How to forgive?

But, crucially, it is present in the white communities of Southern Africa, and that is what is fascinating about the concept of ubuntu and more generally, the hybridisation of cultures in general. At the moment, these white communities do not identify with their black neighbours, and yet the tell-tale signs of ubuntu are visible—The white South Africans will befriend you in a way that Europeans would never do. A distrust of the blacks still remains, and this communal spirit is certainly not applied indiscriminately throughout the country… but the seeds of ubuntu are there and they grow larger in the soul of the white tribe every day. That is another thing the TRC proved, as many of the former overlords stood up to apologise for their misdeeds.

Desmond Tutu’s brand of Christianity is worthy of note. Living in the United Kingdom, it would be fair to say that Christianity is suffering something of a PR crisis. The Anglican Church argues over doctrine; whether women should be ordained, whether homosexuals or divorcees should marry. In doing so, the key teachings of Jesus Christ, that we should love and forgive our fellow man, are ignored by the wider population. The underlying message of being generally nice to your neighbours, the essential unity of the human race, is something that remains unheeded as a result.

This is where people like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have a story to tell. Shorn of divinity, Jesus of Nazareth is still there in the history books saying “Forgive” and “Love” as he withered away on a cross. In 1990, Nelson Mandela heeded those words, and walked out of prison without bitterness. Archbishop Tutu sat in front of killers and said, “I forgive”. The success of their actions in diverting a crisis is a justification for the politics of the Nazarene, one that agnostics and atheists may accept. It is delightful to see that two millennia later, the political ideas have not died, even if we think God Himself has. Those of us who are not waiting around for another messiah, should begin searching for a mortal with enough character to forgive without demanding payback… and then vote for them.

Each page of No Future Without Forgiveness is an ode to the spirit of reconciliation, and in this sense it reminds me very much of Terry Waite’s Taken On Trust. In both books the authors remember the phrase “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. They recognise that the perpetrators are very much a product of their times, and thus deserving of forgiveness. That is not to suggest that the forgiveness is easy—but as both Terry Waite and Desmond Tutu say, it does help one’s own healing, if one can forgive.

Nowhere are these sentiments more forcefully preached, than in those passages that describe the best and worst of humankind, on neighbouring pages. These narratives lend weight and credibility to the Archbishop’s message of love. He offers transcriptions of some of the TRC confessions, the most harrowing of which describes the murder of the Pebco Three, a group of black anti-apartheid activists. One of them, Champion Galela, had his testicles crushed by a police officer. The account of an eyewitness, the very man who betrayed these victims, is powerful enough to provoke a physical reflex-action. I read the passage on a tube train, and as I did so my body pumped a surge of adrenaline through my veins, a futile attempt to protect me from the hurt I read in those passages. I had to put down the book, cover my face from my fellow passengers who were reading their magazines, and took a few deep breaths to keep me from crying. The candid nature of the TRC testimonies is like the removal of bandages to reveal a disfigurement—what we had hitherto imagined is shown in full detail, and the truth that we dared not contemplate, we are forced to confront. It is probably the most uncomfortable thing I have ever read.

Tutu contrasts this horror with the forgiveness of the victims. We read of Neville Clarence, who inexplicably bears no ill will to the men who caused his blindness by planting car bomb. We read of Beth Savage, who despite having campaigned against apartheid, found herself crippled by a random grenade attack in King William’s Town:

I would really like to forgive the man who threw the grenade in an attitude of forgiveness and hope that he could forgive me too for whatever reason. But I would very much like to meet him.

Tutu describes an army officer, who received a thunderous applause from his victims after he apologised for ordering his men to fire upon them a decade before. Adrenaline returns when I read these stories over and over again, excitement as I discovered what human beings are capable of.

Ask yourself: Is there hope for humanity? Never mind development models and economic analysis. Your reaction to that basic question will determine how you treat the world, and the people who you bump into as you walk around it. Do you feel, deep down in your gut, that humanity will ultimately succeed? Or do you think that probably we will end up destroying ourselves, in the end? Alternatively, do you suppose mankind will never learn from its mistakes and we shall instead ride a sine wave of success and failure, prosperity and war?

No Future Without Forgiveness is optimism in a book. As I finished the epilogue, I felt sure that homo sapiens will succeed. Desmond Tutu explains that this species is capable of wonderful things in the face of evil, and it is this capacity that inspires a sort of confidence in mankind. Somehow, things will work themselves out in the end, because we are able to rise above revenge and simply forgive. Maybe we do have the capacity to overcome our differences, those differences that daily cause bloodstains all over the world.

Only on sober reflection can we begin to understand how much is asked of us. Peace and stability is possible, but it entails hard sacrifices from all concerned. There will be no ‘negotiated settlement’, no treaty, no ‘sustainable development’ scheme that will provide a short cut for us. These are the tools of the men who can see only as far as their next term of office. Instead, true peace asks for massive compromise and humility, and to take this step requires nothing less than a leap of faith. This is the true, practical lesson of the South African TRC, and I am eternally grateful that I am not one of those who will have to forgive injustice, racism, murder and genocide, in order for world peace to prevail. I am very lucky.

Turn your thoughts to the millions of unborn children, from Ireland to Israel, who will eventually be required to do the actual forgiving. They will need to understand ubuntu before they can do so. Also, it will take a politician of high calibre, greater than any leader in power at the moment, to actually ask them. Such titanic forgiveness must require an example from our leaders. Desmond Tutu takes this crucial factor for granted, because he is lucky enough to have been governed by Mandela, and his book is the product of Nelson’s exemplary example. Whether enough people follow that example, is what will make or break this crazy project we call humanity.

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