How Desmond Tutu’s wisdom can help us resolve conflicts

YOSSI MEKELBERG January 08, 2022

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who died last month, has left a rich legacy in his struggle for freedom and human rights, but with an unusual toolkit — that of kindness and the power of forgiveness.

His immense sense of justice, spirituality and humanity was driven by a deep Christian belief and guided by the African philosophy of Ubuntu: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

Tutu was one of the very few people who could be thoroughly immersed in politics without being tainted by it, and be able to fight against one of the ugliest forms of racist discrimination — the South African variant of apartheid — without being directly engaged in or ideologically supporting, even tacitly, violence against his white tormentors. To hold fast to such a moral stand takes a person of the innermost conviction and faith in humanity, even while living through the darkest of times.

Throughout the entire span of the anti-apartheid years Tutu shied away from the armed struggle out of idealism, not out of naivety, for the apartheid regime in South Africa was not defeated by being showered with kindness. He was full of praise and admiration for his close friend and comrade Nelson Mandela for leaving behind on his release from prison the anger that had led him to form the ANC’s military wing, and taking instead the route of reconciliation and forgiveness, rather than revenge after 27 years of incarceration in the most appalling of conditions. Indeed, Tutu never judged Mandela for taking the route of armed struggle in the first place.

Tutu’s most notable legacy must surely be his role in forming and chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the aim of dealing in the most transparent and honest manner with the gross human rights violations and abuses committed during the apartheid era, and not only by South Africa’s whites. In doing so Tutu and those who supported the TRC opted for restorative justice over retribution and revenge, in the spirit of his conviction that there cannot be peace without justice.

Tutu was always convinced that apartheid, “because it was of itself fundamentally, intrinsically evil, was going to bite the dust eventually.” Nevertheless, he was forward looking and invested his boundless energy in search of ways for his country to emerge from the malevolence of apartheid unscarred by further violence and atrocities.

Retributive justice is tied to the notion that the perpetrators of crimes, especially those as heinous as those of the apartheid regime, should face criminal charges and, if found guilty, be duly punished with the full force of the law. Once that regime had toppled there was both a strong intellectual argument calling for retribution, and an understandable wish to see those who for decades had repressed millions of black South Africans face such consequences.

Tutu’s most notable legacy must surely be his role in forming and chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the aim of dealing in the most transparent and honest manner with the gross human rights violations and abuses committed during the apartheid era, and not only by South Africa’s whites.

Yossi Mekelberg

In contrast, restorative justice, as represented by Tutu and the TRC,  did not focus only on establishing guilt, but equally on embarking on a journey of collective healing, for victims and victimisers alike. Healing in this sense creates a safe space for people to share with others their ordeals — and most significantly to do so in the presence of their erstwhile tormentors — and for the abusers to take responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness in this context was not only an act of altruism by the newly victorious regime, but the best form of self-interest. For if, as Tutu said, we can only be human together, then forgiveness, even kindness toward South Africa’s whites, was also an act to help them “rediscover their humanity” for the sake of everyone’s common future.

For many hundreds of hours, the TRC heard heart-wrenching testimonies that left not a dry eye in the room, whether of those directly affected by these crimes, those who committed them, or those watching the proceedings live on their TV screens at home. Tutu openly wept during these hearings, allowing himself and the rest of the nation to express their anguish as a result of the trauma caused by decades of despicable and violent racial discrimination and the scars it left, as a first step toward building a healthy society in which there is equality for all.

By Tutu’s own admission, the TRC process fell short by not bringing to justice those perpetrators of human rights abuses who failed to take the opportunity to fully disclose their actions or were unable to prove that their crimes were politically motivated. Nor was any legal action taken against any of the generals and commanders who avoided the hearings altogether.

Truth and reconciliation commissions, in their various formats and with varying degrees of success, have been established in other countries that have endured conflicts and civil wars. However, the South African experience remains the most notable one, in its scope and its genuine efforts to reveal the complex truth of the apartheid era, and in creating a conducive environment for forgiveness as a major vehicle in the long-term project, as yet still unfinished, of healing South African society. None of its achievements to date could have taken place without the leadership, the charisma, and above all the humanity, of Desmond Tutu.

The legacy of Tutu and the TRC cannot and should not be confined to his homeland, but should be applied to all conflicts, as all involve the demonisation and dehumanisation of “the other,” whoever that may be, as a license to dominate, abuse and kill them. All conflicts cry out desperately for a diplomatic solution, but equally if not even more so for a healing process between the warring parties. Just imagine, whether such a conflict be in Israel-Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, or Yemen, the immense contribution, as difficult as it may be to pursue, that a long-term project of truth and reconciliation would make toward the eventual peaceful coexistence of all concerned.

In the aftermath of South Africa’s seminal project, Tutu observed: “The raison d’être for this commission is opening wounds and cleansing them so that they do not fester. And saying, we have dealt with our past as effectively as we could, we have not denied it, we have looked the beast in the eye.” These words of wisdom should remain our guide and inspiration in dealing with conflicts, as there are many such menacing beasts who we too must look in the eye.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view


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