Article on forgiveness: Part of a series on values written for Heartlines by Rev Dr Mvume Dandala, former General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches in Nairobi, former Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and the recipient of the Presidential Order of the Baobab for his peace-making role in the country.
In 1986 – at a time of enforced segregation in the country – I witnessed one of the most profound examples of the power of forgiveness. In spite of potentially dangerous repercussions a decision was taken by our church to couple black and white ministers and send them into segregated congregations. The programme was called ‘Malihambe’ (Let the Word spread) – a phrase coined by the early missionaries to encourage their new Xhosa converts to pass on the Christian Gospel.
One white minister who had never been into a township, was visiting a home in which a young child was blind. As he took it into his arms, he asked the mother whether the child had been blind from birth. He was shattered when she replied that as a baby, a stray bullet fired by the security police had hit it in the head. The stark realisation that he was holding a symbol of the evil system rendered the minister speechless.
“It was a white policeman who did this” the mother said, “but the only way I can continue to live, is to forgive. If I don’t, how will I live with and face all the white people around me?”
The same two ministers moved on to a white congregation where they were confronted by an extremely bitter woman who hated all black people because her great, great grandfather had been killed in the battle of Blood River. The story had been passed down the generations with the instruction that it should never be forgotten. The white minister listened and eventually told her the story of the mother of the blind child.
At the end, he asked her whether she thought that that mother should ensure that the tragic story was passed down to subsequent generations. Deeply moved and weeping, the woman answered: “the story of my grandfather stops with me today”.
During the early ‘nineties’ before the dawn of democracy I had the privilege of being invited to facilitate in highly volatile situations between IFP and ANC hostel residents on the then East Rand (Ekhuruleni). It was a time when people killed one another with impunity, as if they were animals.
At the first meeting at the Pioneer Hall in Turffontein, tense and facing extremely aggressive leaders from both sides, I silently prayed for calm. Surprisingly, when I asked what was expected of me, I was requested to open with a prayer, which I did and then nervously wondered, what next?
They asked firstly that ground rules be established. It was agreed that the main issues should be addressed without apportioning blame. “We want you to help us find peace, but don’t try and make us what we are not, we are IFP and ANC,” this was my next instruction and I wasn’t about to argue!
Having got everything out in the open about the war between them, there was dead silence. The air bristled with tense expectation of what should happen next. “What would you tell us if we were in church?” someone piped up. Now on familiar ground I said that I would tell them to move around and share the peace with each other – an age-old tradition in which congregants shake hands and say ‘the peace of the Lord be with you’.
I still want to weep when I think of what followed. Those proud, big, burly men some of whom had come from the same villages, had been living and working together – all the while engaged in a bitter battle – now crossed the divide of their political laagers and, in true African tradition hugged and looked each other in the eye. Loud talk erupted in the hall as enquiries were made after the well being of mutual friends and relatives – some of whom may even have died at the hand of the enquirer!
This is God’s way and it characterised our efforts in those meetings to achieve forgiveness. It worked in the most amazing way and my hair still stands on end when I tell the story of how these men – most of whom had never seen the inside of a church – became prophets of peace and champions of forgiveness.
The truth is that for centuries we have hurt each other. But, even though the wounds may still be raw and run deep, the willingness to forgive and the hope for peace are alive in the hearts of many who wish to see South Africa become a beacon of hope to others.
To those who are impatient and wonder with growing irritation how many times forgiveness must be sought before it is eventually accepted, in the religious tradition from which I come, the answer is ‘seventy-times-seven’. As South Africans from once divided communities around the country are seen to be working together in tangible ways to restore what has been lost, the process can only be accelerated.
A living and powerful example comes out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A former member of the security branch went back and apologised to villagers in Trustfeed near Pietermaritzburg whom he had once terrorised. It didn’t stop there – his apology was authenticated by his decision to remain in the community and work with the people to improve the quality of their lives.
The time must come when, as we say in my language: “Madoda masiphose ngasemva” (let us take this thing that is a stumbling block in our relationship and throw it behind us and pursue peace and a new life together). This is forgiveness.
In my current work at the All Africa Conference of Churches in Nairobi, I see so much hurt that people have inflicted on each other throughout our continent. The devastating genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda; the countless people – including children – whose limbs have been hacked off by rebel forces in the civil war in Sierra Leone; the unimaginable pain of Ugandan parents whose children have been abducted from schools, never to be seen again, by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Can these people ever be expected to forgive? The truth of the matter is that without forgiveness, there is no future for Africa.
Genuine forgiveness is followed by visible attempts to correct past wrongs.
Rev Dr Mvume H Dandala is General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches in Nairobi, former Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and the recipient of the Presidential Order of the Baobab for his peace-making role in the country.
HEARTLINES Patron Rev Dr Mvume Dandala