Apologies on behalf of governments,
churches and other institutions have become a part of public discourse.
Beneath the surface of these healing processes and acts of contrition
lies a common theme-the need for forgiveness.
Daye rhetorically poses the question why social and political forgiveness
has not been a larger part of public discourse, and suggests three sticking
· There is no consensus
on the meaning of the concept of forgiveness.
· The question of who has the power to forgive.
· What are the elements of forgiveness?
During the passage from the
terrain of interpersonal relationships to the realm of political relations
the dynamics of forgiveness become more complex, but do overlap to a large
Daye's book contributes to the work with a working model of political
He uses South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a
case study for his model of political forgiveness. He describes the TRC
as a "baptism of tears"- and indeed it earned the name "the Kleenex commission"
as the entire nation engaged in the larger process of coming to terms
with South Africa's past.
"(I)n restaurants and taverns, at dinner tables, at the office, on radio
and television, in the newspapers the national conversation about the
conflict and violence of the past and what could be done-South Africa
'pushed the envelope' further than any other country in terms of political
The nature of forgiveness has a "core grammar", which Daye portrays as
a drama in three acts, which may be scripted in an infinite variety of
1. Naming and articulation of the harm done.
2. Apology or confession.
3. Offering of forgiveness.
The complex move from the interpersonal
to the socio-political realm includes the same core elements but with
the addition of two more "acts"-
· Transitional justice
"The first act in a drama of
forgiveness is the articulation of the harm done. Any attempt to rush
to the granting of forgiveness without a careful exposition of the unjust
actions through documentation or through the generation of a broad narrative
will bastardise the process," warns Daye.
This first act has to
validate the perspectives and memories of survivors. "It shows that the
world is a place where truth is acknowledged, and it helps them move out
of a state of perpetual fear and insecurity."
"The challenge for any society trying to recover from a period of civil
war or acute oppression is to find the right balance between restorative
and retributive measures, and to ensure that these measures are appropriate
to the context."
Daye maintains that whole communities-even societies-come to suffer from
the dynamics of traumatic injury, which introduces the topic of healing.
Under this heading, repair of socio-economic systems may be necessary,
as large-scale injustice usually arises from economic motivations, among
"In transitional societies there will be families who have lost their
life savings, their livelihood, and even their breadwinners. What compensation
do they merit? How can they be reintegrated into the economy?"
Nationwide forgiveness has a more distant horizon than truth telling,
responsibility-claiming, justice, or healing. It involves the reformation
of whole communities at a level so deep that collective identities are
At the political level symbolic language takes over from emotive language.
Daye sees forgiveness as a social good, and as "something more mysterious
materializing in crucibles that mix human pain, need imagination, and
His discussion of forgiveness includes the vital caveat that forgiveness
only constitutes a virtue when abandonment of resentment does not compromise
the wronged party's self-respect.
The long association between forgiveness and Christian teachings in the
West lead some thinkers to believe that it is too coloured by theology
ever to be retrieved for application in such secular realms as national
or international politics.
Daye comments that it is ironic that important Christian thinkers themselves-from
Augustine to Luther to Neibuhr-have been complicit in the exclusion of
forgiveness from politics, by identifying separate sets of ethics for
the "city of God" and the "earthly city".
Contrary to popular wisdom that associates forgiving with forgetting,
forgiveness begins with memory. In particular, memory that contains a
moral judgment of wrong, injustice, and injury.
Agreement between two or more parties that serious wrongdoing has taken
place present the first challenge of political forgiveness.
The cycle of violence is broken with the abandonment of vengeance-which
does not exclude punishment for evildoers administered via due process.
According to Shriver reconciliation comes at the end of a process that
forgiveness begins. Political forgiveness can take generations-witness
the re-emergence of calls for apologies and restitution related to slavery
in the United States.
Daye gives a useful thumbnail sketch of colonial history and the apartheid
era in South Africa, with much of the mythology expunged.
Act One of the drama of forgiveness
is about opening a good conversation. Due to tightly restricted media
and access to information most South Africans had little idea of what
was going on in their own country. Perceptions of "the truth" was influenced
by such factors as the part of the country where one lived, one's exposure
to international media or publications (wh9ich was tightly restricted),
one's type and level of education, and to whom one chose to listen. Hence
the TRC launched a great discourse about truth telling in the early 1990s,
when South Africa initiated the most ambitious process of historical remembering
that the world had ever seen.
As apartheid was coming to an end, millions of South Africans found themselves
in a strange relationship with truth-they were on existentially unstable
ground, unsure of the "facts" that had served as foundations for their
The fact is that "What is truth?" has no simple answer. The TRC would
have to be a forum that allowed for multiple perspectives but also demanded
a certain level of rigour in terms of the verification of historical facts.
Daye: "I juxtapose here a kind of truth that gives primary attention to
forensic, detailed evidence with another kind that seeks to interpret
evidence so as to paint an evaluative history in broader strokes."
In its final report the TRC acknowledged four different kinds of truth-
· Forensic or objective truth.
· Personal, narrative truth.
· Social or dialogical truth.
· Restorative truth.
Daye uses cameo studies of
victims and perpetrators of violence throughout his book, which is helpful
in combating the inevitable tendency to stereotyping both perpetrators
He does not reify the TRC. Particularly the TRCs Committee on Human Rights
Violations was a venue for many dramas of personal forgiveness, but failure
to act on its recommendations for reparations have hobbled the process
of political forgiveness.
Daye uses sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis analysis of apology. Even at the
interpersonal level apology is not a private matter but speaks to something
larger-the grounds for membership in a moral community.
An apology offered by an offender to a victim contains a subtext that
says, "I was wrong to believe that my humanity and your humanity were
not of the same order".
Herein lies the clue as to why, for instance, the churches did not perceive
the need to apologise, or how the Church could have allowed itself to
become an instrument of government oppression in the first place. Like
society at large, church members did not see indigenous people as belonging
to the same moral community as themselves until they were assimilated
into "European" society.
Moral community is taken to mean a fellowship of persons who believe that
they owe one another "good treatment" or behaviour guided by accepted
The most controversial part of the TRCs work was the amnesty process,
but one of its great innovations was the constitution of an amnesty that
had revelation as one of its by-products.
Perpetrators who applied for amnesty were obliged to tell the truth of
their deeds in public hearings, which often included their victims.
Public apology gains reparative capability through the symbolic import
of putting things on the record, of documentation as a prelude to reconciliation.
South Africa now has more information about its past than it would have
if the new government had decided to go the alternative route of trials
The question still remains whether justice was done to reconciliation?
Daye quotes Ronald C Slye who does not fully accept the position that
truth-telling by nature advances the cause of reconciliation, but that
successful post-conflict reconciliations can only bear so much fact and
that there is a necessary element of myth-making as well. He points to
the myth of the clean hands of the French resistance and to the suppression
of information regarding the complicity of other governments and institutions
with the Nazis as abridgments of truth that served stability and cohesion
in post-war Europe.
"It may be that the de facto path taken by Europe-a combination of the
paths with a temporal dimension: short-term myth-making combined with
periodic revelation in the future-is the best one for moving forward and
adequately confronting the past."
Daye touches on revenge as
an element in legitimate retributive justice, and also includes a discussion
of resentment as protective and bolstering self-respect.
Society has achieved a balance between the restraint needed to live together
with a measure of harmony and the impulse to strike back when one is harmed,
through judicial systems. But this balance is fragile. It is lost when
people cease to believe that, if they are wronged, a legitimate institution
will act on their behalf and punish the wrongdoer.
When a person wilfully and wrongfully injures another, there is a double
harm. The first harm is the injury itself. The second is the implicit
statement by the wrongdoer that "I am essentially more important than
you are". The generation of resentment within the injured person is a
rejection of that claim and a counter-assertion of worth. Punishment for
the wrong serves as an enlargement of the relative value of the victim
by diminishing the value of the offender. It is therefore a rational assertion
about the relative value of human beings.
The surrender of resentment is a key to forgiveness, and is more likely
to happen after punishment has been administered, therefore retributive
and restorative justice is compatible.
"For while retributive justice demands that the guilty be punished, restorative
justice, in Tutu's words, 'is concerned not so much with punishment as
with correcting imbalances, restoring broken relationships-with healing,
harmony and reconciliation'. Thus, a key defining element of restorative
justice is its privileging of reconciliation over retribution."
The recourse to the African philosophy and theology of ubuntu by Archbishop
Tutu serves as an example of 'contextual vitality', which give transformative
measures much of their dynamism. Daye pursues a wide-ranging review of
arguments on the comparative merits of retributive and restorative justice,
which proved to be one of the most contentious in the TRC experience.
Rashied Omar, a South African imam known for his progressive views and
practices strongly criticised the forgiveness rhetoric of the TRC, saying
that it was not a natural outgrowth of the inner transformation of people,
but rather a product of both political pressures and the Western Christian
theology of Chairman Tutu, Vice-Chairman Boraine, and others.
Islam teaches him that it is always better to forgive, "But if the perpetrators
do not ask for forgiveness, how can we offer it?" In Islam, he argued,
there is a connection between forgiveness and justice that does more to
A major task in healing work is the transformation of traumatic memories
into narrative form.
Daye does not answer the controversial question of how intertwined are
the work of personal healing and the work of societal healing. Instead
he describes how trauma operates for perpetrators and victims in society,
both during and after the actual events.
Unless a balance between empathy and judgement is maintained during the
healing process there is a danger of further fracturing the national community.
The TRC's therapeutic value is still under debate, but it did start the
work of constructing a national narrative of empathy for the suffering
of apartheid's victims and respect for their sacrifice, although the incompleteness
of the process may have increased the woundedness of some survivors.
"It is fair to say that a traumatized nation has a real need for re-articulation
of its corporate story, such that memory is "unfrozen" and freed to be
built into new narratives. These narratives can then be used in identity
reconstruction and the building of a new future."
However, Daye warns, myth-makers and other architects of culture will
have to reach deep into the symbol systems that give shape to the cultural/ethnic
groups of Afrikaner and African to rework the narratives through which
they characterise each other.
It is generally true to say
however, that following the TRC process, the body politic and the citizenry
are learning how to disagree and debate about issues of great emotional
attachment and political import.
"The lesson for future commissions seems to be to stay open to the possibility
of grace, but be careful about promising that it will appear."
Daye says that his model of political forgiveness is not a theological
one, he intends for it to be applicable to a wide range of contexts, both
secular and religious. However, he writes, when we consider the alteration
of cultures and identities, we are moving onto 'sacred ground'.
"One of history's tragic ironies is that modernity, with its ideal of
inclusion, was born in Europe during the era of colonisation. The story
we tell ourselves in the 'modern, democratic West" is one of progressive
inclusion. That is why we are shocked when we see ethnic cleansing in
Europe…. Volf challenges this smug attitude and argues that there has
always been 'a momentous inner tension in the typically modern narrative
of inclusion'. Following postmodern critics like Dussek, Nietzche, Derrida,
and Foucault, he describes the birth of modernity as entailing exclusion
of colossal proportions…. Whatever came to be characterised as "not us"
was labelled as uncivilized, even barbaric."
Volf argues that a certain post-modern desire for 'purity', when projected
onto society, can issue in the politics of assimilation, domination or
The "negotiation of difference, which can never produce a final settlement"
remains at the heart of embracing forgiveness.
Daye's model of political forgiveness does not apply only to post-conflict
societies that are embarking upon large, well-coordinated initiatives
like truth commissions or national reconciliation programs. It is appropriate
for any nation that has experienced a period of civil war or gross persecution
and which is moving out of this strife towards a more just and peaceful
Forgiveness : lessons from South Africa, by Russell Daye Orbis
Books, Maryknoll, NY.
Rrp $46.95. pp 210. ISBN 1-57075-490-X