divided societies.
Another dynamic, not unique to South Africa but one that some skeptics may depreciate as a particularistic, non-replicable factor, is the role of Christian faith in promoting forgiveness and reconciliation between black and white.
Religion’s role in conflict situations, despite the best efforts of many believers, is often ambiguous. For many years, it was so in South Africa as well. Until the last years of apartheid, for example, the Dutch Reformed Church made separation of the races a matter of doctrine. At the same time, other church leaders, like Tutu and Denis Hurley, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop of Durban, spent much of their careers fighting against apartheid.
Technically, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not empowered to promote forgiveness. Signs of remorse were not required for amnesty. One had only to offer a full confession of the facts for a politically motivated crime to the T.R.C., and apply for amnesty before a separate commission. But South Africans understood the spiritual nature of the political process they were undertaking. Tutu was chosen because he was a churchman and encouraged by the commissioners themselves to lead them as a man of faith.
The commission’s work, as Tutu explains, was not politics as usual. Forgiveness, confession and reconciliation were far more at home in the religious sphere. The commission opened and ended its tenure with days of silent retreat. The daily sessions began and ended with a prayer, and at midday the panel paused for recollection and prayer. Tutu sought the prayers of monks and nuns around the world for the work of the commission, and his own spiritual advisor gave it counsel.
Tutu sees God’s work even in the voluntary testimony of perpetrators of apartheid’s worst crimes. They had long believed their evil deeds would never see the light of day; but in their confessions Tutu sees evidence of the workings of a moral universe. It was theology, he writes, that enabled me to assert that this was a moral universe. That theology undergirded my work on the T.R.C.
Like any good preacher, Tutu knows how difficult it is for people to heed the Gospel command to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Tutu’s stories show people at every point along the continuum from large-hearted generosity to resistance on the part of victims, and from adamant refusal to penitent reconciliation among the perpetrators.
The saddest cases are two notables. After weeks of vivid testimony about the abduction and killing of young boys suspected of being collaborators with the regime by footballers from a club sponsored by Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela, Tutu was able to coax only the barest acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the one-time heroine of the anti-apartheid movement. With former South African President P. W. Botha, however, even a personal appeal from Tutu was not sufficient to motivate the diehard Afrikaner to join the proceedings of the commission.
There are stories as well that give encouragement and show the possibilities for forgiveness and reconciliation. In confessing his responsibility for the mistaken killing of 11 people, mostly women and children, at Trust Feed Farm, former police captain Brian Mitchell asked forgiveness of the community he had so gravely injured.
For their part, the survivors agreed to forgive him if he would become actively involved in rebuilding the community he had helped destroy. When the time came for him to visit the farm, Mitchell told the crowd, There were people who warned me I mustn’t come here today. But, despite those warnings, I come because I know it is what I must do. By the time he left, writes Tutu, things had changed so much that they were waving him goodbye quite warmly.
There is also the story of the Americans Peter and Linda Biehl. Their daughter Amy, a Fulbright scholar and longtime anti-apartheid activist, was stoned to death while giving fellow students a ride home to a black township. She was killed tragically, Tutu writes, by the people whose cause she espoused.
The Biehls attended the amnesty application hearing of their daughter’s killers, where they embraced the families of the murderers. With exceptional largesse, they later established a foundation to aid young people in the town where Amy was killed.
Tutu’s greatest disappointment was the non-engagement of South African whites in the reconciliation process. The trouble with the South African white community, he writes, is that they have believed that there are only two possible positions in any sociopolitical setup. You are either top dog or you are the underdog. There is no place in this kind of scenario for participatory, shared power.
Though sometimes loosely written, No Future Without Forgiveness is a profoundly rich book. It explores theological and jurisprudential questions on the relation of justice and forgiveness. It relates the not-always-pretty internal politics of the commission, and lays out all its shortcomings and faults for the world to see. It explores institutional complicity with apartheid on the part of journalists, physicians, judges and businesspeople. It does all this with the largeness of heart that Tutu describes as ubuntu. It is a book readers will not want to put down. More, when they finish reading it, they will be different people, widened in heart and soul.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Putting It Together,” in the March 18, 2000, issue.