Skip to content Skip to footer

“Forgiveness Is Liberating”: Desmond Tutu on Healing a Nation’s Racist Past

Today, South Africa’s healing process is a beacon of hope for the United States.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (Photo: Joshua Wanyama / Flickr)

Editor’s note: Earlier this month, YES! published an article by Fania Davis, director of a restorative justice center and sister of civil rights activist Angela Davis, called “This Country Needs a Truth and Reconciliation Process on Violence Against African Americans—Right Now.” In light of the recent refusal to indict police officers in the killings of both Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, Davis called for a truth and reconciliation process to address the abysmal—and often lethal—racial inequalities that persist in the United States today.

“A Ferguson Truth and Reconciliation process based on restorative justice principles could not only stop the epidemic but also allow us as a nation to take a first ‘step on the road to reconciliation,’ to borrow a phrase from the South African experience,” she wrote.

Davis looks to South Africa, whose post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission was instrumental in shepherding in a peaceful transition toward racial equality—both hearing and acknowledging the horrors inflicted on black citizens under apartheid, and processing them without further violence.

In the mid-90s, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard thousands of hours of testimony about human rights violations. The goal was to confront the crimes of apartheid while reconciling black and white South Africans who committed and suffered from them. Like Davis, who teaches restorative—rather than retributive—justice, South Africa believed focusing on punishment would not help the nation heal and move forward. A tribunal based on reconciliation would allow victims to tell their stories, and encourage all citizens to listen. Over the course of three years, more than 15,000 statements were taken.

Davis hopes a similar process could help reconcile the wounds of deep, systemic American racism today.

“To move toward a reconciled America, we have to do the work ourselves,” Davis wrote. “Someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who headed up South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, might come to Ferguson to inspire and guide us as we take the first steps on this journey.”

So far, Davis’ piece has garnered overwhelming interest, with readers and leaders around the country offering to help establish such a commission.

Here we offer a piece from the archives, an excerpt of Tutu’s speech to the South African press club in 1997.

Desmond Tutu:

There have been those who have been vociferous in asserting that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), far from promoting reconciliation, has in fact done the opposite. It has engendered resentment and anger. It has opened old wounds and fostered alienation. I have challenged those who have made these assertions to provide us with the evidence that would support their claims, because our experience has been the direct opposite.

In many ways it has been unbelievable. It has been almost breathtaking—this willingness to forgive, this magnanimity, this nobility of spirit.

In Port Elizabeth at the Mtimkulu hearing, police officers testified to doing some terrible things: drugging the coffee of their charges, shooting one behind the ear and then burning his corpse. And while this cremation was going on they were having a braai—turning over two sets of meat.

One of the officers confessed to lying to the Supreme Court to get an interdict that prevented the mother of one of the victims from testifying at a TRC hearing, and we had our work cut out for us to calm the people because Mrs. Mtimkulu couldn’t speak. But they did not go out on an orgy of revenge; they did not attack those police officers who came on succeeding days to testify in New Brighton.

No, this process has made a contribution to reconciliation, to healing, as the 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act says. The TRC is NOT required to achieve unity and reconcile our nation—it is required to promote it, to contribute to it.

Let us look at some instances. In Bisho, some former Ciskei Defense Force officers testified about the Bisho massacre. One of them alienated the people with his insensitive tirade. Then another confessed his part and asked for forgiveness. In the audience were people who had been wounded in that incident, people who had lost loved ones; but when that white army officer asked for forgiveness, they did not rush to strangle or assault him. Unbelievably, they applauded.

Yes, this is a crazy country. I said at that point, let us keep silent, because we were in the presence of something special, of something holy. Many times I have felt we should take our shoes off because we were standing on holy ground.

At the first amnesty hearing in Rustenburg, the community there, including the children of the man who had been murdered, said they supported the [amnesty] application of the murderers, because it was crucial to have them back to advance reconciliation.

This is a crazy country. If miracles had to happen anywhere, then it’s here that they would have to happen. No other country has been prayed for as much as this one. You remember the white woman victim of the attack on the golf course? She was so badly injured, her children had to teach her to do things we take for granted. She still can’t go through the security checkpoints at airports because she has shrapnel in her body.

And she said, “I would like to meet the perpetrator in a spirit of forgiveness.”

That’s wonderful. She goes on, “I would like to forgive him,” and then, quite incredibly she adds, “and I hope he will forgive me.” Crazy.

Or the Afrikaner father whose toddler son was killed in the African National Congress’ Amanzimtoti Wimpy Bar bomb attack. He said he believed his son had contributed to the coming of the new dispensation.

Or the Afrikaner woman in Klerksdorp, who testified about the abduction of her husband by liberation army operatives, who spoke about how her grief and loss were just a drop in the ocean in comparison to what other people have suffered in this beautiful, traumatized land.

Or the daughter of [a member of the] Cradock Four, after hearing all the gruesome details of how her father had been killed, who said in a hushed East London City Hall, “We would like to forgive; we just want to know whom to forgive.” Incredible.

Who would doubt that a significant contribution was being made to healing, to reconciliation?

After the first hearing in East London, Matthew Goniwe’s brother came to me and said, “We have told our story many, many times already. But this is the first time that, after telling it, it is as if a huge weight has been lifted from our shoulders.”

Now we will know what happened to the Cradock Four, the Pepco Three, Siphiwo Mtimkulu, Steve Biko, and others. Despite inquests and inquiries, all these truths had remained concealed. The TRC process has helped to expose the real truth, and this surely is helping to heal. Ignorance and lies exacerbate the anguish of the survivors or the victims.

And then we had an extraordinary thing happen when four former National Party Cabinet Ministers testified in the State Security Council hearing. We could say they did not tell us who gave the orders to kill, but that would really be to split hairs. Just note what they did say. They said apartheid had no moral basis. It was an immoral policy. They said they accepted political and moral responsibility. That is a great deal more than anyone has said so far and they did not evacuate their apology by letting it die the death of a thousand qualifications. They said they apologized unreservedly.

It has happened nowhere else in the world that former government ministers should appear before such a commission and give such an account of themselves. They deserve to be commended. My friends, it is never easy to say “I am sorry, forgive me, I was wrong.” As human beings, we are forever trying to rationalize, to excuse the wrong we have done. Adam blamed Eve, and she blamed the snake.

These ministers have said they are sorry, and for that they should be warmly commended. They have contributed hugely to the process of healing and reconciliation because they have accepted moral and political responsibility. They have been accountable.

This is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has helped to happen and is continuing to do. What have our detractors done to contribute to reconciliation? Absolutely nothing. They have spent their time bemoaning nostalgically the passing of the old dispensation when they were the top dogs. They wield considerable influence in their communities.

They ought to use that influence to persuade their friends to embrace the new dispensation enthusiastically. The old is not going to return, when they walked roughshod over the rights and dignity of others. Five top judges on behalf of the judiciary past and present declare that apartheid, which these people supported enthusiastically, was in itself a gross violation of human rights.

I am in very good company when I have said apartheid was intrinsically evil, immoral, and un-Christian. That is not a bias—it is stating a fact now endorsed by the top legal people in our country.

We are singularly fortunate, indeed blessed, in this country. We could so easily have gone the way of Angola, the Sudan, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, which have found peace so devastatingly elusive. We have been fortunate that Mr. de Klerk was so brave in 1990 and that he had to deal with the extraordinary Madiba, so magnanimous, so forgiving.

I used to say to whites, “I am as committed to white liberation as I am to black liberation.” I said whites won’t be free until we are free, and they thought I was spewing irresponsible slogans: “We are being nice to you—join the winning side.” And we won a victory for everyone black and white.

Now we have all been liberated. Freedom is indivisible. Come share in the process of healing, in the process of reconciliation. If this commission fails, you may not be around to describe it. Reconciliation is a national project. We should all be involved. Those others are not doing their people a favor. Get out of your ghetto of self-pity, of not acknowledging how lucky we all are.

Blacks could easily have been browned off. They still get up from their shanty informal settlements. They go to work for white people in affluent suburbs, and at night they return to the squalor of their homes, their unlit streets, no running water, no clinics, no schools, no decent homes. They actually go back to all that and they don’t say “to hell with it,” and go on a rampage in the largely white pockets of comfort and affluence.

And all some whites do is moan about this and that, really about their loss of power.

We are going to succeed. Why? Because God wants us to succeed for the sake of God’s world. We will succeed despite ourselves, because we are such an unlikely bunch. Who could have thought we would ever be an example, except of awfulness; who could ever have thought we would be held up as a model to the rest of the world?

God wants to say to the world, to Bosnia, to Northern Ireland, etc.: Look at them. They had a nightmare called apartheid. It has ended. Your nightmare too will end. They had what was called an intractable problem. They are solving it. No one anywhere can any longer say their problem is intractable.

We are a beacon of hope for God’s world and we will succeed.

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.