Just a year ago a slender, 13-year-old South African girl was healthy and active, but now she lies on a straw pad, unable to walk or feed herself. She is HIV-positive.
A woman living in rural South Africa, surrounded by her five children, becomes sick and goes for testing — she, too, is HIV-positive. She contracted this debilitating disease from her husband, who works far away in Soweto and is not able to return home very often.
A young mother unknowingly infects her baby with HIV/AIDS and now they are both dying.
These women are among the 5.3 million people in South Africa who are caught in the web of HIV/AIDS. Life continues to be hard for black South African women. It was as bad as it gets back in the days of Apartheid — or so I thought, when I lived among them for six weeks. But I was wrong. In spite of the end of Apartheid, freedom still eludes many black South Africans.
In addition to the ethnic, gender, and economic inequalities that have afflicted black South African women past the end of Apartheid in 1994, the plague of HIV/AIDS has added a new dimension to their struggle. Though the struggle is far from over, many of these women have found that forgiveness is central to the process of healing. Forgiving does not equal forgetting. The injustices in South Africa should always be remembered, but stories of peace and forgiveness (and the extreme courage that accompanies them) should be shared and celebrated as well.
Through reconciliation with those who have been responsible for their plight, for husbands who have given them HIV/AIDS, for the political system that has failed to provide health care, for police who have failed to protect them from rape, for people who still consider black South African women to be inferior, they offer forgiveness.
This does not suggest that black women will sit idly by and not continue to work for justice (such as prevention and treatment for HIV/AIDS), but it does mean they will move forward in wholeness.
The Perils of Apartheid
Living with Apartheid from 1948–1994 burdened black and mixed South Africans with injustices as the minority white South Africans enforced extreme segregation laws. Black people, representing about three-fourths of the population of South Africa, were prohibited from participating in government, and even from using the same buses, restrooms, or restaurants that were used by whites.
The Apartheid laws affected black women’s rights regarding property, divorce, and family relationships. Regulations were established that favored men when women were raped. Some of the most unjust laws for women were the “pass” laws, which regulated where black women could live, travel, or work.
Black people were displaced to townships and men were then transported to work in mines and wherever else the government saw fit, living in deplorable conditions. Since most women remained in the rural townships, they needed to eke out their living on small pieces of land and care for their families.
At times, husbands would be away from their wives for an entire year. While they worked in the city, many would see prostitutes or even take second wives. Apartheid laws like these tore families apart and had horrible consequences, including th e spread of HIV/AIDS to women and children as men brought the virus back to the townships.
Forgiveness in Action: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Though clinging to the past is an unhealthy practice and cannot foster a spirit of forgiveness, confronting and reckoning with the past is an essential part of creating a future of peace and coexistence. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was one of the largest factors in working to restore post-apartheid South Africa and provided a widespread and systematic method to encourage forgiveness and healing.
Headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC allowed victims of violence to voice their grievances. Those who committed crimes had the opportunity to request amnesty if their crimes were found to be politically motivated and if they told the complete truth to the committee. Anyone could be charged with acts of violence under apartheid, including the South African police, citizens, and the African National Congress, which was the ruling party at the time of the Commission.
Most consider the TRC to have been extremely effective. While the Commission was certainly driven by the need for justice, the committees within the TRC show that it was also motivated by the need for forgiveness and healing. For example, the Human Rights Violations Committee investigated abuses that occurred under Apartheid, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee worked toward re-establishing the dignity of victims, and the Amnesty Committee assessed victimizers who applied for amnesty.
The TRC allowed for legal reparations but also encouraged the intimate work of forgiveness. Alongside of the Commission, people found creative ways to express their hurt and begin the healing process through such means as plays, workshops, support groups, and counseling. Themes of anger, hatred, and isolation surfaced in the process, but so did those of joy, hope, and perseverance.
Archbishop Tutu described what it was like to participate in the TRC’s work in a speech at the National Press Club on October 6, 1999: “When people who had suffered grievously, whom you could have said had a divine right to being angry and filled with a lust for revenge, came and told their stories…you wanted to take off your shoes because you said, ‘I’m standing on holy ground.’”
Many of us wonder, How can we forgive someone who doesn’t ask to be forgiven? Are some atrocities beyond forgiveness? Will forgiveness make a difference? How does forgiveness apply to national policies that harm so many people?
On the other hand, we may wonder, How can we not forgive? Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”? Didn’t Paul write, “Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13)?
To forgive means that we release others from the grasp they have held over us, but it also means that we release ourselves from the detestation, loathing, and abhorrence we may feel toward those who mandated Apartheid and even those who have infected others
Failing to forgive hinders our relationship with people who have hurt us. It locks us into the past and makes it difficult to move forward with love and justice, and may affect our relationship with God. According to Lewis Smedes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you” (Christianity Today, January 7, 1983).
The church has helped many black South African women begin the process of forgiveness. Ms. Nobubele Mbyo, a former teacher in South Africa, described forgiveness to me this way: “When I became mature in Christ, the reluctance to forgive was erased, I forgot the past grievances, the pettiness leading to bitterness was removed, and instead I experienced a sweetness which is the hallmark of true friendship. This maturity allowed Christ to develop my mind and nurture my spirit.”
“Jesus taught that we should forgive in order to have a healthy life…It is better to talk about hurts because in that way it relieves the pain. At the same time it is important to pray about it frequently.” — Ellen Koni, former South African school teacher
According to Ellen Koni, a former South African school teacher, forgiveness is important because “Jesus taught that we should forgive in order to have a healthy life…It is better to talk about hurts because in that way it relieves the pain. At the same time it is important to pray about it frequently.”
Though black South African women have suffered extreme inequality for much of their lives, many of them are striving to forgive and move forward. Wounds can be so deep, but forgiveness can start with one step at a time in order to arrive at recovery and reconciliation. Some South Africans have taken the first step, others the second, and many have reached reconciliation and peace.
Standing Up Together
Seth Naicker is a student at Bethel University (St. Paul, Minn.) who has worked for reconciliation in South Africa. He believes that women have been in the forefront of helping South Africa rise from the “ashes of Apartheid.” According to Seth, “Healing in South Africa takes place in the chaos of life. Women heal as they see their children developing and they heal as they access better working and educational opportunities.”
Naicker considers his mother to be just one example of hope, wholeness, and restoration in the lives of many South African women. Eleanor Joyce Naicker founded the Amakhaya Children’s Project, a ministry for street children, more than fifteen years ago. She sought support from all sectors to provide a loving Christian home for children who have been abandoned, destitute, or run-aways.
Every group has a role in working toward reconciliation and resolving the injustices that have occurred. According to Carol, an American missionary who ministered with the black women of South Africa for eighteen years during Apartheid, “Reconciliation with black women will come as white people of South Africa demonstrate…their concerns for the black woman’s plight. It will take time. White people must earn their way now — before being white was their key to all advantages. Now white women must also be involved in reconciliation and demonstrate their acceptance and love of black women.”
As Nelson Mandela would say, “it is a long walk to freedom.” However, new stories of hope, forgiveness, and wholeness are coming from South African women every day. As women work together for healing and wholeness, Nobubele Mbyo calls us all to, “Stand up! And let the name of Jesus shine far and wide, fight Satan with untold courage and believe that God’s love endures forever.”