There can be no future without forgiveness.

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.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
See more from Anthony Egan SJ
Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ entered the Society of Jesus in 2005 and underwent the usual course of studies in his formation, which took him to such varied places as Canada, France, Ireland, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Whilst working at the Institute, Matthew managed the background technical aspects of much of the Institute's work and was involved in the Spirituality work, completing the Advanced Spiritual Directors Training Course and the Spiritual Exercises Training run by the Institute. He is a member of Spiritual Directors International and was also a part-time lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is currently the Director of Communications for the Jesuits in Southern Africa, based in Lusaka, Zambia. @mcharlesworth
See more from Matthew Charlesworth SJ
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Click to subscribe to: