Monday, January 08, 2007

Article :The lessons of South Africa — Desmond Tutu

Ordinary South Africans also can be proud of themselves, for it was truly their self-discipline, simple decency, and ability to forgive that prevented a bloodbath. In their example is a model for other troubled parts of the world to follow.
South Africa is now beginning to contemplate the retirement of Thabo Mbeki, its second president since the end of the apartheid era. So this is a particularly opportune moment to look back and assess our achievements, note our failures, and perhaps see what elements in our transition to democracy may be applied elsewhere.
This is an exercise we in South Africa are not accustomed to undertaking, for as a people we tend to sell ourselves short. We seem to take for granted remarkable achievements and do not give ourselves enough credit. As a result, we tend to see an invisible cloud behind every ray of sunshine; we seem to think that our achievements have meaning only for ourselves.

The wider world has still not fully appreciated South Africa’s reasonably peaceful transition from repression to democracy. They and we remember the first days of that transfer of power to the black majority, when most people believed we would be overwhelmed by a ghastly racial bloodbath.
It was a desperate time, brief but seared in our memories, when indiscriminate killings on trains, in taxis, and on buses were common, a time of massacres at regular intervals — Sebokeng, Thokoza, Bisho, Boipatong, and the killing fields of KwaZulu Natal, owing to the bloody rivalry between the African National Congress and the ethnic Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.

There were many occasions when South Africa’s fate appeared touch and go. But catastrophe was avoided. Instead, the world marvelled — indeed, was awed — by the spectacle of long lines of South Africans of every race snaking their way slowly to polling booths on April 27, 1994.
Of course, part of the success of South Africa’s transition success was due to a miracle: the moral colossus that is Nelson Mandela, whose calm and sagacity, and his status as an icon of forgiveness, compassion, magnanimity and reconciliation, make us the envy of every nation on earth. We were blessed that it was he who guided our state through its rebirth. And we must also thank F. W. de Klerk, the last ruler of the dying apartheid regime, who exhibited moral courage by setting in motion our liberating revolution.
But ordinary South Africans also can be proud of themselves, for it was truly their self-discipline, simple decency, and ability to forgive that prevented a bloodbath. In their example is a model for other troubled parts of the world to follow.
We, especially white South Africans, have tended to be dismissive of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed those who had committed great crimes under apartheid to confess their acts openly and thus avoid prosecution. Truth, not punishment, was to bring about healing. Almost everywhere in the world, the TRC is regarded highly and considered a benchmark against which other efforts to move from dictatorship to democracy must be judged.

Yes, the TRC was flawed — so are all human enterprises. But it was a remarkable institution, for many had thought that the advent of a black-led government would signal the onset of an orgy of revenge and retribution against whites for all the degradations that black South Africans had suffered from colonial times to the apartheid era.

Instead, the world gaped at the nobility of spirit displayed each and every day before the TRC, as victims of gruesome atrocities forgave their tormentors — and even embraced them on occasion. All South Africans were traumatised by apartheid. The TRC helped to open festering wounds, cleanse them, and pour balm on them to help in healing all of South Africa’s people.

It is easy to take the TRC’s work for granted, until one looks at the Middle East and the chaos of Iraq, where revenge, reprisal, and retaliation are fueling a ghastly, inexorable cycle of violence. Likewise, South Africa was spared the horrors of genocide, as in Rwanda, and the endless conflict that has gripped Sri Lanka, Burundi, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, and many other countries. The harsh truths put before our people by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission drew the poisons from our politics. That is a lesson that other damaged countries can and must benefit from.

The lesson of South Africa’s transition is that no divided country has a future if it insists on going forward without truth and forgiveness. Russia’s transition to democracy began at almost the same time as ours. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990. But what is happening in Russia today — rampant organised crime, the conflict with Chechnya, and carnage like the theatre hostage disaster and the Beslan school catastrophe — makes South Africa’s transition to democracy look like a Sunday school picnic. By avoiding the truth of the Soviet past, Russians have stored up trouble for the future.

A crime can never be buried. Political crimes never fade. We have not forgotten what was done to ordinary black people in the name of apartheid. Indeed, by launching the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we know far more about the full horrors of that era than we would had we sought to prosecute people, or tried simply to move on. Literally, the truth has set us free to be at peace with ourselves. Remembrance and forgiveness have allowed our remembered nightmares to be consigned to the past. It is my deepest hope that Iraqis and other peoples haunted by the past can find a way to live in peace with peace of mind. —DT- PS

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace- Article reproduced courtesy Daily Times