A final reflection from South Africa, from Perkins student Matthew Bell, a Master of Divinity degree candidate (2017):
May 29 – the final day of our trip before departing for the United States – was spent at the Cape Town Institute for Healing of Memories, which also has locations all around the world. This ministry’s mission is to continue the much-needed work started by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995.
What’s the TRC, you ask?
Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC was a national effort to reflect on the previous 40-plus years of human rights violations under the National Party’s apartheid system, and to facilitate what is called “restorative justice.” When I first heard about this work, I was in awe!
When the African National Congress gained power and elected their first black president with nationwide voting rights, I imagined a good dose of retribution was coming. But no. The TRC legally laid the foundation for perpetrators to publicly confess what they did, reveal accomplices, and ask for forgiveness (if they wanted).
Victims of apartheid were also invited to publicly tell their stories for themselves, and on behalf of their family members who were murdered as a result of apartheid. (Obviously not all victims of apartheid told their stories, and this fact would later cast doubt on the TRC’s effectiveness. It is also why the Institute for Healing of Memories exists.) They could, if they chose, extend forgiveness to the perpetrators as well. And all of this was shown on national television every Sunday for four years!
Undergirding the TRC’s philosophy is the idea that not only non-whites were affected by apartheid. Perpetrators of apartheid were undone and changed as a result of what they did, and the TRC believed that they should also be offered forgiveness.
To me, that is grace and forgiveness on the part of the black, “colored,” and “Indian” (classification under the old system) majority that transcends the all too normal emotional reaction to wrongdoers. For this reason, I think the TRC is great! Yet, some doubt its effectiveness, and — in my opinion — for good reason.
While we toured South Africa, numerous students and teachers said “apartheid” still exists. Poverty, unemployment, and inequality are still a reality for non-white people in South Africa. What is to be done? I thought the TRC fixed all this? Some who we spoke to were convinced that reconciliation must be accompanied with justice.
Reparations were promised, and yet they have not been paid. The attitude of unity and equality between the ‘skin-colors’ was established by the TRC and leaders like Nelson Mandela, but there is not actual unity and equality until non-white people in South Africa are as economically stable as white South Africans.
In the meantime, there is only partial reconciliation because South Africa lacks justice. What is one supposed to do in the midst of all this? What about all those who were not able to tell their story on television? Lingering anger remains.
This is where the Institute for Healing of Memories comes in. It was started by Father Michael Lapsley, a white Australian who lost his hands and left eye after receiving a letter bomb from the apartheid government because he was outspoken about the sin and evil that apartheid was. He and trained staff facilitate workshops where victims and perpetrators of apartheid can tell their stories, confess their sin, or extend forgiveness to those who ask.
This, I think, is a crucial role in South Africa, and the church — any and all denominations — should be doing something like this to increase the attitudes of reconciliation. However, as already explained, there is more to it: true reconciliation involves justice.
This was an interesting note to leave on. South Africa, like the United States, has made some great social and humanitarian progress, yet there is still so much to be done in terms of justice and reconciliation.
Learn more about the Institute for Healing of Memories: http://www.healing-memories.org/