Krista's Journal: The Miracle of Reconciliation

March 22, 2007

I was living in divided Berlin when the Cold War division of Europe began to disintegrate. It seemed miraculous that halfway across the world, at roughly the same moment in history, the brutal Apartheid regime was also unraveling. We have sound in this week's program from the day on which Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison, became the first black president in South Africa's first free election. It's just a brief moment of radio, but it transmits the spine-tingling sense of miracle of that event. So there, in one paragraph, I have used the word "miracle" twice. It's a word the wonderful, venerable Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another hero of South Africa's transformation, has used in describing what happened in his country. And close to the conclusion of today's program, my guest Charles Villa-Vicencio recalls, laughingly, how he has had to inform Desmond Tutu that he is now in the business of deconstructing that miracle. It's not a cynical statement but a pragmatic one. Having served as the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Villa-Vicencio is now committed to turning South Africa's dramatic transformation into a long-term foundation for common life. It's a daunting task and one of the most important endeavors, I believe, of our time. He and his colleagues and countrymen are not just continuing to name and tackle endemic human evils, like racism, and the many interwoven forms injustice takes, such as poverty. South Africa and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought a new model of societal change into the world, a model of political and spiritual healing after a history of extreme violence. The world, of course, is full of societies wracked by intractable spirals of violence. But until the daring experiment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, the dominant working model we had of collective political reckoning was the post-World War II, Nuremberg-type process: of trial, calculation of misdeeds and costs, high-profile punishment, and retribution for crimes. This kind of process serves obvious and reasonable purposes, but it does not give common people accessible resources for moral reckoning. It does not struggle within itself, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did, to plant risky, constructive, edifying seeds for moving forward. I was delighted when I was offered the chance to interview Charles Villa-Vicencio while he was traveling in the United States. He is a theologian, which also interested me. The dominant churches of South Africa, like those of Nazi Germany, once articulated and enforced a theological rationale for racism and injustice. And Villa-Vicencio, who was part of the original religious uprising against that stance, knows the complexity of reclaiming beautiful ideas that have attached themselves to terrible realities. He faces the world now with a clear-eyed realism, passionately attentive to the practical and moral dangers South Africans still confront. This makes it all the more meaningful for me as he shares the contours of his theological wrestling and his tentative sources of hope. I spoke with him from Chicago by the clear audio technology of an ISDN line. Then several months later, he was in the U.S. again at the invitation of a group of Americans establishing "restorative justice" programs within our criminal justice system. This is one of the many ways the truth and reconciliation model is being studied and adapted all over the world. And this time, Charles Villa-Vicencio was traveling with a former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. She is a psychologist and a black woman. She's written a book about her encounters with a pathologically violent leader of the former security services in Apartheid South Africa, Eugene de Kock, who became known by the nickname "Prime Evil." In today's program, she tells of navigating the terrifying and baffling space between his inner life and the needs of the family members of his victims. This hour is full of provocative, powerful ideas, and answers to my questions often come in the form of paradoxical learnings. A pivotal insight of truth and reconciliation in South Africa was the hard insistence that good and evil do not exist separately on either side of any cultural or political dividing line. Instead, each of us carries within ourselves the potential to be both victim and perpetrator. And telling the truth is critical to life and health — for nations as for individuals. Even the most devastating truth, as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela relates, can have a mysterious power to open the possibility of healing. Still, truth is only a beginning, a necessary foundation for the longer, less predictable work of reconciliation. I have a vivid memory of experiencing these two individuals in person, together, after I had spoken with them separately. That they should know each other and travel together would have been unimaginable for the better part of both of their lives. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela told me that, until close to the end of Apartheid, she would not have wanted a white person as a friend. But this white South African man and this black South African woman positively glowed in each other's presence. Their mutual admiration was tangible and infectious. And they each took such a delight in the wondrous fact, which years beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission seemed only to have deepened, that South African history had given them each other as friends. Charles Villa-Vicencio and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela remind us of the widest angle of a sacred vision: the notion that human life and human history always contain possibilities that transcend our imaginations and the facts at our disposal. They also embody a daunting, invigorating challenge for us all: that human beings can be engaged in the work of both hastening and deconstructing the miraculous.

Recommended Reading

Image of A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid
Author: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Publisher: Mariner Books (2004)
Binding: Paperback, 208 pages

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela's book A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness describes how her insights as a psychologist were stretched and surprised by dealing with one of the most indisputably evil figures of Apartheid South Africa, Eugene de Kock, and his victims and their families. It is an elegant and unpredictable narrative reflection on the manifold effects, the limits and powers, of telling the truth.

Image of The Rainbow People of God: The Making of a Peaceful Revolution
Author: Desmond Tutu
Publisher: Image (1996)
Binding: Paperback, 320 pages

Also, I must recommend Archbishop Desmond Tutu's The Rainbow People of God: The Making of a Peaceful Revolution, a collection of sermons, speeches, and writings on the "miracle" of South Africa's transformation, in which he continues to play such an inspirational role. Included in this work is the story of how white South African Christians reckoned with their long complicity in a brutal order, and the unforgettable offer of forgiveness Tutu extended to them.

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Charles Villa-Vicencio

is executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, and the former National Research Director for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

is a psychologist who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and author of A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness.