18 March 2019

There can be no future without forgiveness.

~ Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu ~

At the core of me, and I suspect of you too, there is a battle raging. It is a battle between the desire for revenge and the gospel call to mercy, the longing to see wrongdoers punished and the uneasy sense that Desmond Tutu’s warning is true: there is no future – for me, for you, for South Africa – without forgiveness.

Intellectually I can understand that the endgame of Apartheid produced no clear winners. The Struggle played to a stalemate that led to a negotiated transition and, as a result, no Nuremberg Trials for the old regime’s death squads, torturers and generals. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission that followed was the best alternative given the situation. Yet it rankled to see the murderers of Steve Biko, Vuyusile Mini, Dulcie September, Rick Turner and Ruth First walk away scot-free.

I fully understand the revulsion that a century of hangings of mostly black prisoners in Pretoria Central can have on a society like ours. Intellectually, I do believe that people can change, that the term Correctional Services is a genuine desire of our democracy and not Orwellian newspeak. Yet I am enraged to see how so many brutal crimes go unpunished, and that ordinary citizens live in fear.

Yes, I understand mercy. I understand forgiveness. We have many examples of great sinners who became, like Augustine, saints. I am drawn again and again to the figure of the reformed convict Valjean, in Victor Hugo’s wonderful Christian parable of forgiveness Les Miserables, pursued by his chilling adversary the relentless, unforgiving policeman Javert. I see the need to move from a society of institutional brutality to one that is forgiving. And I know that 25 years of historical time is but a pinprick in eternity, and that a human rights-based democracy does not – cannot and should not – have the kind of draconian powers to stamp out violence.

But it’s difficult to maintain these beliefs when one sees that, 25 years on, it is still the little guy, the unimportant person, women and the poor, who suffer the most. It’s difficult to believe in mercy and justice when our police services are under-resourced, often corrupt or just plain incompetent. And it is double difficult when some of the oppressors were from the ranks of our liberators. Are we surprised, then, when communities take matters into their own hands and revert to the dreadful tools of the past to reassert a semblance of control in their lives? Or when, in an unequal society, there are those that horde and heap their wealth beyond excess as soon as they are given any opportunity – regardless of the compounding disorder that results in the process.

We must now draw together again so as to combat corruption and promote the common good over self-interest. It is time to remind ourselves of the hope we all desire for our common future.



we are


to be


we are


to forgive.


our leaders

so they will

live out

the call

to show mercy

and make

the conditions

more possible

for us

to show




Catholic Parliamentary

Liaison Office

Jesuit Institute
South Africa

Reflection prepared by Anthony Egan SJ & Matthew Charlesworth SJ