We’ve lost our finest forgiveness artist. Nelson Mandela’s ninety-five years revealed to us many talents: scholar, activist, linguist, writer, speaker, politician, and negotiator. For me, the talent that most sets him apart, the one for which we owe him the most, is that of negotiator. Mandela learned, and we learned with him, over a lifetime and through the toughest of struggles, the fine art of negotiating reconciliation with his oppressors. This lesson in negotiation applies to resolving national conflicts, and it also applies to resolving conflicts in our homes and workplaces.
It’s clear from his Long Walk to Freedom that Mandela did not appreciate as a young man the power of forgiveness to achieve reconciliation. Mandela was just 30 in 1948 when Gandhi was assassinated and India won its independence from colonial Britain, a time when Mandela and the freedom fighters of the African National Congress (ANC) embraced Gandhi’s example of non-violent civil disobedience as their main tactic.
Mandela was 45 in 1963 when he was imprisoned for life as a “terrorist” against the state, after the ANC adopted violent protests in response to violent suppression.
Mandela was 77 in 1995 when as President he commissioned retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu to conduct the Truth and Reconciliation Commission . What had Mandela learned on Robben Island? With this act Mandela combined his upraised fist with his now outstretched hand to personify the spirit of the new government of South Africa, which included many legislators who had been exiled, jailed, tortured, or threatened by those who could now apply for amnesty.
Through their new constitution and this Commission, the new government chose to suspend retributive justice for a short time in favor of facilitating the reconstruction of the nation. No Nuremburg-stye trials nor blanket amnesty for this nation. The principle guiding their bold choice is captured by the title of Tutu’s book about his experience—both wrenching and inspiring—of conducting this Commission: No Future without Forgiveness.
The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was brief and narrow—to provide a pathway to amnesty in 1995-98 for selected politically motivated perpetrators of gross violations of human rights committed between 1960-94. Its methods for negotiating legal amnesty may teach us about the more personal process of negotiating forgiveness.
- The applicant had to make “full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to the offense for which amnesty was being sought.” Most disclosures were made in public hearings.
- Victims had the right to oppose applications for amnesty if they felt the conditions were not met.
- Victims had the right to testify at the hearings.
- Once amnesty was granted for criminal offenses, the victim could not pursue civil charges.
- Victims could apply for reparations. The aim of the process was “restorative justice,” not retributive justice.
Tutu’s account of this admittedly limited and insufficient experiment in national reconciliation spells out the genius of the effort. This Commission earned its place in history as the best modern example of conflict resolution by restorative justice. It taught us once again that there are times in some struggles when restoring the relationship trumps winning the fight. It taught us that learning the truth about an offense can mean more to a victim than revenge against the perpetrator. It taught us that reparations—modest and symbolic reparations—granted in a fair and open process may restore a victim’s self-respect, even if the perpetrator is granted legal amnesty.
If this South African event 15 years ago seems too removed from your daily life, check out one of Mandela’s offspring, spawned about 10 years ago, Marina Cantacuzino’s The Forgiveness Project. There’s our future.