It’s T-minus 10 days until I depart for the continent of Africa … eek!
In the last few weeks, my travel group has been meeting for several pre-trip sessions to educate ourselves on South Africa’s history, culture and current events. At a recent session we watched “Long Night’s Journey into Day,” a documentary about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that began in the late 1990s. The TRC was formed by President Nelson Mandela in an attempt to heal the nation after the era of apartheid, and the commission invited all South Africans, whether jailed for their crimes or not, to come forward and publicly confess to any politically-motivated atrocities they committed during apartheid. They could also apply for amnesty from criminal and civil prosecution. The TRC seems to have a strong faith component as well; it was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who called the TRC a “national program of reconciliation.” To read more about the TRC, click here.
The documentary featured the stories of four groups appearing before the commission. Many Americans may recall the 1993 murder of student Amy Biehl — one of her murderers, Mongezi Manqina, is featured as he applied for (and was granted) amnesty. Others, such as Eric Taylor, a white security police officer who killed four black anti-apartheid activists known as the Cradock Four, were not.
I was amazed that South Africans embraced the public airing of atrocities as a way to heal and move past the pain of apartheid. And I couldn’t help but think about the problems in our own country, whether racially-based or not. I mean, we Americans aren’t very forgiving. We want justice. But maybe our focus on justice and “serving your time” for committed wrongs prevents us from truly moving past them. Think about it. It’s been 50 years since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Our Civil War was more than 150 years ago. And the long history with the Native Americans started before that. We still don’t talk openly and honestly about these or any litany of similar atrocities, so I don’t think we actually move past any of it. We talk reparations in some cases, but we never forgive or reconcile … and so we are never truly healed.
I’m not going to sugar coat that everything’s fine and dandy in South Africa now. Just this week, I read this and this. But in the documentary you can see how people needed to lash out in anger and grief at those who harmed them, but then moved into a place of peace, forgiveness … and healing. Amy Biehl’s parents were able to so forgive her murderer that they testified on his behalf at the commission hearing. I can’t imagine the process that led to such forgiveness, but I’m sure that sympathizing with each other’s points of view was helpful. If we as a society were able to look beyond transgressions and try to understand and address the root — whether it’s oppression, the cycle of poverty, the relation between crime and corruption or even the larger, growing issue of income disparity — I wonder if we’d make more progress.
Those of you who know me well are probably snickering that I’m even addressing forgiveness. Yes, I am about the last person to be able to forgive easily, and I clearly need to work on it personally. But something about that documentary made me see that forgiveness and reconciliation in our society are necessary to break cycles and improve the ways we connect with each other.
I don’t have any answers, but I thought I’d start the conversation at least. What do you guys think?
Side note: I started writing this before the news broke about the death of Osama Bin Laden last week. I’m afraid I can’t process or reconcile that yet. I believe unrepentant evil is sometimes just that.
|Further reading on South Africa’s TRC:
“No Future without Forgiveness” by Desmond Tutu
“A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness” by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela