No Future Without Forgiveness, by Desmond Mpilo Tutu


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The majority in South Africa had faced a brutal reality of living under an oppressive regime of the apartheid government. The implementation of unjust policies of segregation and fierce violence have created both social and personal injuries. The system has divided the country along racial lines, with whites perceived as superior to the other races in the nation. With the end of apartheid in 1994 the people of South Africa faced a monumental challenge of rebuilding a political and social infrastructure based on the respect for human rights values.

In “No future without forgiveness”, Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers a gripping account of South Africa’s journey from a painful past to a hopeful future and the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in this process.

Underpinning the book is the theme of forgiveness. The book commences on a high note with Tutu recalling the first ever democratic election in South Africa on April 27, 1994. The day had finally dawned when the coloured people would vote for the first time in the land of their birth (Pg7). Freedom is what is at stake. Despite the threat by the right-wing party to jeopardize the event, this extraordinary day ended without any bloodshed and the world witnessed the most remarkable free election giving to the people of South Africa a brand-new President Nelson Mandela.

Following the establishment of democracy post-apartheid South Africa faced a challenge of dealing with the past without jeopardizing the future. As Tutu notes, the debate was “not on whether but on how we might deal with this only too real past” (p20).

Chapter Two explores different options that could have been considered. One option would be to offer a blanket or general amnesty, as happened in Chile (p26). It would mean to forget the past and focus on the present. Such a path, however, would only re-victimized the victims of the apartheid the second time around. Offering national amnesia would suggest to the victims that what happened to them either did not occur, or it does not matter. Therefore, the path of offering general amnesty was deemed inadequate.

Nuremberg Trial paradigm was another option with a clear victor on one side and clear loser on another side. Following the normal judicial process, the winner, in this case, would enforce the victor’s justice on the losers. Except in South African context neither side won the decisive victory, each had a stalemate. The Nuremberg trial paradigm, then, was not seen as a viable option either. Besides, such a process could potentially sabotage the smooth transition from repression to democracy, ultimately undermining the goal of healing the past and creating a shared future in South Africa.

With other options exhausted, the only way out of the impasse was to find a compromise between asking sufferers to forget the past and letting the accused go off the hook. The challenge was to achieve both justice and reconciliation without sabotaging either.

Hence, with an aim to hold the perpetrators on all sides accountable and avoid the temptation to avenge TRC was established and started its work on December 16, 1995. Built on the premise of “Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act”, the commission followed strict conditions set out for it. Upon meeting those conditions, amnesty would be granted.  To its credit, TRC diversified its membership with regional, gender, political and religious representation, headed by Desmond Tutu. From the outset, it acknowledged the need to address the past legacies, promote national unity and facilitate reconciliation in hope for establishing a peaceful coexistence between victims and perpetrators.


TRC offered an alternative course with an acknowledgment that justice does not have to be retributive. There is another kind of justice, restorative justice, “which was characteristic of traditional African jurisprudence. Here the central concern is not retribution or punishment. In the spirit of ubuntu, the central concern is the healing of the breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community…..thus we would claim that justice, restorative justice, is being served when efforts are being made to work for healing, for forgiving, and for reconciliation” (p46)


Following the course of restorative justice, TRC offered an alternative framework for achieving justice, not through bloodshed or retribution, but through reconciliation and forgiveness. The goal of TRC was to seek justice beyond punitive measures. Instead of facing endless court trials, where victims are seeking vengeance and perpetrators are hard pressed to guard themselves, TRC offered both victims and perpetrators to tell their stories in hope that these public testimonies would kindle the much-needed healing process. In exchange for making full disclosure of all the facts relating to the acts, amnesty would be granted.


The public nature TRC ensured transparencies while offering maximum publicity.  The process maintained the essence of restorative justice while including certain retributive measures of seeking the truth, unmasking lies and making the culprits known. Secondly, despite the charges of political biases, Tutu claims that TRC was able to conduct its business in impartial and even-handed manner. Tutu admits how the final report of TRC suffered from controversy. Prior to the final release, former President FW De Klerk had sought a court order to have findings against him removed from the publication. To Tutu’s surprise, ANC also protested whether the party was guilty of human rights violations during the struggle for liberation. The fact that the key political players took issue with TRC seem to suggest that TRC had indeed conducted its business in a fair and even-handed way.


Another positive feature of Commission was its “victim friendly” approach of “seeking to rehabilitate the human and civil dignity of the victims” (p51). TRC acknowledged in its report that “Without adequate reparations and rehabilitation measures, there can be no healing and reconciliation” (p49). However, while celebrating the achievements, Tutu is quick to admit one of the major flaws in the TRC. While amnesty is granted immediately to the perpetrators, upon meeting the requirements, the victims had to wait nearly a year, if not longer, before receiving the reparation (p178).


Beside this, I believe, there are other limiting factors in TRC. Firstly, it narrowly focused on the activities of individual perpetrators and victims, barely addressing the structural causes of the apartheid. Secondly, no attention is given to the institutional violence and the systemic exploitation that sustained the hegemonic order of few over many. The lack of attention on the wider socio-political network undermined the role of the overarching system in creating and enabling and empowering the agents of apartheid in the first place. While it is important to hold perpetrators accountable for the ill deeds, it is equally necessary to address the systemic causes behind the apartheid machine. The TRC, it seems, favoured descriptive over the historical and analytical approach.


Furthermore, the TRC operated on a binary opposition of victim and perpetrator, failing to consider that the perpetrators could also be victims of an overarching system. When considering that most victims were coloured and perpetrators white, such methodology would only produce short-term successes while perpetuating the established divide in a log run. Tutu makes a similar observation: “For me, one of the greatest weaknesses in the commission was the fact that we failed to attract the bulk of the white community to participate enthusiastically in the process” (p177). While Tutu goes on to say that “It might very well be because of faults on our side,” he does not mention what that fault is.


Perhaps the most significant contribution of this book is its offering on the role of forgiveness in creating a hopeful future. The central theme of the book is fully developed in the last chapter, “Without forgiveness There really is no future”. Emphasizing the importance of forgiveness in ending the cycle of reprisal and counter-reprisal, Tutu links forgiveness with the African idea of ubuntu, “It speaks of the very essence of being human”.


On the basis of ubuntu, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours”. According to Tutu, there is a delicate network of interdependence we share with those in our community as we learn to live in togetherness. “A person is a person through other persons,” therefore, what hurts you inexorably hurts me. This universal law, according to Tutu, is what the Bible calls “the bundle of life.” “To forgive”, Tutu concedes, “is not to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest”.


Resentment, revenge and anger are corrosive to the greatest good. Drawing heavily on the Christian tradition Tutu advocates an alternative vision of humanity’s future centred around the values of forgiveness, goodness, and justice. As Tutu puts it, “God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace, justice, a process that removes barriers. Jesus says, ‘And when I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw everyone to myself’ as hangs from His cross with outflung arms, thrown out to clasp all, everyone and everything, in a cosmic embrace, so that all, everyone, everything belongs” (p201).


While helping readers understand what forgiveness is, Tutu also outline what it is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting, “On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities happen again” (p207). Secondly, “Forgiveness is not being sentimental”, for it requires intellectual integrity and curiosity to engage in the process by asking deeper questions about human conditions (p207). Thirdly, forgiveness is not retaliation, “Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but [paradoxically] it is a loss that liberates the victim” (p207).


Tutu concludes the book on a high note, acknowledging that TRC was able to offer a new hope to the people of South Africa as they try to lift themselves out of the rubbles of apartheid: “This tired, disillusioned, cynical world, hurting so frequently and so grievously, has marveled at a process that holds out considerable hope in the midst of much that negates hope” (p215).


“No future without forgiveness” is a commendable read. Each chapter reinforces the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness, an essential idea underpinning the work of the TRC. It tells a story, not only of the TRC, but also as of the people of South Africa as they embraced a new future built on the premise of forgiveness and restorative justice. It is a story of healing and hope, of people willing to wrestle with the difficult issues and ask confronting questions, being willing to embrace the answers even if they hurt.


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