In my new book ‘The (im)possibility of forgiveness?‘ I present just how complicated notions of forgiveness are in South Africa. South Africa’s apartheid history (and current reality) is extremely traumatic. It continues to dehumanize the majority of the citizens of South Africa.
I tend not to speak of ‘post-apartheid’ South Africa since I feel that even though we live in a democratic dispensation where apartheid laws have been dealt with, the daily reality of most of our citizens is that apartheid is more entrenched than ever before. However, now instead of it being primarily a political system in which an unjust state is the supposed enemy, it is a subtle economic system that is deeply entrenched in the social imagination. Some find it extremely difficult to imagine a South Africa in which no person has too much while another person does not even have enough to survive. The ‘enemy’ seems to seduce us into greater and greater sin. We want to own more things, gather more wealth, live in greater opulence, and experience so much more freedom and pleasure. And so, the rich grow richer, while the poor grow poorer.
It is primarily Black South Africans continue to be systematically oppressed through this unjust economic system, with unequal ownership of land, and the dominance of whiteness in social spaces and the media. If you want to hear more about my reasons for advocating against the use of ‘post-apartheid’ as reasonable statement, or category of thought, then please watch this short video. Simply stated, if I were to claim that we live in a post-apartheid society it would not be true in relation to the daily experience of most of South Africa’s citizens. Not only would it be a lie, but it would be a callous lie since it would deny the reality that people experience every day.
Hence, while South Africa is closer to democracy (where citizens have the right have to rights), the reality is that politically and economically those rights remain out of reach for most. We are in ‘most apartheid’ South Africa. In this context, forgiveness becomes a deeply political concept.
Simply stated, for what reason would White South Africans wish to be forgiven? Is it so that we can be set free from the guilt of our past, and ongoing guilt of our present? Nathan Trantaal speaks of the ‘gif [poison] in vergifnis [forgiveness]’. Forgiveness can be a weapon that wounds. We can seek it from our place of power and dominance – asking to be set free without having to face the consequences of our sin (economic sin, racial sin, social sin).
So, if we were to think about a polis in which forgiveness was not only a belief, but a reality, what would it look like? What would it take to get there? I am inspired by Miroslav Volf’s idea in ‘The end of memory‘. I am often asked, when we forgive are we expected to forget? I think that forgetting can be dangerous. However, what we were to live for a world in which a memory of justice, reconciliation, mutual respect, celebration of diversity, and true wholeness was what we remembered instead of our brokenness, enmity, greed, and fear? How would we need to start living today as a society, a polis, to make such a memory real in the future?
In this reality forgiveness cannot only be a a spiritual or a theological reality. It must be concrete, it must be real. The content of true forgiveness should be experienced in a society of justice and grace. However, it is also inadequate to think that once a ‘transaction’ has been enacted that forgiveness would have been achieved. I firmly believe that we need a redistribution of land in South Africa, we need a transformation of our economy, and we must work for a reality in which the majority of our citizens benefit from the bounty and beauty of our land. However, when these necessary things are achieved, we will not yet be reconciled – forgiveness will not yet be achieved. These social, political and economic realities are not the ‘end’ of forgiveness (its fulfillment or achievement), no, they are the beginnings of forgiveness. Beyond the transaction we need something more, something gracious, something spiritual, something that is shaped by justice but achieved in grace.
I hope that you can see what this is such a complex concern? I long for us to be honest about the complexity of the politics of forgiveness in South Africa. It is only when we are willing to count the cost, and more to live with grace, that we can move beyond poisonous forgiveness to life giving, life affirming, and real forgiveness.
Here is a copy of the Stellenbosch University Forum lecture that I gave on this topic in September 2017. I was honoured, and very grateful, to be invited by the University to deliver this lecture. The lecture was entitled ‘The (im)possibility of forgiveness? Considering the complexities of religion, race and politics in South Africa‘. The lecture has been reworked and will soon be published in a book on Religion, Violence and Reconciliation in Africa (published by SUN Media).
Here is a direct link to the youtube link below.