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We have failed to understand retribution does not offer us any future, only forgiveness does

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, right, with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, March 12, 2008. File Picture: Themba Hadebe/AP

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, right, with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, March 12, 2008. File Picture: Themba Hadebe/AP

Published Jan 3, 2022


The nauseating part of the many commemorations of the life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu was seeing the many political luminaries telling us how he was our light and moral compass during the dark days of apartheid, without them for a moment considering to think how they have become the cause of and our corrupted guides in, these dark days of freedom. The irony just passed them by.

In his book “No Future without Forgiveness”, published in 1999, Tutu was clear that a political settlement was but the beginning of the process of liberation and that much more was required – from both sides – to achieve and maintain the rainbow nation dream.

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He writes: “Our common experience, in fact, is the opposite – that the past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately.

“Unless we look the beast in the eye, we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.”

The prophet had spoken. We are now hostages to the past we refused to look in the eye. We have failed to understand the concept of forgiveness as a nation.

We had found its many displays by Tutu and Nelson Mandela as amusing photo opportunities rather than instructional for the future of our country. We had failed to see Mandela embracing his jailer as an act of forgiveness. We simply saw the photo opportunity.

We had failed to see Mandela drinking tea with Betsie Verwoerd as a powerful statement of forgiveness. We simply saw it as sideshow humour. We had failed to see Tutu, as TRC chairperson, urging PW Botha and FW de Klerk to utter the words, “I'm sorry, my government did horrible things to citizens of our country…” as the very DNA of what should be part of the Constitution of a great future country.

In February, 1997, Mandela and Mbeki were both attending the World Economic Forum in Davos. President Nelson Mandela chose one of his most bitter political rivals, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to stand in as his acting president.

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When one looks at countries like Germany, Japan, South Korea and even Vietnam, we see countries that were devastated by wars. They all faced the challenges of continuing retribution or showing forgiveness to their attackers.

Today, the economies of Germany, Japan, and South Korea are of the most stable in the world and their human living indices of the best in the world. I propose that their post-war progress is because they have refused to be stuck in the negative politics of retribution and began building countries of forgiveness. Their erstwhile enemies became their biggest economic and educational partners.

Retribution does not offer any future. Only forgiveness does. We have no Theory of Forgiveness as a uniquely South African gift to the world. We have no National Transformation Narrative taught in academic institutions and business schools as a success story.

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Instead of a courageous global narrative of transformation, we are stuck with the punitive and parochial politics of groups such as Radical Economic Transformation and the Internal Rate of Return, two entities both stuck in a time warp of ideological failure.

Desmond Tutu told us that there would be no future, no country, without forgiveness. Mandela showed us the extent to which we would have to visibly demonstrate forgiveness to our political persecutors. They took us into the sunlight of forgiveness.

Today, we have no future and no country because our political leaders are holding tiny flashlights, only for themselves. They hold no light for their country. These are the dark days of freedom.

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* Lorenzo A Davids

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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