Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Honouring Nelson Mandela


As I write this post, Nelson Mandela lies ill in hospital. People have gathered to pray. His example of forgiveness and reconciliation continues as reflected in a BBC news headline: Nelson Mandela is ‘uniting the nation,’ hears church service.

In 2009, I joined my friend Johan Mostert on a visit to religious leaders and ministries in South Africa. I learned of the pain of suffering and the struggle to forgive from people who had lived through apartheid. Mostert, a clergyman and community psychologist and his colleague, Mervin van der Spuy, Chaplain, weave stories of forgiveness and reconciliation with historical events as they explain the value of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in healing the nation. (I’ll include the reference to their chapter at the end of this blog post.) The TRC was set up by the South African Government of National Unity to deal with the results of violent conflicts and human rights abuses that occurred during the apartheid era. 

On 16 December, 1995 Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the first gathering of the TRC. In referring to the task of the TRC, he linked forgiveness to confession and truth. And he appealed to all people of all faiths. Here's an excerpt from his speech.

We will be engaging in what should be a corporate nationwide process of healing through contrition, confession and forgiveness. To be able to forgive one needs to know whom one is forgiving and why. That is why the truth is so central to this whole exercise.
But we will be engaging in something that is ultimately deeply spiritual, deeply personal. That is why I have been appealing to all our people – this is not something just for the Commission alone. We are in it, all of us together, black and white, coloured and Indian, we this rainbow people of God. That is why I have appealed to our different communities of faith (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu etc) to uphold the Commission in fervent prayer and intercession that we may be showered with the divine blessings of wisdom, courage and discernment.

President Nelson Mandela's focus on the importance of truth linked to forgiveness and reconciliation was evident when he spoke at the commissioning service for the TRC on 13 February, 1996. "The choice of our nation is not whether the past should be revealed, but rather to ensure that it comes to be known in a way which promotes reconciliation and peace."

You can read page after page of the confessions. People told their stories. Powerful stories of suffering and loss. Stories that are difficult to read. The work of forgiveness and reconciliation is torturous at times. 


Johan Mostert related a story of political leader Frank Chikane, who was also a pastor in the same denomination as Johan and Mervin (Apostolic Faith Mission). At a meeting in 1997, Johan had the opportunity to see Frank who was Director General of the Presidency in the government of Thabo Mbeki. Among other injustices, Frank had been targeted for assassination when he was General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, a post once held by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Here’s Johan’s report:
With a lump in my throat I confessed to him my ignorance and my guilt. Frank smiled and shook his head and said, “You were a child of your time.  It’s not your fault.”  The TRC had uncovered atrocities against my friend.  On behalf of my people, the Afrikaners, I was able to say “I’m sorry” and Frank was graciously able to forgive me!  More than anything else, this experience brought the healing power of the TRC process into my life!

People who survive oppression and violent struggles for freedom have scenes of violence burned into their memories. Reviewing such awful confessions during the TRC process also had effects. Mervin van der Spuy relates a story illustrating not only the effects of the trauma but the tension between forgiveness—letting go—and the problem of reconciling with an untrustworthy offender. Here’s a part of Mervin’s story:

I (van der Spuy) arranged for Everett Worthington, a prominent Christian psychologist and forgiveness researcher, to visit the TRC in Johannesburg. We addressed the TRC committee on the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. As Worthington shared his personal story about forgiving the person who murdered his mother, one of the TRC staff members became overwhelmed with emotions and ran out of the room. I followed her and listened to her story. Her son had been abducted by the police and subsequently murdered. The policeman who killed her son applied for and received amnesty. Although he did not express remorse, he did reveal the location where her son was buried in an unmarked grave and she could find solace in the fact that she could rebury her son and grieve his death. As a TRC staff member she felt compelled to reconcile with her son’s murderer. But her emotional turmoil was compounded because after the hearings she heard that he had arrogantly boasted, ‘I got away with it’. She wanted to forgive, but did not feel that she could reconcile. Our visit was the first time she felt that the pressure to reconcile was lifted and that she could forgive even if no reconciliation was possible.

Nelson Mandela and the leaders of the new South Africa embarked on a brave experiment to bring healing to a nation. Was the TRC perfect? No. But what are the alternatives to overcome years of offense and intense suffering? Others have reviewed the TRC experience in a depth not possible in a blog post. My point is first to recognize the leadership of Nelson Mandela who, at a great distance from me has nevertheless touched my world by his effect on those who lived under his leadership. And second, to offer the stories and thoughts of my friends Johan and Mervin as lessons about forgiveness and reconciliation that can bring hope and healing in some of the most challenging of situations. 

There's no shortage of news stories documenting conflicts within and between nations. Wars and conflicts not only destroy lives but they tear at the fabric of society so severely that repair seems impossible. Political and religious groups engage in verbal violence aimed at destroying the character of their combatants. Then there are stories that never make headlines. People fight in their houses of worship, at their places of work, and within their families.

Perhaps one way to honor the legacy of people like Nelson Mandela is to give forgiveness and reconciliation a chance. Regardless of religious or secular creed, the words have no meaning unless leaders raise their voices of peace instead of weapons of war.


Mostert, J. & van der Spuy, M. (2010). Truth and reconciliation in South Africa. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds.) Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Click to link to trailer of film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom 


  1. Nelson Mandela day 18 July. http://www.un.org/en/events/mandeladay/takeaction.shtml

  2. Nelson Mandela discharged from the hospital today according to ABC news 1 September, 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/International/nelson-mandela-discharged-hospital-south-africa-officials/story?id=20129391