One of my friends from college was a young woman from South Africa. This was just before apartheid ended. Her name was Tebogo and she was from Sowetto, site of the 1976 student uprisings where around 500 young people were killed by South African security forces for protesting a decree forcing them to be schooled in Afrikaans and English, the language of the oppressors, in black schools, instead of their native African languages. Tebogo taught me Nkosi Sikeleli Africa.
She had a young son and the apartheid government wouldn’t let him out of the country. When a local newspaper wanted to do a story on her, she agreed provided the photo was blurred and they used a false name. I met her mother. Her mother was a nurse for World Vision and had travel access into and out of the country. Although I have sadly lost touch with Tebogo over the years, I know she still lives and works in the Boston area.
I went to see Nelson Mandela in Boston on June 23, 1990. Last fall our Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Clara Barton Chapter meeting had a visit from Margaret Steinegger-Keyser of the Center for Conflict Transformation in Hartford, CT. She is a South African and was the first woman offered ordination by the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa (noteworthy as this was the apartheid supporting Afrikaaner church), but she turned it down. She spoke with us about how the lessons of racial reconciliation in South Africa might be applied to anti-racism/anti oppression work in the states.
I have also had a decent amount of experience working with the human rights organization, Amnesty International, especially during the dying days of the apartheid regime and led anti-apartheid and U.S. out of South Africa actions on my Fitchburg State College campus, complete with multimedia presentations of Little Steven’s (I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City.
I offer this because this is my background, and it’s not a completely uneducated background, that I brought to my reading of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness.
The South African interim Constitution outlines the need for a truth and reconciliation commission, for a way for people to express grief, anger, remorse, and ask for and offer forgiveness outside of a retributive justice system. There is a need, not just for South Africa, but for all people to
transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge. These can now be addressed on the basis that there is need for understanding, but not for vengeance, a need for reparation, but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization.
Although obviously focussed on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa, Tutu connects the commission’s work to other hot spots around the world including Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the racism and violence that pervade our society in the United States. In all instances, Tutu argues convincingly that there can be no future in human relationship or in relationships between communities without forgiveness. One of the best examples and explanations offered is from Marrietta Jaeger, an American woman whose seven year old daughter was kidnapped. Eventually, the man who committed the crime was arrested and Marrietta forgave him:
I had finally come to believe that real justice is not punishment but restoration, not necessarily to how things used to be, but to how things really should be. In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures whence my beliefs and values come, the God who rises up from them is a God of mercy and compassion, a God who seeks not to punish, destroy, or put us to death, but a God who works unceasingly to help and heal us, rehabilitate and reconcile us, restore us to richness and fullness of life for which we have been created. This now was the justice I wanted for the man who had taken my little girl. Though he was liable for the death penalty, I felt it would violate and profane the goodness, sweetness and beauty of Susie’s life by killing the kidnapper in her name. She was deserving of a more noble and beautiful memorial than a cold blooded, premeditated, state-sanctioned killing of a restrained defenseless man, however deserving of death he may seem to be. I felt I far better honored her, not by becoming that which I deplored, but by saying that all life is sacred and worthy of preservation.
The most disturbing part of Tutu’s memoir of the work with the Truth and Reconciliation commission was not the accounts of torture and abuse. Years of work with Amnesty International had, unfortunately, prepared me for that. What really unnerved me was how many analogies could be drawn between our contemporary American government and the murderous, torturous, apartheid regime of South Africa.
The South African Defense Force (SADF) was part of “Total Strategy” of the administration of P.W. Botha to combat the “total onslaught” of “Communism.” Anything that was seen as a threat to the all-white state security and its hold on power was seen as a “communist” threat. Anything that in thought or deed, violent or nonviolent, it mattered not, that opposed white, South African, power elites was crushed. Tutu says the freedom movement in South Africa called them the “securocrats.”
Our country was placed almost on a war footing as moved into the 1980s. Already not celebrated for our respect for the rule of law and human rights, we experienced a further erosion in our rights. From then on it would be unpatriotic to question the decision of the government, which were really the decisions of the State Security Council. Everything was suborniated to the security of the state as determined by those in power. It made white South Africans feel that there was bad world out there, eager to get them, to destroy their “South African way of life.” This hostile world wanted to overthrow a Christian govenment and replace it with an ungodly, atheistic, undemocratic, Communist dictatorship.
This sounds disturbingly familiar. Black consciousness leaders, including Nelson Mandela were labeled terrorists. Our country has been on war footing since September 11, 2001, but Congress has not declared war and the Constitution reserves declarations of war to Congress. Wars on nouns or non governmental organizations, as opposed to other countries can go on forever. We have experienced an erosion of Constitutional protections with things as basic as the FISA law and habeas corpus up for grabs all to protect our “Christian, American, way of life” from “the other” who if not ungodly is undemocratic. And yet to secure this protection the supposed democracy in which we live increasingly seems to be concentrating power in the executive. As scapegoats we have immigrants, homosexuals and anyone else the “culture wars” and spin machine will let the “securocrats” get away with. We’ve already adopted the old South African practice of torturing those who are our enemies.
Perhaps its time for our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We still have a racial history to deal with, and many other issues as well. We need to move away from a retributive justice system and towards a restorative justice system. Forgiveness is difficult as Tutu says, very difficult, between marriage partners in the privacy of their own bedroom. There is no doubt is gets more difficult as the circle of relationship gets wider, but it’s a task we must undertake. There is no future without it.