Truth and Reconciliation

December 13, 2013

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, I am reflecting again on the miracle of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa.

On May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa and the new South Africa united under what is widely agreed to be one of the most human-rights oriented constitutions in the world. But the question of how to address the horrors of the past reared its head early on in his presidency.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote,

the debate was not on whether but on how we might deal with this…past. There were those who wanted to follow the Nuremberg trial paradigm, by bringing to trial all perpetrators of gross violations of human rights and letting them run the gauntlet of the normal judicial process. This…was really not a viable option at all…in World War II the Allies defeated the Nazis…comprehensively and were thus able to impose what has been described as “victor’s justice.” {In South Africa} Neither side could impose victor’s justice because neither side won the decisive victory that would have enabled it to do so, since we had a military stalemate. (No Future Without Forgiveness, p. 20.)

Nor was automatic, blanket amnesty an option. Too many people were still hurting, still wondering what had happened to their vanished loved ones, still wanting to hear their tormentors confess and accept responsibility.

The South Africans found a third path, embodied in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Chaired by Archbishop Tutu, the commission consisted of three committees. The Human Rights Violations committee investigated crimes committed between 1960 and 1994,bearing witness to the atrocities committed on all sides. The Reparation and Rehabilitation committee allocated small grants to survivors of violence to restore dignity and effect healing. For example, a widow could apply for funds to send her children to school, or a mother could apply for funds to place a gravestone for her son. Lastly, the Amnesty committee heard applications from perpetrators and, in some but not all cases, granted amnesty from criminal or civil prosecution.

The conditions for amnesty were fairly stringent, and included a full and honest confession of all the facts. Victims could argue that the conditions were not met,but they could not block the giving of amnesty. Interestingly, there was no requirement that the perpetrator express remorse. Most of them did, and many even specifically asked for forgiveness from their victims or the relatives of their victims. Because it was not a requirement, however, there would be no question that the remorse was genuine rather than a self-serving gesture.

I can think of no greater evidence of the limitless creativity and resilience of the human spirit than the Truth and Reconciliation process. It lights a path toward both interpersonal and global peace. Truth comes first, then forgiveness, and then a fresh start.

We can’t change the past. We can face the truth in the present. We can choose a better, more interdependent future.


One Response to “Truth and Reconciliation”

  1. Pat Rathmann Says:

    This is a beautiful recipe for living in these trying times.

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