South African leaders spoke during the Baptist World Congress about the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that helped the nation’s transition from racial apartheid.
With the Congress meeting in Durban, South Africa – the city where Nelson Mandela cast his first vote during the historic 1994 elections that rebirthed the nation – the focus on the TRC offered Baptists from around the world a chance to hear from those who lived through the process.
Ruben Richards, who served as executive secretary of the TRC, talked about his work as a staffer supporting the commissioners. He reported to the TRC’s chair, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Richards called the TRC “a bridge from a tyrannical, oppressive regime and society to a more open and free society.”
He added that the commissioners assumed the “role of a sponge, to soak up the pain of our nation.”
Louis Kretzschmar, a Baptist who teaches theological ethics at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, argued that the TRC served as “a national ritual or a national process of therapy.”
“The TRC did achieve some healing, a lot of truth was revealed and some reconciliation did take place,” she said. “The process was aimed not to focus on the retributive justice … but restorative justice.”
“The TRC revealed the power of storytelling,” Kretzschmar said. “People who had been dehumanized, who had been brutalized, who had been tortured, who had been told, ‘you can shout and scream as much as you like, no one will hear you,’ they had an opportunity to tell their story and now the whole world could hear what they had been told no one would hear.”
Frank Chikane, who as an anti-apartheid activist had been poisoned in an assassination attempt, also discussed what the TRC accomplished.
In 1989, security forces of the apartheid regime applied military-grade chemical weapons to Chikane’s clothes after tampering with his luggage in an airport.
He became gravely ill but survived because they mistakenly did not apply a lethal dose. Some of the perpetrators later confessed and asked for forgiveness.
“As a Christian committed to the gospel, I decided to forgive them before I knew who they were,” Chikane said. “Their forgiveness had nothing to do with their confessions. It had to do with my own healing.”
“I decided the best thing to be healed out of bitterness and anger is to forgive them,” he said.
He added, however, that he felt “deep depression” when the perpetrators were released with suspended sentences.
He mentioned this in order to note “how painful it is to go through this process,” despite the claims of critics that efforts like the TRC are too easy.
“It is not an easy thing,” Chikane asserted. “It’s costly to make peace. There’s no cheap way to do it.”
Peace and forgiveness requires a focus on restorative justice and painful compromises to build a better future, he argued.
“This is not a liberation of black people; it is a liberation of whites as well … because they were prisoners of fear,” he explained. “We were fighting for a free South Africa and therefore both whites and blacks must be free.”
“You don’t let the past kill the future,” he said to justify the TRC’s focus. “Once we got the truth, we were then able to cross the bridge from endless violence to peace.”
“The point at which you make peace is beyond where all of you is sitting,” he noted in reference to the starting positions of various sides involved in negotiations. “You must do something; you must sacrifice something.”
The presentations about the TRC led to talk about the role Christianity played in the process as well as during the apartheid regime and liberation movement.
Richards, whose doctorate is in Old Testament studies, noted that the TRC’s investigations into human rights violations brought another complication in “a society that had the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.”
“These were gross violations [of human rights] committed by a government that claimed to be Christian, and committing them in the name of the Christian God,” he said. “Your pigmentation clouded your notions of truth, fairness, justice and – dare I say – Christian salvation.”
Kevin Roy, who teaches at the Baptist Theological College in Cape Town, also addressed the claim by the apartheid regime to be a Christian state.
“I have never been comfortable with the idea of a Christian state,” he said. “I personally don’t believe there ever has been a Christian state. And I’m also convinced that those states that call themselves Christian states are often the most unchristian.”
Many churches – especially non-white churches – offered a different perspective by critiquing apartheid and supporting the TRC.
Kretzschmar noted the Christian influence on the TRC with Tutu’s leadership and the presence of other ministers also serving as commissioners.
“It was not a process that was officially endorsed by the churches,” she said, “although many churches participated because they wanted to try and help the people who had been so devastated and brutalized by the apartheid regime.”
Chikane, who has served in several leadership roles in the South African government and for Christian organizations, addressed the issue of why he and others in churches took sides and opposed apartheid.
“During the struggle, we had as churches to make a decision that we would take sides with the victims of apartheid,” he said. “It was not a decision of one party against another. It was not a decision of one political group against another. It was an issue of the victims of an unjust society, we must take sides with.”
“It was not, in the classical sense, taking sides with political entities,” he added, “but with justice.”
Editor’s note: Pictures from the BWA World Congress are available on EthicsDaily.com’s Pinterest page and Facebook page. Video interviews of BWA attendees have been posted to EthicsDaily.com’s Vimeo page. Kaylor’s previous reports from the Baptist World Congress are available here:
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.