Prior to one hearing of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, commission officials confronted Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His conduct of hearings, they claimed, had been too religious. The commission was supposed to be a judicial body. It had been enacted by the new South African constitution, enabled by parliamentary legislation that carefully set forth its legal basis, and carried critical legal consequences, especially for amnesty applicants. Should not Tutu separate his role as head of this legal body from his role as a Christian pastor?
Not only did he figuratively wear two hats, but he literally wore full episcopal regalia, including purple robes and a pectoral cross. His interlocutors could do little about his attire. They hoped, though, that he could put to rest the opening prayer, the frequent hymns, and the religious appeals. Tutu assented to begin daily hearings with a moment of silence rather than a prayer. However, as commission official Piet Meiring describes, his concession was reluctant and short lived:
When the clock struck nine the witnesses and their families were escorted into the crowded hall. Tutu followed with his colleagues. Chairperson shook hands with victims one by one. Then he proceeded to the platform where he took his seat. He asked for half a minute of silence. The first witness was brought to the table and sworn in. But Tutu could not get under way. He sat down. He moved his papers from side to side. Visibly uncomfortable, he looked at the victims, at the audience in the hall. "No, this won't work! We really cannot start like this," he said over the loudspeakers. "People, close your eyes so that we can pray!" A long, earnest prayer, followed—to Christ, who is the Truth, and to the Holy Spirit who had to lead us that day. After closing with "Amen," Tutu rubbed his hands together and informed the audience with a disarming smile, "There…now we are ready to proceed."
Opening prayers returned for good.
The Language of Faith
Tutu did not restrain his religion in other respects, either. At emotional points in the hearings, such as when a victim offered wrenching, teary, and often gruesome testimony, leaving the room speechless and other officials shifting and unsure how to proceed, he would lead everyone in a native hymn, conferring recognition and honor on the victim and respecting the sacred gravity of the moment. In speeches and interviews and in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu described the commission's work in terms of Christian theology. Prior to many of the commission's hearings, crowds of women would gather outside and sing hymns in anticipation of the spiritual ordeal of the testimonies to follow.
The commission inaugurated its work with a religious ceremony at St. George's Cathedral at Cape Town. Meiring was also a clergyman and one of several religious leaders and theologians to serve as commissioners or staffers. Religious bodies provided logistical and psychological support for the hearings, recommended the commission's work to their members with religious rationales, and, most directly, participated in hearings where corporate entities testified about their role in apartheid. Many victims and perpetrators, especially ones who experienced an emotional transformation, described their experience in religious language. Cumulatively, the language of faith infused the public conversation surrounding the hearings.