6 Dec 2013

The power of forgiveness: Mandela’s legacy to the world

“The time for the healing of the wounds has begun.” There was to be no revenge, no retribution. Instead Mandela showed the world another way to truth and justice: forgiveness.

Mandela and Tutu at truth commission (getty)

He was imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid regime – but Nelson Mandela wanted nothing to do with revenge. In his inaugural presidential address, he insisted that South Africa would only be truly free if it came to terms with its past.

“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us”, he said – and described forgiveness as a powerful weapon, because “it liberates the soul, it removes fear”.

It was to herald a whole new approach to dealing with the atrocities committed under apartheid: a model at complete odds with the prosecution and punishment exemplified at Nuremburg.

In place of trials, Mandela created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: the idea was to bring out the truth of what happened, by allowing victims and perpetrators to give testimony in public hearings.

Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace. Nelson Mandela

This, went the theory, would serve to investigate the full extent of the human rights abuses, while providing an accurate record and analysis of those years. And, by providing amnesty to the old oppressors – even killers – it replaced the whole idea of retribution with one of restorative justice.

This was not about righting past wrongs, but healing the wounds of history, as Desmond Tutu acknowledged. “We had a horrendous past”, he said. “We needed to look the beast in the eye, so that the past would not hold us hostage any more.”

And, he went on, “To forgive is not just to be altruistic, it is the best form of self-interest.”

Public hearings

The hearings began in 1997, in the full glare of the media – filled with horrific tales of killings, imprisonment, torture and loss. Truth telling was supposed to be cathartic: but to some victims, the very idea of an amnesty for their oppressors was anathema.

The family of Steve Biko, the young anti-apartheid activist who was murdered in police custody, said the commission had robbed them of their chance for justice, but failed in a legal bid to have the amnesty powers declared unconsitutional.

Another witness told the commission they did not have the power to forgive. “They don’t know my pain – only I can forgive, and I must know before I forgive”, she said.

But those charged with leading the new South African democracy were detemined that it should not revist the conflicts of the past. The horror of Rwanda’s genocide showed only too clearly what could happen if the spirit of vengeance was allowed to flourish.

As Archbishop Tutu pointed out: “Retribution leads to a cycle of reprisal, leading to counter-reprisal in an inexorable movement, as in Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and in the former Yugoslavia. The only thing that can break that cycle, making possible a new beginning, is forgiveness.”

This was proof, then, that even a nation which had been subjected to the most terrible injustice, could begin afresh: this was to serve as a model for post-conflict societies around the world.

A model for the world

The former US president Jimmy Carter set up his own conflict resolution centre, charged with building a sustainable peace from Bosnia to the Middle East. His representatives set out to work with warring parties, “filling the space between official diplomacy and unofficial grassroots peace efforts”.

After Northern Ireland’s Good Friday agreement, there was a determined effort to bring former enemies together along the lines of the South African model: a forum which could examine the unresolved killings and wrongs suffered by both communities. There was no actual commission, but the principles were the same – truth, healing, and moving on from the past.

After their bloody civil wars, Liberia and Sierra Leone both set up truth commissions, investigating and reporting back on the gross violations of human rights committed during those conflicts, while promoting security and national unity, and avoiding a new descent into violence.

And if anyone were to lose sight of the higher goal, the guiding words of Nelson Mandela remain an inspiration. “Men of peace must not think about retribution or recriminations. Courageous peple do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”