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.