"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the limits of forgiveness

A and I were chatting on the phone yesterday when the news popped up on my laptop. I relayed it to A, who is an expert on Latin America. "Pinochet died," I said. "Good," she replied without missing a beat. "We believe in redemption and forgiveness," I said." "Yeah," said A, who is a new mother. "Good riddance," I replied.

What do you say about the death of a dictator? What eulogy do you deliver for a man who is responsible for thousands of murders, thousands of funerals, who caused thousands of mothers to outlive their children?

I am reading the most fascinating book about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Country of My Skull, by Antjie Krog. Krog is a radio broadcaster with SABC, South Africa's state broadcasting service. She led the team that covered radio news on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's hearings in the mid-1990's.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a body set up to address human rights abuses that were committed in the apartheid era. Headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Commission heard testimony from thosuands of victims and surviving family members of those who were killed. A separate committee heard amnesty applications from perpatrators of violence, and from the politicians who led South Africa and the resistance before the end of apartheid.

What makes Krog's account of the Commission's activities so remarkable is her personal involvement in the story. Krog, you see, is an Afrikaaner. She was not a supporter of the apartheid regime, but her writing is infused with the deep pain of one who knows she benefitted from the system, and who questions whether she should have done more to end it.

Krog's book is compelling because much of it consists of simple stories - verbatim testimony from victims and their families. Like the woman who watches her son and husband be executed by secret forces acting on behalf of the apartheid state. Or the victims of "necklacing," a particularly cruel form of torture perpetrated by black South Africans on other black South Africans who were deemed to be traitors or informants. "'How could we have lost our humanity like that?'" Krog asks a friend.

Krog talks about the difficulty of telling these stories in all of South Africa's eleven official languages. In only the way that an insider could, Krog relates the fears of Afrikaaner that a new South Africa would mean an end of their language and lifestyle. But she cannot relate herself to these people who are of her tribe. "I am not one of them," she says.

Forgiveness is an impossible thing. Krog addresses the tension between presenting the truth and the lack of justice that amnesty implies. Telling the truth to the Commission quite literally set perpetrators free. How is that just for the victims' families? If there was no amnesty, however, how would South Africa ever move on? How does one deal with the fact that memories can be repressed, can change as a result of great trauma, on the part of both the perpetrators and the victims?

One of the most interesting aspects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's activities is the role if Archbishop Tutu. While the Commission was a legal body, bound by the terms of the legislation that created it, as time passed, Tutu served in many ways as a priest. He prayed for victims who gave their testimony, and served as a healing presence to the reporters and staff who were emotionally exhausted by months and years of testimony about horrors.

One of the great privileges of my life was meeting Archbishop Tutu in 1999. I do not know how to describe him, other than to say that he is a man of deep humility. His sense of peace with the world is so strong that it draws you in and makes you want to learn more. The only person to whom I can compare his charisma and personal presence is Xanana Gusmao, who served as the first president of East Timor and whom I was fortunate enough to meet in 2001. Both men have seen the worst that human beings can do to one another. Both men led liberation struggles against oppressive regimes. And both men, after winning the struggle, and when given the opportunity to lead, did not take revenge on their enemies. Both men chose to forgive. And both men have a sense of peace that passeth understanding.

I don't know how they do it. Augusto Pinochet was a horrible person who did horrible things. He deserves to rot in hell. As do the South Africans who killed small children over politics, and the Congolese men who rape little girls simply because they can.

What Tutu and Gusmao and, I hope, many Chileans understand, however, is that choosing to forgive, even if it means foregoing justice, is the only way to start over. Everyone, perpetrators, victims, and bystanders alike, has to be part of building something new. Otherwise, old wounds will fester, and no one will regain his humanity.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote "justice without mercy is mere oppression; mercy without justice is mere sentimentality"....but he also said that in the merciful justice of God, even the one who escapes legal justice lives with the internal devastation of guilt. That's not a quote and his line had more punch, but isn't this what "Crime and Punishment" by old Fydor D is about?

By the way, I was part of a meeting at Riverside Church with Tutu several years ago and his joy in the midst of all he had seen captured me as much as his humility that you rightly named as well. Now, tell me about the President of East Timor....rp

Tuesday, December 12, 2006 7:30:00 AM

Blogger Emily said...

I couldn't help having the same "good riddance" reaction when Pinochet died. Not very WWJD, and I immediately felt bad - you don't want to have that reaction about anyone's death - but the man was a monster.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006 4:23:00 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home