Before forgiveness there must come remorse and apologies

22 June 2014 - 02:21 By Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
FACING HIS SHAME: Apartheid killer Eugene de Kock has expressed - and demonstrated - real regret for his evil deeds Picture: GALLO IMAGES
FACING HIS SHAME: Apartheid killer Eugene de Kock has expressed - and demonstrated - real regret for his evil deeds Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Limpho Hani's recent response to the renewed application for parole by Clive Derby-Lewis, the killer of her late husband, Chris Hani, gives one pause: "I'm not an animal. I am a human being," she said.

What is the deeper significance of her statement? The words "I am a human being" speak to the pain of not being recognised, of one's loved ones being dehumanised and treated as worthless.

When Derby-Lewis appeared before the amnesty committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in August 1997, he said it was "a tribute to the status of Chris Hani that he was selected as a target" in order to advance his and his party's right-wing agenda of throwing South Africa into chaos.

Asked by George Bizos, representing the Hani family, whether he had any apology for the killing, Derby-Lewis said: "No Mr Chairman ... How can I ever apologise for an act of war? War is war."

His understanding of the amnesty application process, he pointed out, was that an apology was not necessary. The presiding chairman agreed: "Well, Mr Bizos, the act does not require an applicant to apologise for what he did. He is required to make a full disclosure of what he did."

Bizos explained that he was not interested in whether Derby-Lewis had fulfilled the requirements of the amnesty process, but rather in whether he "ever expressed regret".

Apology and regret go beyond questions of law, beyond full disclosure or telling the truth. They give us a glimpse of what might be a stirring of a perpetrator's conscience, an opening up rather than a shutting down of their capacity to recognise the humanity of their victims.

The entry of these concepts in public debates about crimes against humanity and the remarkable expressions of forgiveness that sometimes occur challenge us to think differently about questions of healing trauma and the restoration of human bonds in the aftermath of mass political violence.

Today we know that some survivors of historical traumas express forgiveness as an important part of their own healing journey. Where victims' or survivors' pasts are inextricably linked with those of perpetrators, where they share the same country (and sometimes live as neighbours, as in Rwanda), forgiveness can offer transformative possibilities and break the cycles of inter-generational hatred and violence.

A concept rarely discussed is remorse, yet for forgiveness to be meaningful in restoring relationships, it has to be preceded by expressions of remorse.

The TRC's approach was unique in that it adopted an invitational stance, asking perpetrators to "give full disclosure" of their crimes in exchange for amnesty. Without the threat of punishment, it was possible for some perpetrators not only to confess their crimes, but also to feel their guilt.

This is an important distinction, because one can simply "face up" to what one has done through acknowledgement at a merely intellectual level without taking responsibility for one's horrific deeds. It is as if the person is saying: "I give you what you want - full disclosure. Here is my list of evil deeds in which I participated under orders."

In contrast, feeling the burden of guilt recognises that by the very fact of one's participation in those acts one excluded oneself from the realm of moral humanity. It is this recognition of alienation from the bonds of human community and a deep sense of guilt about it at one's inner core of being human that makes remorse possible.

Remorse involves facing the past and its internally unsettling truths. It seeks integration of the uncomfortable reality at a deeper level.

Very few South African perpetrators exemplify this remorseful stance. Among them is Eugene de Kock.

In my work, I have interviewed survivors and family members of victims who responded with forgiveness to those who killed their loved ones.

This coming together of survivor and perpetrator is immensely complex and difficult to comprehend. Yet, through these stories, we have learnt how it is sometimes possible that the very presence of a remorseful perpetrator can open the door to genuinely felt empathy for the perpetrator and lead the survivor to reach out and say "I forgive you".

The recognition of victims' suffering and the desire to repair the suffering - made visible through the expression of remorse - is crucial if the goal is to readmit perpetrators to the human community. Remorse is an ethical dimension of human relations, because it shows the kind of empathy that is necessary for us to rebuild a human community.

De Kock's continued engagement with survivors' efforts in order to help them to get some form of closure is an important contribution to their healing and recovery.

His assisting the National Prosecuting Authority to find the missing remains of anti-apartheid activists who were buried in secret graves during apartheid is helping South Africa to deal with the unfinished business of the past.

All this means he is facing his shame, which is important for his own journey of repairing the brokenness he brought into our world.

Those on whose behalf his deeds were committed - the politicians, voters and the beneficiaries of apartheid privilege - will have to find their own path towards acknowledging and healing their guilt. Remorse and regret ensure that we do not end up with cheap forgiveness that places little or no responsibility on the perpetrator for accountability.

However, not all perpetrators respond with the sense of remorseful guilt that survivors are seeking, as we have witnessed with apartheid spy Craig Williamson and "Dr Death", Wouter Basson.

Some perpetrators are either incapable of feeling remorse - they lack the capacity for that kind of empathy - or, alternatively, they understand the moral implications of their actions but, in order to protect themselves from an inner shattering of the self, they pervert the truth, claiming righteousness.

Derby-Lewis, for example, told the TRC the killing of Hani could be justified on the basis of his Christian faith: "[We] as Christians are told that it is our duty to fight the anti-Christ in whichever way we can."

The tragic part of this avoidance of accountability is that survivors struggle to "move on" because of a lack of recognition of their pain. The statement "I am not an animal; I am a human being" is a reminder that as we pursue the goal of national reconciliation, questions of "human rights" should give way to and be subsumed by human questions.

In the end, we are a society of people and not just a pooling of individual rights, a fragile web of interdependent humans together on a journey to create a more humane society.

Gobodo-Madikizela is senior research professor at the University of the Free State. 'A Human Being Died that Night', her book about her conversations with De Kock, won the 2004 Sunday Times Alan Paton award for nonfiction