Setting Free the Past

Edited text of the
Oliver R Tambo Lecture, delivered at Georgetown University by Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town

Desmond Tutu


Almost everybody believed that South Africa was headed for Armageddon. Violence was endemic. Things were so bad that when the daily statistics on violence were published and on any particular day five, six or even ten people had been killed, we would sigh with relief and say, "Only five, or six, or only ten people were killed". It did seem as if all those dire predictions about a ghastly race war, of a bloodbath overwhelming us, all were coming true. And then, instead of being overtaken by a ghastly conflagration, the world watched with wonder and some awe as South Africans of all races stood in those long lines, snaking their way slowly to the polling booths, when South Africa went to vote in its first democratic elections on April 27, 1994.
The foreboding, the predictions were, amazingly, not fulfilled. Then the cynics and others declared that we should wait and see, for as sure as anything as soon as a black-led government was in power there would be an orgy of revenge and retribution. The blacks, for so long downtrodden and oppressed, would get their own back and wreak revenge on the whites, who had made them suffer so grievously and so unnecessarily for so long. And then - and then - instead of that much-feared outbreak of vengeance, the world was stunned by the unprecedented Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process. Instead of baying for the blood of those who had oppressed them, the victims who should by rights have been consumed by bitterness and resentment, exhibited a remarkable magnanimity and generosity of spirit in their willingness to forgive the perpetrators of some of the most gruesome atrocities.
They were ready to consider forgiveness and reconciliation rather than punishment and retribution. It is eight years since the extraordinary democratic elections, and four years since the TRC handed over its five volume report to then President Mandela. The extraordinary fact is that the arrangements that were negotiated to make these two events possible are still holding. The land is still enjoying a remarkable level of stability. Yes, there is violence, there is unemployment, poverty and AIDS - but the violence is not political by and large.
It is not something designed per se to subvert the newly established order. When one looks at the level of social and economic instability in, say, the former Soviet Union, what we have in South Africa is like a Sunday school picnic in contrast. And what country does not have problems? Given our antecedents would it not have been more likely to see children being escorted to school by armed security personnel? That scenario has been played out, not as we would have expected in South Africa, but in Northern Ireland. You would not have been surprised had race riots erupted in South Africa - after all, our racist past made our country a prime site for such eruptions. And yet it has not been in South Africa that race riots have happened. No, unbelievably, it has been in Great Britain.
There can be no doubt at all about the critically important role played by our political leaders at the time.
Had they been lily-livered and scared of going against the considerable populist current, and if they had merely pandered to the prevailing mood, then the chances would have been nearly non-existent for us to have attempted crossing that particular Rubicon. Mercifully for us, God raised up - as Esther had been - for just such times an FW de Klerk and a Nelson Mandela to be at the helm. We can safely assert that had Mr de Klerk's irascible and granite-like predecessor, Mr P W Botha, been in charge, it is highly unlikely that we would have seen the epoch-making moves that Mr de Klerk announced on February 2, 1990. I could not quite believe my eyes and my ears as I watched him on TV announcing those quite extraordinarily courageous initiatives. But almost everyone would be quick to concede that had he had to deal with an intransigent, bitter and vengeful counterpart, then it is highly unlikely that the entire process could have made first base. What a blessing with which God showered us when God raised Nelson Mandela at precisely this moment - someone who had languished in jail for 27 years because he had had the temerity to claim that he and other black people were actually human persons, with the same inalienable rights claimed and enjoyed by their white compatriots. Actually 'languish' is too negative a word, for in fact that time in jail was not wasted. He had gone to jail as an angry, frustrated young activist. In prison the fires of adversity purified him and removed the dross; the steel was tempered. He learned to be more generous in his judgment of others, being gentle with their foibles. It gave him a new depth and serenity at the core of his being, and made him tolerant and magnanimous to a fault, more ready to forgive than to nurse grudges - paradoxically regal and even arrogant, and at the same time ever so humble and modest.
Mr de Klerk could go ahead with his very courageous initiative because his counterpart was not vindictive, bitter and resentful. It was not really popular to have done what these two leaders did - anything but. On the white side the intransigent wanted to dig their heels in and to fight to the last drop of blood. (We later discovered that there were arms caches buried in different parts of the country, and we were just a whisker away from the bloodbath that had been so widely predicted.) On the liberation movement side there were those who believed that they could knock the stuffing out of the apartheid establishment, who were hell bent on demanding their every pound of flesh. They wanted all the apartheid functionaries to be brought to book in a process of retributive justice akin to the Nuremburg Trial.
Mercifully for us, the 27 years gave Madiba (Nelson Mandela) an unassailable credibility. He could say, "Let us forgive these guys!" and no one could say, "You're talking glibly about forgiving - you don't know anything about suffering!" Well, he could have retorted, "Twenty-seven years you know!" His moral stature and authority were, and are, impeccable and equally unassailable, as the world has come to appreciate. Wonderfully it was not just he. He was the most spectacular example. There were many others, such as the late Joe Slovo, the Jewish Chairperson of the Communist Party, greatly admired in the black community. He sold to the radicals acceptance of the so-called "sunset clauses" that guaranteed that white officials in the apartheid dispensation would not be retrenched or lose their benefits with the advent of democracy and freedom. Or Chris Hani, whose assassination brought us to the brink of disaster, and whose popularity was second only to that of Madiba, idolised as the Communist leader of umKhonto weSiswe, the ANC's armed wing, and who had been able to persuade the fire-eaters among the young activists to agree to laying down arms and ending the armed struggle. Clearly courageous leadership, ready to take risks and refusing to pander to populist demands, played a crucial and indispensable role in our transition.
Perhaps I should have put this second factor at the top of the list; it is this, that the time was apt, just right. In Galatians, St Paul uses a lovely phrase, "in the fullness of time" - when everything was in place, not a moment too soon, or it would have been premature; not a moment too late, for then it would be obsolete, anachronistic. There had to be a Mikhail Gorbachev with his perestroika and glasnost. The so-called evil empire had to have disintegrated so that white apartheid South Africa could no longer hoodwink a gullible West about being the last bastion of Western civilisation in Africa against Soviet expansionism. This time coming too soon might have meant that Madiba would not have been quite as he turned out to be a little later. All happened in the fullness of time - at precisely the right time, and no other. Our people were quite marvellous. They had a wonderful resilience and sense of fun. They laughed through their tears, as when the sun shines while it is raining. The apartheid system was vicious and did all it could to break the spirit of our people, and to knock the stuffing out of them. I have not ceased to marvel at their strength in the face of unspeakable viciousness and evil, as we had evidence of it all in the testimony before the TRC.
Apartheid did its worst; it tightened the screws of repression quite viciously and it created the climate that made possible the perpetration of some of the most horrendous atrocities. I was quite devastated by the revelations relating to the biological warfare program of the apartheid regime. It was all so cynical, as it was so clinical - subverting science to such evil purposes. They had wanted to poison Madiba while he was in prison, so that his brain would be affected, and he would be disabled. Can you imagine what the consequence would have been had they succeeded!
They nearly killed Frank Chikane (General-Secretary of the South African Council of Churches) by dousing his clothes with an organic poison. He was saved, miraculously almost, because he happened to be visiting his wife, who was studying at the University of Wisconsin, and somebody there was researching those poisons. Frank Chikane is now the Director General in President Mbeki's office. The apartheid regime came up against a formidable adversary in our people, especially the women. Without them we would not have had our freedom. One of our freedom chants declares, "Botha/Verwoerd, when you touch the women you touch a rock." We had vibrant civic organisations that did not allow politicians free rein. We did indeed win a spectacular victory over the awfulness of apartheid but it is a victory that would have been quite impossible without the crucial support of the international community. We realised then, as we realise now, just how much we need the rest of the world. No one is completely self-sufficient. Such a one would be an aberration, a contradiction, for we need one another, since we are made for interdependence, for a delicate network of complementarity. What is true of individuals is true of nations. We were never meant to go it alone; to do so would be to flout a fundamental law of our being, and all kinds of things go horribly, badly wrong when we forget we are made for community, for family, for togetherness. We saw this playing out in our own recent history. We are democratic today because of the support of the rest of the world.
"The apartheid regime came up against a formidable adversary in our people, especially the women." We succeeded ultimately because this is a moral universe. Right and wrong, good and bad, matter. There is no way ultimately that evil can have the last word - that a lie can prevail over truth, that evil can in the end triumph over good. This is God's world, and God is in charge, despite all appearances to the contrary. We sometimes did wish we could have whispered in God's ear, "God we know you are in charge, but for goodness sake, why don't you make it more obvious that you are in charge?" And yet history provides ample evidence of the truth of this assertion. How many are the tyrants and despots who thought they ruled the roost, who have come a cropper, and bitten the dust ignominiously? In recent times, Hitler, Mussolini, Amin, Marcos, Ceaucescu, Pinochet, Milosevic, ad infinitum. They might indeed cause considerable havoc, but in the long run (which is the only run that matters, as someone has put it) good is stronger than evil, life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness, victory is ours through Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has overcome death through dying, and brought life and immortality into our reach. There is a nemesis in the scheme of things. You cannot flout the laws of the universe with impunity and hope to get away with it forever.
We have been given a precious gift - to be morally responsible, those with the freedom to choose to love or to hate, to obey or to disobey. It is a divine gift, making us like God, and God, who alone has the perfect right to be a totalitarian, has such a deep respect for our relative autonomy that he had much rather we went freely to hell, than compel us to go to heaven. In this moral universe nothing is useless. The sighs and groans of the persecuted and tortured, the courage and fidelity of the unremarked, the generosities and compassion that happen unsung, the heroisms often hidden - these do not just evaporate into the ether. No, they impregnate the atmosphere. When you enter a happy home you do not need to be told - it is there in the air you breathe, in the fabric. As when you enter a church that has been hallowed by much praying, you know it; it is in the bricks and the mortar, it is unmistakable. Nothing is lost, all make a contribution, even the seeming failures; all and in the fullness of time, it all comes to a head and others enter into the labours of their predecessors.
It is God's world, who watches patiently as it all unfolds, writing straight with crooked lines, adjusting God's plans according to our response, our waywardness and recalcitrance. This God, we were able to announce to our people, is notoriously biased in favour of the weak, the hungry and the oppressed. Our people exulted as we regaled them with stories of a God who was not deaf, who was not blind, who was not stupid, but who heard their cry of anguish and knew their suffering. As of old God had come down to lead the rabble of slaves out of bondage in Egypt, so God would come down and lead us from apartheid's bondage into the Promised Land of freedom and democracy. This God who did not give good advice from a safe distance: "You see, when you enter a fiery furnace it would be wise to wear protective gear". No, wonderfully, God entered the fiery furnace and was there in the midst of it, sharing the anguish and agony, for this was Immanuel, God with us. Religion played a crucial role too. The faith communities and their leaders were prominent players in the struggle and contributed hugely to the ethos that evolved in our country.
Madiba and other political leaders have been quite warm in the tributes they have paid to the different faith communities for their part in the struggle. When we marched in Cape Town in the Mother of all Marches, the first in a series that mushroomed all over the country, I was arm in arm with a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam, figuratively. No one denomination or faith community on its own could have accomplished what we did together. Christians are well aware, or should be, of the woeful record of Christianity -responsible for the Inquisition, for the burning of witches and heretics at the stake; for the obscurantism that sought to frustrate Copernicus and Galileo and others; for the Crusades that caused such bloody mayhem among Muslims. Fervent Christians supported slavery, it was Christians who supported Hitler in perpetrating the Holocaust in Germany, and it was decent Christians who were the most zealous supporters of apartheid. It is Christians at one another's throats in Northern Ireland, and it was Christians who were involved in the recent Rwandan genocide. We are thankful for the cooperation of the different faiths in South Africa when we fought against apartheid, and we know that any faith is susceptible to subversion by extremist elements of one sort or another, and that this phenomenon should not be used to condemn all its adherents. We too know of extremists in all our faiths, and have always declared that they do not represent the faith at its best. Language we discovered is a very potent force. It does not just describe reality, it creates the reality it describes - hence the agitation of women against sexist language. Often the appellation boxed a person in an unalterable identity, far too frequently one that dehumanised, demonised, as if that one was forever defined by their past.
We would hear after some gruesome evidence before the TRC that so-and-so was a monster or a devil, and we had to keep reminding people that the conduct of the person could be described in the most trenchant manner - it could be defined as diabolical, as monstrous, etc - but we had to keep in mind that this one still remained, improbably, a child of God. A monster did not have moral responsibility, and so could not be held accountable for what had happened. But far more serious was that (by so naming a person) we close all possibility of change - that there was no hope. Instead, we declared that this one could be rehabilitated, could become better. If that were not the case, then the TRC process was pointless, for it was established on the premise that confession, forgiveness made possible the move towards a new dispensation where former enemies would be reconciled and become friends.
Mercifully the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ declare history to be open - that it is possible to be different, that we will be surprised at those we find in heaven, for ours is a faith of ever new beginnings; God gives up on no one. Language is potent. When we opposed apartheid's forced population removals, and black people, especially the elderly, were dumped in poverty- stricken Bantustan homelands, an apartheid cabinet minister, referring to those elderly, called them "superfluous appendages". Our mothers and fathers, our sisters and brothers, people of flesh and blood - "superfluous appendages". We discovered that it is quite impossible to get true stability, security and peace through the barrel of a gun - through violence and might. We were surprised to find that it was not an eye for an eye, retributive justice, revenge and tit for tatting that give birth to true security.
We were even more amazed to discover that something so spiritual, so religious as forgiveness, as confession, was not nebulous, reserved for the privacy of personal intercourse with one's deity, but that it all belonged in the realm of real politick; that getting one's own back, seeking to even the score, was a futile business, setting off an inexorable spiral of reprisal provoking counter reprisal, which in turn would provoke its own counter reprisal endlessly. Reconciliation, forgiveness, seeing the other, even one's worst enemy, as still human with possibilities of rehabilitation and changing for the better - these were ultimately the only viable methods available. Violent reaction to the suicide bomber who was to be condemned quite unequivocally just seemed to give rise to further suicide bombers. That seems to be the case so distressingly in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, in Kosovo, etc. It is no facile, glib slogan to say, "No future without forgiveness".
It just happens to be the truth. God does have a huge sense of humour. Who could ever have imagined South Africa to be a sign of hope, an example of anything but the most awful ghastliness? We were such an unlikely lot, and God chose to use us precisely because of that - that we were not over virtuous - we would not have sustained such an evil system for so long, and clearly we were not too bright either. It was so that God could point to us for all the world's troubled spots to see and say, "They had a nightmare called apartheid, it has ended and yours too will end. They had a problem thought to be intractable. They are solving it. Nowhere can anyone ever again think that their problem was intractable".
We were appalled as we listened to some of the testimony being given before the TRC, and we wondered, "How low human beings can sink". We all have an awful capacity for the most ghastly evil. But that was just one side of it. As we heard and saw people who had suffered grievously not baying for the blood of their tormentors, but instead demonstrating an extraordinary magnanimity and generosity of spirit to forgive their tormentors, we were exhilarated and realised that we all have a wonderful capacity for good. You and me are made for goodness, for love, for transcendence, for togetherness. God has a dream that we, God's children, would come to realise that we are indeed sisters and brothers, members of one family, God's family, the human family; that all belong, all white, black, and yellow, rich and poor, beautiful and not so beautiful, young and old, male and female. There are no outsiders; all, all are insiders - gay and straight, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Arabs, Americans, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Afghans - all, all belong. And God says, "I have no one to help me realise my dream except you; will you help me?"

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