The Common Good
July-August 1996

A Cycle of Healing

by Charles Villa-Vicencio | July-August 1996

South Africa grapples with reconciliation.

Ahmed Timol’s body was returned to his family from police custody in October 1971 in a bloody, bruised, and disfigured manner. His fingernails had been ripped out. His teeth were broken. There were electric shock burns on his legs.

“The face was covered in blood, the coffin was filled with blood. I will not forget what happened,” his mother told the Johannesburg hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Magistrate J.J.L. de Villiers, who presided over the inquest into Timol’s death at the time, found that Timol had been assaulted in police custody but that nobody could be held responsible for his death.

A young Swedish research student who sat through the hearings asked me whether I thought people could really be expected to forgive such atrocities. He reminded me that there are young people in South Africa who are asking for a commission of “Justice and Revenge” instead of “Truth and Reconciliation.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which was set up to promote “reconciliation and a spirit of understanding”—heard the public testimony of more than a hundred witnesses during its first month. The horror of the stories told are such that the question posed by the Swedish visitor must be asked. Certainly one can understand the refusal of some to forgive. The amazing thing is that some who appeared before the commission say that they are ready to forgive.

Feziwe Mfeti told the story of her trade unionist husband who “disappeared” in 1987 after having been detained by the security police on several occasions. “People do not simply disappear,” she insisted. Asked what she wanted of the commission, she said: “All I want is a bone of his body so that I can give him an honorable burial—and I want the police to return the picture of him which they took from me. I want no more.”

Johan Smit is a white Afrikaner whose 8-year-old son was killed by a bomb placed in a shopping mall during the 1985 Christmas season. Smit said he has forgiven his son’s killer, 15-year-old Andrew Zono, a member of the military wing of the African National Congress. “I’ve met the boy’s [Andrew’s] parents and I have forgiven Andrew,” Smit said. “I like to think that the death of my son contributed to a better South Africa for everyone.” Commission chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu replied, as he has said repeatedly, “We are a remarkable people.”

FORGIVENESS IS NOT easy. Some require revenge in order to be able to forgive. Others simply want to know the truth, so that they can put the past behind them. More than one person has insisted that they simply need to know who killed their husband, maimed their child, or destroyed their lives in order to be able to face the challenge of forgiveness. It is perhaps impossible to understand fully the capacity of some people to forgive.

Maybe it is wrong to try and dissect the pathos of the moment—or to pry too deeply into the soul of one who grasps the miracle. “It is the very reality of my suffering that enabled me to forgive,” an elderly woman told me. “I cannot and will not forget my loss. My long years of loneliness have, however, taught me that being unforgiving simply engenders bitterness in me. My refusal to forgive was gradually killing me.” I have no answer to her grace. I know sufficient numbers of people who see it differently. In these situations it is surely right not to judge or preach.

The commission’s intent is to give those who have suffered gross human rights violations the opportunity to tell their stories. “People who have experienced trauma need to tell their stories if they are to move on...[and] begin the process of healing,” said Bea Abrahams, clinical director of Cape Town’s Trauma Centre for Victims of Torture. The remarkable thing is what happens to those who listen to their stories.

It is too soon to know whether the broad South African populace, and more especially white South Africans, will take responsibility for the past. Many have closed their eyes to the atrocities of apartheid, or permitted themselves to be intoxicated, seduced, or bought with personal advantages. Some remained silent and participated in the system out of fear.

The Christian gospel speaks of a cycle of healing. It involves a sense of culpability or confession, repentance, reparation, and forgiveness. Correctly understood it is a cycle that begins with forgiveness. Perhaps it is only in knowing the forgiveness of Christ that I can confess, repent, and make reparation. It could be argued that in the secular world of politics it does not really matter at which point one enters the cycle—as long as one stays on board for the entire journey.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is offering forgiveness to all who will respond and where possible reparation to those who have suffered past wrongs. Controversially, it is also offering amnesty to perpetrators of past atrocities in return for public acknowledgment and full disclosure. It is an exercise in which many South Africans are trying desperately to heal their nation and reconcile themselves one to another.

CHARLES VILLA-VICENCIO is research director for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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