Sermon delivered at the all-Wales thanksgiving service in celebration of the tenth anniversary of South African democracy, Llandaff Cathedral 2pm, 25 April 2004
During my teenage years in the 1960’s – an age that is now regarded as the time when the rot set in, as far as the moral fabric of this Country is concerned, something far worse was happening in South Africa – the system of apartheid was in full swing. And if the 1960’s in Britain is regarded as the decade of permissiveness, that generation nevertheless was willing and eager to protest about injustice, inequality and unfairness the world over, but especially in South Africa. South Africa embodied everything that was ugly and unacceptable. There the white majority reigned supreme whilst the majority black population had no rights, no votes, no money, no decent housing, no decent jobs and protest was brutally and quickly suppressed and quelled. My generation still remembers the appeal to white supremacy by the government of the day, a supremacy said to have been given to them by God himself, whilst the black population was herded into separate townships on the edge of prosperous white areas. Most black people lived in squalor and destitution and there was a seething resentment against their masters but with the hope that one day, like Lazarus and Dives, the tables would be reversed, but in this world, not the next.
It was an appalling regime of repression, torture and brutality. We shall never fully know how many people died in one way or another during those years, but to my generation one thing seemed certain, when the majority black population rose in revolt then there would be a bloodbath. There seemed to be no other outcome that was conceivable in South Africa. When the situation was reversed there would be reprisals and revenge of such magnitude that one could not bear even to think what the consequences might be. It was not a matter of whether but when.
Perhaps people have forgotten that today but it all seemed predictable and inevitable in the 1960’s. And that could have happened were it not for the leadership of the black population, headed by Nelson Mandela and the Church in South Africa symbolised by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Listen to these words of Mandela “Men of peace, must not think about retribution or recrimination – courageous people do not fear forgiveness for the sake of peace.” Before the election of 1994 which saw the coming to power of the multi racial National Assembly, he struck a deal with President de Klerk that an amnesty would be given to those who had committed crimes in defence of apartheid. This from a man, who was sent to jail for a third of his adult life, leaving behind a wife and two small children who were brutally persecuted by the State in his absence for all those years. In a world where we are used to people demanding their rights, revenge on those who have harmed them, ethnic cleansing and wholesale slaughter, it is remarkable to hear a Statesman speak of reconciliation and of the healing of past wounds. Nor was it a matter of words alone. Forgiveness was not just a matter of tender feelings. He set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that people could be faced with the horror of what they had done but also be forgiven for it, and he offered a place in his Cabinet to Kobie Coetsee, the right wing outgoing Minister of Justice. The result for South Africa has been a peaceful transition to majority rule and none of the terrible predictions of a bloodbath have come to pass.
Nothing is therefore inevitable in this world. It is possible to break the mould as Mandela did. He and South Africa give our world hope and also give the Christian Gospel new relevance for it was Jesus who spoke about loving enemies and doing good to those who hate you. Jesus himself refused to retaliate when he was violated because he knew that when you react with violence to violence the circle of hate continues. Our world does not think much of that way of behaving. In our world it is the strong who conquer and the way to meet terror is with terror. The last ten years in South Africa show that there is another way, and that it is a better way, and that it does actually work. It is the way of generosity, compassion and forgiveness, and that these qualities work not just in relationships between individuals but between races and nations as well. It is not a soft option but a hard one and it works. It is not an option that many leaders in our world are willing even to contemplate. They think terror must be met with terror. The snag then is that the cycle of hate is never broken and terrorism continues.
So, as we give thanks for the last ten years in the life of South Africa, our prayer should be that the lessons learnt there and the Gospel values clearly displayed there should not be lost on the rest of us – for the new nation state of South Africa has been shaped not by terror or hatred but by reconciliation and forgiveness.