To blame Tutu, the TRC and the language of forgiveness is to blame those millions of us who make forgiveness cheap, who adhere to forgiveness without repentance and restitution, writes Nico Koopman.
In South Africa suspicion is growing with regards to words like forgiveness and reconciliation. This suspicion is seen in the scepticism amongst some about the legacy of leaders like the late president Nelson Mandela and archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu.
Twenty years after the finalisation of the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Tutu is criticised for emphasising forgiveness and reconciliation at the expense of restitution and justice. Madiba is criticised for making morally unacceptable compromises, for leaving economic power in the hands of white people and an elite group of black people, whilst giving toothless political power for mainly black people.
I think the criticism against Tutu and Madiba is unfair. The logic of Tutu is articulated in, amongst others, his famous book, No future without forgiveness. Tutu can say there is no future without forgiveness, because of the forgiveness logic with which he lives. Forgiveness is not the end of the road, but the beginning, the first word, on a long road of transformation.
We might think of forgiveness as a safe space where the wronged one can express the truth of pain, injury, trauma, brokenness, being wronged, fear, confusion, blame and even anger. It is a space where the guilty one can express the truth of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, confusion.
Forgiveness can also be viewed as a space of hospitality, as a space where we are invited to accept the gift of being set free and being let go in order to do justice. Forgiveness invites us to confess guilt, sin and shame; to show contrition and remorse; to regret, repent and reconcile; to commit to a future of reparation and redistribution, restoration and restitution.
In this sense there is no future without forgiveness. Forgiveness is the pathway to justice, to reconciling justice, reparative justice, redistributive justice, restorative justice, restitutive justice. The truth of no future without forgiveness is the basis of the truth that there is no future without justice.
South Africa has seen a lot of forgiveness, but forgiveness had not been sufficiently responded to with justice. The hospitality of forgiveness had not been enjoyed sufficiently; the invitation of forgiveness to being set free and to seek justice had not been accepted sufficiently.
To blame Tutu, the TRC and the language of forgiveness is to blame those millions of us who make forgiveness cheap, who adhere to forgiveness without repentance and restitution; it is to blame those of us who do not use the freedom of being forgiven to affect reparation and redistribution in constructive and creative ways.
Twenty years after the completion of the work of the TRC we need to appreciate Tutu’s logic afresh. And we need to courageously point out where forgiveness is made cheap in our country.
We need to critically and constructively expose the negligence of justice as fruit of forgiveness in our country. Individuals and institutions from all walks of life in South Africa – in politics, business, trade unions, environmental work, civil society and public discourse – need to expose and transform where we make ourselves guilty of trampling upon forgiveness.
The celebration of Reconciliation Day gives us the opportunity to commit ourselves afresh to justice that flows from forgiveness; to visions and missions of justice; to values and civic virtues of justice; to policies, plans and practices of justice. Justice is an urgent matter; justice delayed is justice denied. Justice is concrete and specific; to adjust an old saying: to do justice to the world to me’s no chore, my problem is the person next door.
Justice should be sought in every walk of life; an injury to justice anywhere is an injury to justice everywhere, as Martin Luther King Junior had reminded us. Justice can only be achieved through radical transformation. That means we need to address the radix, the roots, of wrongs, the causes of wrongs and not only the symptoms.
The legitimate anger of so many people in our towns and townships emphasises that we need to accelerate justice. Where we delay the quest for reconciling, restitutive justice, there we might pave the way for a destructive quest for justice through violent revolution.
We also need to reconsider the unfair criticism that Madiba had made morally wrong compromises. A compromise was indeed made at the birth of the new South Africa, but it was not a wrong compromise. A compromise without which we cannot go forward together, was made. Compromise literally means to promise (promissio) together (com-).
At the transition to a new South Africa we settled temporarily for second prize for all, but we promise together that we will work together for first prize for all. And that first prize that we seek, is described in the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution that Nelson Mandela left behind for us, namely a life of dignity for all, healing for all, justice for all, freedom for all, equality for all. Reconciliation is to work together to achieve first prize for all!
- Prof Nico Koopman is Vice-Rector for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University.
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