Maurice Nchabeleng tells the panel and the audience how as a schoolboy he was taken to the room where his activist father had just been tortured and killed by the South African security forces. In that room he was ordered to wash his hands in his father's blood.

Stories like Nchabeleng's are surfacing all around South Africa. The country is trying to come to terms with its past. It is a past marked by apartheid and—as we are now learning—atrocities long hidden from view that are now being brought to light. These stories are horrific, yet told in gritty detail.

The storytellers do not sanitize the events, nor are they permitted euphemisms to cover the horrors. The stories are of people being tortured and killed in unspeakable ways, yet now those ways are being spoken. It is not only victims like Nchabeleng recounting the details of their suffering; it is also the torturers, including high-ranking state officials, confessing their crimes.

Even more astonishing, however, is that these stories are not being told in the context of a confessional. Rather, they are being told on the national stage, and in the midst of national and international debates, as South Africa struggles to come to terms with the burdens of its past. In so doing, South Africa is offering to the rest of the world a test of the power, and perhaps the limits, of the Christian vision of reconciliation. For at the heart of the entire process of confessing the truth about the past is the conviction, and the hope, that a renewed future will be possible that is marked more by reconciliation and peace than by recurring cycles of violence and vengeance. For some, that seems too much to ask. For others, it is the most hopeful sign for political life that we have seen in some time. Before we can evaluate its prospects, however, some background is in order.

As apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, South Africa faced the task of reconstructing a society that had been based on divisions and oppression. This entailed dealing with past injustices. First they looked to the ways other countries had formed "truth commissions" to deal with crimes; some even proposed the formation of "Nuremberg trials" for those responsible for apartheid.

However, in the interim constitution of 1993, South Africa committed itself to a program of amnesty. A key passage of that constitution declares: "Amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions, and offences associated with political objectives and committed in the course of the conflicts of the past."

Article continues below

This principle became a key feature of a bill establishing a Commission on Truth and Reconciliation passed by the South African Parliament on October 21, 1994. This commission linked together amnesty, truth telling, and a goal of reconciliation as key features of one process. The establishment of the commission made clear that South Africa was going to give priority to reconciliation rather than revenge.

The commission was charged with several tasks:

to establish "as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights" during the period from March 1, 1960 (the Sharpeville massacre), to the end of 1993;

to grant amnesty to "persons who make full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated with a political objective" in that period;

to give victims "an opportunity to relate the violations they suffered";

to take measures of reparation, rehabilitation, and the restoration of "human and civil dignity" to the victims;

to report to the nation on its findings;

and, finally, to make recommendations aimed at the prevention of similar violations in the future.

Obviously, such a momentous and monumental undertaking could succeed only if great care was given to the processes under which the commission would do its work. Amidst many crucial decisions, three have proven pivotal: first, the selection of Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head the commission; second, the careful yet rigorous process by which the various commissioners were chosen; third, the insistence that the entire truth be told, including the sins and crimes committed by the victims of apartheid.

Archbishop Tutu is widely respected throughout South Africa. His gentle spirit, firm convictions, and tireless passion have served the entire process extremely well. Even more, Tutu's adherence to the South African notion of ubuntu, which stresses the interdependence of humanity and our need for reconciliation, undergirds his Christian theology and has guided him throughout the commission's work (see Michael Battle, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu for more on this theme). Tutu has been able to command widespread respect among diverse and opposite groups within South Africa.

This is also the case with the various commissioners selected to serve on the panels charged with listening to the stories and making decisions about requests for amnesty. One of the chief criteria employed in selecting commissioners was that they needed to have credibility with their own people and credibility among other groups. This scrutiny took a great deal of time and required extensive examination of the long lists of people nominated by the public to serve.

Article continues below

The selection panel included a representative from each of the major political parties, two church leaders, a trade unionist, and two lawyers with expertise in the area of human rights. This panel considered more than 600 names and selected 45 people for public interviews. Anyone could offer objections to any of the candidates. The selection panel developed a final list of 25 names that was presented to President Mandela. He consulted with his cabinet and then selected the final group of 18 commissioners. As a result of this careful discernment process, there has been a high level of trust in the work of the commissioners.

Perhaps most significant in the work of the commission has been the insistence that the entire truth must be told. Tutu has consistently refused to allow the focus to be only on the crimes of white South Africans. Of course, this is not a blanket assertion that "we are all sinners" and so all in need of absolution. There is no doubt that the crimes of the Afrikaner regime, and of the adherents of apartheid, far exceeded the crimes of the African National Congress and other resistance groups. This is true whether the crimes are measured quantitatively or by the seriousness of the offenses.

At the same time, however, Tutu has insisted that South Africans cannot ignore or cover over the horrors committed by those resisting or seeking to overthrow an unjust regime. If truth telling and amnesty are to be linked to reconciliation, then the whole truth must be confessed. This requires a willingness to examine our own hearts, minds, and lives—whether we are investigating the horrors of South Africa and elsewhere or the particularities of our own lives in less dramatically sinful parts of the world.

The process of truth telling has been painful. Tutu himself has often been reduced to tears by the stories he hears told. In an interview, Tutu asks: "What would you do, if you were a mother and you sat there and you heard that your son had been put into a minibus, plied with alcohol, and then, on the border between your country and a foreign country, had some stuff injected into him, and the minibus was then packed with explosives and your son was blown to smithereens?

Article continues below

"One is shattered in many ways by the revelations," Tutu continues, "but on the other side you are almost exhilarated by how most people have responded to the truth. But I have quite seriously wondered how much truth we can tolerate."

Thus far, South Africa's national culture seems to have been able to tolerate an astonishing level of truthfulness. Yet it has also been accompanied by questions, reservations, and pointed objections. Some worry that amnesty offers cheap reconciliation, particularly since those who confess do not have to express either remorse or repentance. Many, in fact, do express remorse, but that is not the point. Those who do not seem to be getting away with murder—literally.

True, the commitment to amnesty was made as part of the political negotiations that enabled a peaceful transition from apartheid to democratic rule. That is, amnesty was made a precondition of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not a result of careful deliberations by the commission about how best to come to terms with the past. This fuels suspicion that South African politicians secured the promise of amnesty not only as a means of legitimately avoiding unjust (though understandable) reprisals, but also illegitimately to avoid accountability.

Even so, two other features of the process work to allay such suspicion. First, there is neither a blanket amnesty for all crimes nor is there a guarantee of amnesty for any particular crime. Persons must come before the commission to confess their specific offenses, and they must petition the commission for amnesty. In order to grant amnesty, the commission must be convinced that:

the act(s) involved a political objective;

the act(s) took place during the time period designated by the commission (1960-93);

the act(s) committed were proportional to the political objective being sought;

and that the perpetrator has confessed the whole truth.

People had only until the end of 1997 to come forward with confessions for the purpose of amnesty. (The period has since been extended through April 1998 to accommodate the response.)

Second, and closely related, the very process of requiring personal, public confession requires an accountability that we ought not underestimate. Particularly in the United States, people are tempted to equate accountability with publicly sanctioned punishment. In that sense, South Africa's amnesty allows the perpetrators to go free. But it also has required them to confess the truth of what they have done. This involves courage, and it also enables South Africans and the whole world to have a public reckoning of the past.

Article continues below

This approach to dealing with atrocities from the past presses another objection to the work of the commission. Many people worry that this commission, both through its offer of amnesty and its focus on reconciliation, undermines the importance of justice. For some, the problem is that it seems too soon for forgiveness. As one woman describes the torture and death of her son, she concludes: "I do not know if I can forgive. I must know who did this to my son. When I see the face of the one who killed him, and he tells me why, then perhaps I can forgive."

Others have more pointed objections to the very idea of forgiveness. They do not want forgiveness at all; they want justice and, perhaps, even vengeance. They hear the true stories told of what perpetrators did to them or their loved ones, and they are filled with anger and desires for vengeance. They do not want reconciliation with these offenders; if they cannot have publicly sanctioned vengeance, they at least desire lawfully recognized justice. It is difficult to disagree, particularly since doing so may seem to be heaping further burdens on people already victimized in horrifying ways.

Archbishop Tutu has responded to these objections by drawing a contrast between retributive and restorative justice. The commission emphasizes reconciliation over retributive justice, but it does so in the interest of restorative justice. In part, they are bound to do so by the commitment to amnesty. At the same time, however, it is not clear that an alternative would have been preferable. Public trials on the order of Nuremberg would have been extraordinarily costly, and there is no guarantee that such trials would have necessarily produced either the truth or convictions of the perpetrators.

At a deeper level, the commission's focus on restorative justice seems closely allied to the process Jesus embodies in the Gospels. His primary concern throughout his life, death, and resurrection was offering forgiveness that aims not at re-tributive but rather restorative justice. The commission does not punish the offenders, but it does offer victims an opportunity both to tell their stories and to seek reparations for their suffering. Cheap reconciliation might deny justice of any kind; however, a Christian understanding of reconciliation, and of the relationship between justice and forgiveness, is well served by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's careful process of linking reconciliation with each person's confessing the whole truth of what that person did or had done to him or her.

Article continues below

Moreover, we ought not to lose sight of the dramatic and significant stories of victims or victims' families offering forgiveness to the perpetrators when the perpetrators confess their crimes. Over and over again, people have responded to horrifying stories about their loved ones, not with desires for retribution, but with gestures of forgiveness and hope for a future not bound by the destructiveness of the past. While we cannot expect all victims to be ready to desire and offer forgiveness, neither should we minimize the power and drama of people whose gestures offer signs of God's inbreaking kingdom.

Yet this presses perhaps the most pointed objection to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Reconciliation is too high a price for political culture, and we ought not permit what one South African victim characterized as "the imposition of a Christian morality of forgiveness" into a political process. As Timothy Garton Ash put it, when "taken to the extreme, the reconciliation of all with all is a deeply illiberal idea" (The New York Review of Books, July 17, 1997). Ash asks, "Would it not be more realistic to define a more modest goal: peaceful coexistence, cooperation, tolerance?"

Presumably, democracy in the Western world represents the embodiment of this more modest goal. Rather than imposing ideals of forgiveness and reconciliation on a political culture, we ought to be satisfied with processes that preserve tolerance without requiring the embrace of strangers, much less enemies. This may seem to be a more modest goal, but does it really provide peaceful coexistence? What is the record of the United States in dealing with the legacies of slavery? Are the wounds healing, albeit slowly, or do we simply find ways of avoiding the open sores? The answer is undoubtedly a portion of both, yet I am not convinced that the "liberal" modest goal of peaceful coexistence, cooperation, and tolerance is sufficient.

Indeed, the model of "peaceful coexistence" seems these days to be masking a despair in African-American communities that whites do not really care about their plight. Perhaps addressing the realities of our social conflicts—whether in the United States, in South Africa, or in Bosnia—requires the risks of challenging people to imagine a higher goal, of forgiveness and reconciliation. This goal enables people to be prodded out of comfortable illusions about tolerance into a more costly, but also more life-giving, struggle toward truthful reconciliation. In the United States, the most hopeful signs for progress in dealing with racism are coming not from the broader liberal culture of tolerance, but from Christians who believe that racial reconciliation is a task incumbent on all those who worship the God of Jesus Christ.

Article continues below

This does not mean, of course, that we will achieve reconciliation of all with all. I do not know what Ash means by his worry about taking the goal of reconciliation "to the extreme." There will likely be people in virtually any social setting with whom we will not be reconciled. However, that does not diminish the goal.

Christians are enjoined to struggle to "love your enemies" and even to "pray for those who persecute you." This seems a modest and realistic, though no less challenging, goal for those situations in which reconciliation is not currently conceivable. But unlike Ash and others, this does not diminish the focus on truthful reconciliation as the larger horizon that guides and structures our dealings with one other. Without that horizon, "peaceful coexistence" glosses over and evades the realities of our conflicts and masks the desires for retribution and vengeance that so often infect our relationships.

I confess that I find the Truth and Reconciliation process one of the most dramatic and hopeful signs of an authentically Christian contribution to political life to emerge in many years. To be sure, there are many challenges yet to be faced, and moral and political minefields yet to be traversed. Even so, there are important insights that we can glean not only as observers, but also as participants in our own churches and in political contexts in our neighborhoods, schools, states, and our country. Three insights, if taken seriously, could faithfully transform our lives and our interactions with others.

First, there can be no healing of the past without truthful confession. We must abandon our attempts to rationalize what we have done or to blame others (particularly victims) or to excuse ourselves, and confront truthfully what we have done or had done to us. Such confession must be public in the sense that we test our judgments in the presence of others. But in a culture in which our public discourse seems all too contingent upon evading the truth or deceiving others, and in which studies indicate that most of us tell at least two lies a day, such a commitment requires that we renew our commitment to truthful confession.

Article continues below

Second, truthful confession will only be life-giving if we can trust that others are more interested in forgiveness, reconciliation, and restorative justice than in retribution. Christian confession requires that we focus our attention on healing the brokenness that has occurred rather than on punishing those who have done wrong. This does require accountability, but we ought not let it become an oc-casion for retribution, much less vengeance. This will require re-evaluation of our attitudes toward punishment in our legal system, but it should also occasion some searching reflections about practices within our own congregations and our own personal relationships.

Third, in the absence of reconciliation, we need nonetheless to struggle to find processes that enable us to retain our commitment to truthful confession and reconciliation even while acknowledging the persistence of division and conflict. Central to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's success has been the care with which it has undertaken its deliberations, a care marked by the larger horizons of truth and reconciliation. Moreover, the commission has sought faithfully to maintain credibility with all parties to the disputes.

We need to find similar ways of ensuring credible processes in our own practices within the church and in the broader culture, and to explore ways of keeping the horizons of truth and reconciliation ever before us, even—indeed, especially—when we are inclined to hate and destroy our enemies rather than to love them. Archbishop Tutu's steadfast commitment stands as a remarkable witness from which we all can summon inspiration.

Tutu's commitment has been recently tested by the intransigence of two of South Africa's most visible political leaders: the African National Congress's Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and former president P. W. Botha.

Tutu has known the Mandela family for many years, including through some of the worst of the apartheid era. When Ms. Madikizela-Mandela, now divorced from Nelson Mandela, came before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in October of 1997, Tutu greeted her warmly. He recalled her signal contributions to the struggle against apartheid. He also pleaded with her to acknowledge and confess the full truth of her complicity in the violence, injustice, and terror conducted in her name in the late 1980s.

Article continues below

Almost three dozen people testified that Madikizela-Mandela was behind several brutal tortures, abductions, and murder committed by young men who worked for her in the township of Soweto. During that time, in 1989, Madikizela-Mandela sought to deflect suspicions by falsely accusing a Methodist pastor, Paul Verryn, of sodomizing young men. One of those closest to her, Jerry Richardson, testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Madikizela-Mandela ordered the abduction of a suspected informant, 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, and then oversaw his torture and murder at Richardson's hands.

Yet Madikizela-Mandela has acknowledged only that "things went horribly wrong." She has denied any responsibility or complicity, even after listening to weeks of testimony from those who had been close to her during the struggles against apartheid. In one of the more dramatic moments of the hearings, Paul Verryn, now a Methodist bishop in South Africa, approached Madikizela-Mandela and told her that he had been searching for a time and place to forgive her for her false accusations. She responded coolly through her lawyer: not here in public, adding that Verryn would have known where to find her.

Madikizela-Mandela neither accepted responsibility nor expressed any willingness to ask forgiveness from those she had wronged. Yet she has hoped to maintain strength as a political leader for the future, even running for deputy president of the ruling African National Congress. How will the people respond to one whom they have loved and respected for so long, yet whose character now seems so questionable?

On the other hand, P. W. Botha, South Africa's former president and one of the architects of apartheid, has refused even to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He has refused because, in his eyes, he has nothing for which he has to apologize. In accordance with the law establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Botha's case will now be turned over to the courts. Botha's stubborn resolve has made him a hero to those white South Africans who regard the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work as a one-sided persecution conducted by the victors.

These cases in particular will test the resolve of Archbishop Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the South African people. Can they find the will to retain their commitment to truthfulness, even if some of their most visible leaders refuse to participate? Or will they —and we—find it easier to give up hope, returning to a supposedly "realistic" but ultimately cynical posture that all we can expect is tolerance of one another's failings? Sustaining such hope will continue to be hard work. Yet it is well worth the effort, for nothing less than faithful witness to God's ministry of reconciliation is at stake.

Article continues below

L. Gregory Jones is dean of the Divinity School, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, and the author of Embodying Forgiveness (Eerdmans).

SIDEBARS FOR THIS ARTICLECry with a Beloved Country
Restoring human dignity to the victims of apartheid.
Susan VanZanten Gallagher

Between a Nightmare and a Dream
If reconcilication can happen in South Africa, it can happen elsewhere.
Desmond Tutu

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.