Excerpt from a speech to the University of Idaho on 1 April 2008


After establishing our new constitutional democracy, one of our greatest challenges was the task of coming to grips with the conflict of our past and finding true and lasting reconciliation.    Responsibility for this task was given to our Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of Nobel Peace Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  On 30 October 1998 he finally presented the TRC’s report to President Mandela.


In the process we learned that it was often easier to reach agreement on the challenges of the present and the goals for the future – than on the grievances of the past.  In the wake of the TRC’s findings – which were challenged by nearly all South Africa’s main political parties, including the ANC – the only thing on which we all agreed was the ongoing need for reconciliation.


An important part of helping to break the ghastly cycle of human conflict can be provided by the healing power of forgiveness and the peace-making power of reconciliation.


Despite the lip service that we give every day to the importance of forgiveness – “Forgive us this day our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us” – the reality is that we seldom truly forgive.  Yet forgiveness is essential, not only because it is for Christians a central commandment of their religion, but because it is critically important for our own spiritual and mental well-being and for the search for lasting peace.


Until we truly forgive our enemies we carry within our hearts a bitterness that can poison every other aspect of our lives.  Only when we forgive the wrongs that have been done to us can we free ourselves from this burden.   By continuing to nurse grievances against those who have done us wrong, we give them continuing power over us.  With each remembrance of past wrongs we perpetuate the evil that has been done to us.  In the end we forgive those who have done us wrong not only for their sake, but also for our own liberation.


Many of the conflicts that continue to wrack the world have their roots deep in memories of ancient and unforgiven wrongs.


One of the great challenges in peace-making is to break the cycle of grievance and revenge. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland went all the way back to the Battle of the Boyne at the end of the seventeenth century.  The internecine strife ten years ago in Bosnia/Herzegovina could be traced back hundreds of years to bitter grievances that arose during wars between the Turks, the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croatians.  The same is true of the conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi, between the Hutu and the Tutsi; in Cyprus, between the Greeks and the Turks, and in the Middle East between the Palestinians and the Israelis.


Very often, the fuel that keeps these conflicts smouldering – or ablaze – is the memory of past atrocities – all carefully nurtured and remembered  – all of them unforgiven and therefore unresolved.


We cannot truly hope to establish peace between such peoples until we address the root of their sense of grievance – and this can only be done through forgiveness.


We Afrikaners know about this.   I grew up in a society that nurtured a deep sense of grievance against the British.   For us the Anglo-Boer War was not another distant and bothersome colonial campaign that we read about in the morning papers.


It utterly devastated our two young republics;  it deprived us of our hard-won right to rule ourselves; and most tragically, it led to the deaths of a considerable portion of our women and children in disease-ridden concentration camps.  No one knows how many Boers – men, women and children – died in the concentration camps.  Official estimates vary between 18 000 and 28 000 – out of a total population of a few hundred thousand.  When I grew up, there was hardly a family in our community that that had not suffered some or other loss.  Many of the older people still had first-hand memories of the conflict.


But somehow, or other, we succeeded in putting most of this bitterness behind us.


So we, as a people, know what it is to have been sinned against and to have forgiven.   But we also know what it is to have sinned against others and to have needed forgiveness. The apartheid policies that my party implemented for many years caused enormous suffering, disruption and humiliation to millions of South Africans.  In 1997 at our Truth and Reconciliation Commission  I apologised in my capacity as Leader of the National Party to the millions of South Africans who suffered the wrenching disruption of forced removals from their homes, businesses and land;  who over the years suffered the shame of being arrested for pass law offences;  who over the centuries had suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination;  who had been prevented from exercising their full democratic rights in the land of their birth;  who were unable to achieve their full potential;  and who in any way suffered as a result of the policies and actions of former Governments.


Forgiveness helps to break the vicious cycle of bitterness, revenge and escalating conflict.   It is the beginning of the road to reconciliation.


Reconciliation has a number of different meanings, each, in its own way essential for the establishment of lasting peace.


Its first meaning is the bringing together of those who have previously been alienated from one another.


Reconciliation in this sense, requires us to put the hurt, reproach and conflict of a divided past behind us and to concentrate, instead, on the promise and common purpose of a united future.


A second meaning of reconciliation is the acceptance of things that, in an ideal world, we would rather not accept.  We say, in this sense, that we have reconciled ourselves to this or that reality.  We would have preferred something more but the imperative for compromise requires us to accept something less.


Reconciliation, in this sense, is also a prerequisite for peace.  The reality is that any search for lasting solutions to the problems that have caused conflict in the past, will require all parties to make real – and sometimes painful -compromises.


In our case, the ANC entered the negotiation process as a truly convinced socialist alliance.  I am sure that it was difficult for many of their supporters to accept the broadly liberal, plural and free market society that ultimately emerged in South Africa.


We, on the other hand, had to make one of the greatest sacrifices that can be asked of any people.  My people, the Afrikaners, had to give up the right to exclusive national self-determination for which we had struggled for more than three centuries.  We are as much a nation as any people on the face of the earth – with our own language, culture and history.  Yet we realised that our efforts to continue to maintain this right would inevitably lead to further injustice to others and to a downward spiral of conflict and devastation.


Reconciliation and peace require us to accept compromises.  They nearly always require a leap of faith and a willingness to trust those whom we had previously regarded as our sworn enemies.


The third sense of reconciliation is the auditing concept of balance.  We all of us have, at some time or other, struggled to reconcile our bank statements with the often wildly inaccurate figures in the stubs of our cheque books.    We overlook long-standing debits.  Sometimes we are surprised by unexpected credits.  We have all experienced the satisfaction when we finally succeed in balancing our books to the last penny.


So it is also with our search for reconciliation with one another.   We must forgive and we must hope to be forgiven.  But we should not do this blindly without cognisance of our responsibilities, debts and credits.  For that reason reconciliation requires that we should also carefully, and dispassionately, examine our collective accounts of our past relationships and seek to find a balance.  The purpose of such an exercise must not be a reversion to the kind of reproach or retribution that caused our alienation from one another in the first place.   But it is a necessary exercise before we can finally close the books on the past.  The essence of the exercise, however, remains balance and the production of a statement that accurately reflects all of the data at our disposal.  If all statements are not brought into reckoning, the accounts will not balance and our efforts will not lead to reconciliation.


It is perhaps in this context that our Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, in my opinion, experienced its greatest problems.    Its greatest flaw was that it did not include a single member who could represent the views of the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party, our second and third largest political parties.  It did not include anyone who could speak for the majority of our white and coloured communities.  One of its two Afrikaans members resigned and the other was criticised by the Commission for presenting a minority report.    It is difficult to see how there can be reconciliation if there is no consensus – and consensus is not possible if all sides are not properly represented in the debate.


I originally supported the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission because I thought that it was essential that South Africans from all our political parties and from all our communities should reach some kind of acceptable consensus about the past.  If we did not agree about where we had come from, it was unlikely that we would agree about where we were – or about the direction in which we should move.  If we were not all navigating from the same basic map, there would be little chance of our finding one another and of joining one another on the same road to the future.


At the same time, there is no doubt that the TRC did a great deal of very good work.  It succeeded in establishing the truth about many gross violations of human rights; its hearings often had a cathartic effect on those involved; only the most callous observers could fail to be moved by the testimony of victims from all sides of the political spectrum or horrified by the evidence of many of the perpetrators.


Thus, fourteen years after our transition to democracy South Africa has made great and positive strides.  We have eliminated apartheid; we have established a functioning multiparty democracy; we have had fourteen years of sustained economic growth; we are transforming our society – but, in some important respects we have still not yet really found one another.  The challenge during the years ahead will be to continue to work for genuine reconciliation.  We must hammer out an agreement on our past with which all of us will be able to identify; we must develop respect for the cultures, traditions and sensitivities of our fellow South Africans; and we must reach out to the millions of South Africans whose lives have not yet been improved by our constitutional transformation.


The reality is that all human relationships require constant care and attention – particularly those between groups in complex societies.   We can never sit back and say that we have solved the problem.   We must strive incessantly to hold those who are filled with passionate intensity at bay; we must reinforce the conviction of the good; and we must strengthen the forces and interests that bind us together to ensure that the centre continues to hold.