Political Forgiveness: Lessons from South Africa
By Russell Daye
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Daye, Russell. 2004. Political Forgiveness: Lessons from South Africa. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Given the growing rhetoric of forgiveness in international politics, Daye takes the trend seriously and seeks to articulate a model of political forgiveness. He outlines a three step process of interpersonal forgiveness (not necessarily in this order). First, there needs to be an airing of the details of the suffering inflicted. The second element of forgiveness is an acknowledgment and apology of the harm done by the perpetrator. The final act is that of forgiveness on the part of the victim. Furthermore, Daye argues, similar dynamics do operate at the sociopolitical level with some embellishment. The three steps of interpersonal forgiveness outlined remain crucial. To them, he would add first the need to utilize some combination of transitional justice measures to pursue retributive and restorative justice. Second, mechanisms for healing individual trauma and systemic injustice are also important. Thus, to summarize the acts of the drama of political forgiveness, as Daye puts it:
Act One: Truth-telling
Act Two: Apology and the Claiming of Responsibility
Act Three: Building a Transitional Justice Framework
Act Four: Finding Ways to Heal
Act Five: Embracing Forgiveness
Daye more fully articulates the theoretical basis for the political forgiveness. One challenge is to extricate religion from forgiveness at the interpersonal level. In fact, religious forgiveness, at least in the Christian sense, typically involves the perpetrator and God with the victim entirely forgotten. Second, interpersonal forgiveness is often associated with forgetting, something unsavory at the sociopolitical level. Third, when it comes to political forgiveness, the process may take generations. Finally, political forgiveness is more likely to utilize symbolic language rather than emotive.
Using this framework, he examines the extent to which South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has realized political forgiveness. Its greatest success has been its truth-telling aspect. Surveys have consistently shown that South Africans have internalized the details of apartheid. The second step, apology, is important in recognizing responsibility. Although many have criticized former President F.W. de Klerk's statements before the TRC as insufficient, Daye sees the apology as an important step toward forgiveness.
Transitional justice mechanisms are addressed in two parts: amnesty provisions and an exploration of mechanisms to realize retributive and restorative justice. The truth-for-amnesty stipulation of the TRC had a number of positive benefits in Daye's eyes. Compared to trials, the amnesty was a more cooperative atmosphere, better for reintegration, and a more comforting venue for victims. There was some resentment of the amnesty, particularly as reparations were not forthcoming. However, Daye argues that the amnesty process did restore dignity to victims. In short, the TRC achieved as much accountability as it was reasonably able to. Furthermore, after reviewing retributive and restorative justice arguments, Daye concludes that South Africa's transitional justice measures were just. They were constructed in a fair and democratic manner. Furthermore, the amnesty provision is justifiable in that it permitted the broader restorative program.
In terms of Act Four, many South Africans suffer from trauma. Using Judith Herman's three step healing process, Daye concludes the TRC helped with all three, but it will take much time for South Africa to fully heal. Daye recommends that future commissions have the power not only to recommend reparations, but also to see them implemented. He cautions against individual reparations as this may have the potential to divide communities.
Finally, forgiveness certainly is a daunting notion for a post-conflict society. More was expected than could be realistically delivered by the TRC. There is much disagreement as to whether the TRC helped the process of forgiveness. If the formation of a collective memory is necessary, than the answer appears to be yes. Internaitonal observers tend to be much more unqualified in their praise. South Africans are more ambivalent. Still, Daye argues, the TRC has helped to plant the seeds of forgiveness here and there throughout South African society, which over time will grow and spread. Daye argues it has helped race relations.Still, a precondition for this is likely to be addressing socioeconomic divisions in society and there is great reluctance on this amongst whites.