American citizens hammered daily by aggressive and destructive political rhetoric will find a solace in Desmond Tutu’s book about the way South Africa approached the problem of reconciling the nation after the end of apartheid. Reading this book gave me hope that the right leader could calm the troubled waters even in the USA in 2012.
Desmond Tutu is known world-wide as a major figure in the struggle to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa. His vocation as a bishop in the Anglican Church gave him a platform on which to speak and created in people a predisposition to respect his voice. Nonetheless, even after he had received the Nobel Peace Prize, his battle against the dehumanization of all non-white individuals in South Africa was fraught with personal peril and entrenched legal and bureaucratic structures.
As anyone with children knows very well, even after power has put a stop to a battle, deep-seated resentments fester and erupt over and over unless they are somehow defused. This problem is the thesis that shapes Tutu’s book. In this book, which reads at times like a personal journal, Tutu recounts the decision to create a Truth Commission whose role was to give voice to all who had been abused and oppressed when apartheid was the law of the land. The attitudes that fueled apartheid resulted in terrible atrocities. People were murdered, maimed, and tortured. Families were destroyed. The wounds of those days ran deep. Tutu feared that unless the people who had suffered so terribly were allowed to tell their stories, the wounds would fester into a never-ending struggle that would rip apart a nation trying desperately to heal.
The Truth Commission not only invited people to tell the stories of atrocities, but it also was authorized to contact the perpetrators of the atrocities. This element was very important, because the commission had the authority to ask the perpetrators simply to confirm the details. Anybody could come to the Commission and say anything. By incorporating into the process, the opportunity for perpetrators to speak as well, the truth was protected from one-sided bias due to pain. The intent, of course, was to prevent people from telling horrific lies and making the situation even worse.
The huge and surprising theme of the book is that out of all this truth-telling came forgiveness. Many people found it sufficient simply to tell their story and be heard with respect. Tutu is surprisingly open about his own feelings in the process.
This book is a revelation of the power of truth to defuse hatred and the need for revenge. The stories people told of their experiences are heart-breaking, but the record of numerous instances of forgiveness and even healing that came out of the work of the commission creates great hope that what happened in South Africa could happen anywhere.
The USA currently suffers from some of the harshest verbal assaults on record in the political arena. Citizens are divided and angry and aggressive in ways I have never before seen during a campaign. I recommend we all ask ourselves where is the leader who can do for the people of the USA what Desmond Tutu did for the people of South Africa.