Imagine experiencing something so traumatic as seeing your entire family murdered before your very eyes. Having witnessed something so terrible, do you think you could find it within yourself to truly forgive the murderers? Many people in South Africa chose to forgive terrible atrocities through a process that was facilitated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). On our journey through South Africa, we have had the opportunity to meet two of the seventeen commissioners who served on the TRC: Dr. Piet Miering and Glenda Wildchut—as well as one of the men who offered testimony, Yazier Henry. Through these firsthand accounts of the work of the TRC, we learned a lot about not only the structure of the TRC but also about the power of restorative justice, and how the TRC facilitated the process of reconciliation and forgiveness. By listening to their stories, I was able to gain a greater understanding of the power of forgiveness and how many South Africans found the strength and courage to forgive torturers and murderers.

Before serving on the TRC, Dr. Piet Miering was a professor of theology at the University of Pretoria. Dr. Miering provided us with background and history about the TRC and shared his experiences in serving on the commission. Established under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, the TRC was designed to help deal with the aftermath of apartheid and to promote the process of reconciliation within South Africa. The Commission included three committees: The Human Rights Violations Committee, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, and the Amnesty Committee. The Human Rights Violations Committee sought to investigate human rights abuses by traveling from village to village and listening to victims share their stories.

The Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee was formed to help restore dignity and provide support to victims who had been identified through the Human Rights Violations Committee hearings. While most victims were content with simply sharing their stories, others had specific requests—such as the return of the remains of a loved one so that a proper funeral could be held. It was the job of the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee to evaluate these requests and try to provide support and reparations when possible.

The third committee, the Amnesty Committee, was charged with considering requests for amnesty by perpetrators. This committee had the most media attention because it had the power to grant amnesty to individuals who had committed gross human rights violations during apartheid. In order to receive amnesty, the committee had to determine that: (a) the crime had been politically motivated; (b) the crime had to be proportionate, and (c) the perpetrator had to be truthful with the committee.

Dr. Miering shared many horrendous accounts of individuals being murdered, tortured, and raped (for more detail on these stories, click here). The hearings of the TRC were broadcast over radio and sometimes televised in an effort to bring transparency to the system and so as to inform all of South Africa—and the world—about the terrible things that happened during apartheid. The committee granted amnesty to 849 of the 7112 applicants.

A couple of weeks after meeting with Dr. Miering and learning about the history and structure of the TRC, we had the opportunity to hear about the significance of restorative justice in the TRC process from commissioner Glenda Wildchut. Before Glenda was appointed by Nelson Mandela to serve on the Commission, she was a psychiatric nurse at a mental institution. She worked with political prisoners and victims of human rights violations, which made her a good candidate for the TRC. Glenda was able to give us a personal and insightful view of restorative justice and its significance to the success of the TRC. Restorative justice is a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. Unlike retributive justice, which is based on the punishment of offenders rather than on rehabilitation, restorative justice seeks to find a way for victims and perpetrators to co-exist in society. Glenda explained that restorative justice is a fundamental value in South Africa. She shared with us, “The restorative justice notion was based on Ubuntu. Ubuntu means that we are all connected. I exist because you exist. I am because you are. Our destinies are linked to each other.”

Glenda described how South Africans believe that all people are connected to one another. We need each other to exist, and therefore, we should help each other, so that we can all experience a better existence. I think that the concept of Ubuntu gives South Africans an important tool with which they can attempt to process and make sense of all of the terrible things that happened during the period of apartheid. By embracing a belief that everyone is interconnected, it is much harder to separate the victims from the perpetrators and, as a result, it is difficult to maintain an “us versus them” mentality. Instead, everyone is seen as needing each other because everyone is interconnected. In some way, everyone shares in the pain of the victims and in the guilt of the perpetrators. Ubuntu also encourages forgiveness because of the connection between all people. Given the horrible suffering that many South Africans have experienced, I think that the concept of Ubuntu is an important coping mechanism—a way to try to bring some peace to an existence that is otherwise filled with a lot of suffering. The TRC formally facilitated this process of forgiveness and coping because it allowed the whole country of South Africa to come together—to weep, to forgive, and to work toward reconciliation.

In preparing for our trip, we all read stories about victims of apartheid and the TRC. Yet, as I listened to the stories firsthand, I was in awe. I found myself trying to imagine if I would be capable of the forgiveness that has been demonstrated by so many of the people of South Africa. I find myself unable to forgive individuals for small things—my roommate for eating my food without asking, someone taking something that does not belong to them. I hold a grudge, I refuse to move on. Yet, many people of South Africa have somehow found it within themselves to forgive even gross human rights violations. They have found a way to forgive kidnappers, rapists, and murderers. I am fascinated with the fact that so many South Africans, when asked what they wanted for retribution, were satisfied with simply being heard. They did not ask for money or for their perpetrators to go to jail. Instead, they wanted to tell their stories and have someone listen. They wanted to hear the truth about what had happened to those they loved and lost.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the grace with which the victims of apartheid were able to forgive. This has made me think about whether it is really worth holding onto anger and pain in the way that we in our culture often do. The success of the TRC is a testament to the fact that forgiveness can bring healing to the victims as well as to the perpetrators. When we hold onto our anger and refuse to forgive, we create a mental prison. We ourselves become locked up in our own retributive jail cell. We may, in fact, be hurting ourselves by blocking the problem instead of addressing it. It was eye opening to me to see a perspective that believes that life cannot be fixed by locking up everyone who has done us wrong. Perhaps it is better for our own health, and for the health of our communities, to forgive and to reconcile. The TRC highlights that if all of the perpetrators of human rights violations under apartheid were locked up, the problems of South Africa would not be solved; there would still be discontent and fear among members of the community who suffered from the human rights violations. Instead, by allowing the truth to be brought forward by the TRC hearing process, many in the community were able to forgive and work toward a peaceful reconciliation without moving to civil war.

Learning about restorative justice and Ubuntu has inspired me to think more carefully about the power of forgiveness. I find myself questioning the judgments that I have placed on perpetrators who have come and gone throughout my life. While I have never personally experienced anything as terrible as the atrocities committed during apartheid, I have “locked up” a few personal criminals in my own retributive prison. Personally, I would like to be able to adopt an attitude of forgiveness.

How do you understand forgiveness? What do you think about granting amnesty to those who exchange truth for freedom? Is reconciliation accomplished at the moment of forgiveness—or is it a separate stage in the process entirely?

I wrote this article during my Study Abroad experience in South Africa. The Original article can be found here.