2012-10-22 00:00

Opinion category finalist

It is an indisputable fact that South Africans, and the rest of the world in general, disapprove of persons who refuse to forgive those who have harmed them and disapprove even more strongly of persons who harbour a desire for revenge.

In a wonderful article on Holocaust Testimonies, Walter Reich illustrates how society tends to want to hear that Holocaust survivors forgive those who caused them pain. We want to hear testimonies that these survivors have healed, that they have transformed the pain of the past into hope for the future. He says that we tend to experience as unwelcome and uncomfortable, narratives that do not conform to this formula. Even more unwelcome are narratives that display abiding anger, bitterness, refusal to forgive and persisting fantasies of revenge. We tend to use the following phrases on these people: ‘get past it’, ‘move on’ and we describe these people as being ‘stuck in the past’.

Maybe we feel like this because there is a limit to the number of times we can say sorry and because there is little we can now do to change a victims pain. Maybe religious teachings condition our responses because of their teachings on forgiveness – even wrongs as horrendous as genocidal murder.

Maybe this is the reason why the forgiveness of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are the dominant narratives of post-apartheid South Africa. Maybe this is the reason why Eugene de Kok’s cleansing of Frank Chikane’s feet makes front page news. It is because such narratives adhere to the formula that begins in trauma, atrocity , loss and ends in healing, hope, redemption – what in Holocaust circles is known as the Schindlerization of the Holocaust.

In South Africa I suppose one could talk about the Mandela-fication of Apartheid. There is one problem though – a certain Winnie Mandela. She may no longer be the wife of Nelson Mandela. Her reputation may have been tainted by the tragic Stompie saga, but her reputation as mother of the nation is intact despite these setbacks.

Newspapers were quick to vilify the comments made by Winnie Mandela in the supposed interview with Lady Naipaul, precisely because her comments do not conform to the formula of forgiveness. Her words conceal a bitterness that makes people uncomfortable. She called Desmond Tutu a cretin and supposedly told him that it was because of people like her that he had freedom. Arrogant, yes. But economical with the truth? I think not!

During the years of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration, Winnie Mandela was the face of the struggle. Google the name Winnie Mandela and look at how many books she has been the subject of. Winnie Mandela was the focal point, the go-to person of the struggle, indeed the icon of the struggle movement. She was always at the forefront of protests, and no stranger to prisons of. She was also banished to the township of Brandfort for 9 years.

Whilst Nelson Mandela had a seaview and the friendship of Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and many others, Winnie Mandela was placed under house arrest and had a dustbowl for the 9 years she had to endure in Brandfort. While some may accuse me of being an apologist for Winnie Mandela, we should ask ourselves why it is so easy for South Africans to forgive Hansie Cronje? Is it because Hansie Cronje , through his second baptism by Peter Pollock, publicly repented for his sins, whilst Winnie Mandela has made no such public pronouncement.

Why would Winnie Mandela be outwardly unrepentant? Maybe it may have something to do with the fact that just when she thought she was finally going to enjoy the fruits of her labour for a life-time of sacrifice devoted to the struggle, she found herself as the ex-wife of the first black President of SA. Would you not be bitter? And to add salt to your wounds, Nelson Mandela marries again and he is still the darling of the press. If Winnie Mandela had divorced Nelson Mandela and re-married, do you think she would have been afforded the same understanding?

I believe that prison allowed the revolutionary Mandela time to mellow. Being at the coal-face of the struggle made Winnie Mandela bitter. To silence, to censure her because her views make us uncomfortable is wrong, because her views are also the truth. The face of truth that we would rather not look at. Her thinking is rare, but not uncommon in Holocaust testimony. In Against All Odds by Amalie Salsitz, he described how he witnessed 21 members of his family massacred, and how he murdered 21 and more Germans as revenge. Yehuda Nir’s memoir The Lost Childhood, opens with the following quote by Samuel Beckett:

“Let me say before I go any further that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell…”

People who never suffered the atrocities of Apartheid may find it difficult to understand the bitterness of survivors. But the other day, I read an article by Zachie Achmat about his interrogation by a police officer with the nickname Spyker because he nailed a victims penis to the table. Or the Ahmed Timol story where his testicles were crushed. Who can forgive such people? Such atrocities.

And before you bring up the Stompie saga, step back and realize that you too, like Winnie, cannot forgive everything.


• Stories by the finalists in our True Stories of KZN competition will be published in The Witness before the winners are announced in the first week of December.


About the writer:


Darryl Earl David is the only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in SA. He was last year’s grand prize winner of the Witness True Stories of KZN Competition. He is the founder of SA’s national Booktown in the Karoo, the national Zulu Literary Museum at UKZN and 6 literary festivals throughout SA. He is also the co-author of 101 Country Churches of SA. He is married to his high school sweetheart Sheritha, an optometrist, with whom he has ‘co -authored’ one daughter Kiara.


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