spirit of reconciliation
by Marcus White 91
The first time I visited South Africa
was in 1988 during the height of apartheid. I was stunned to see the incredible
contrast between the first-world luxury of white South Africans versus the
incredible poverty of the shantytowns that were home to millions and now
house even millions more. Schools for black South Africans were an after-thought,
at best, and an ambulance could pass several state-of-the-art hospitals
for whites while on the way to a clinic or hospital available to blacks.
South Africans endured one of the more evil of the 20th centurys many
atrocities. Economic disparity, a weak currency, unemployment, housing,
AIDS, health care, and education needs all present enormous challenges.
For decades, the basic needs of tens of millions of people were ignored.
It will take time and resources to mend all that is broken.
Yet a great proportion of the population wants to heal past pains and build
a nation that respects all. The euphoria of the 1994 elections and Nelson
Mandelas presidency has faded somewhat as the nation gets busy addressing
the damage done by apartheid. Yet South Africans continue to uphold the
vision of a non-racial society in which all people enjoy freedom
and a respect for their God-given dignity.
This spirit of reconciliation is personified in Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Throughout the apartheid years Tutu talked of peace and reconciliation even
when a peaceful resolution seemed impossible. It was a long, hard struggle.
As an intern in the Archbishops office I was privileged to witness
(and learn from) the tremendous commitment of Tutu and his staff. At times
they must have felt that they were getting nowhere with government officials
and western nations that resisted the sanctions movement. Yet they persevered,
often at great personal cost, because they believed that South Africa would
emerge from the nightmare and enjoy a new day as one diverse nation. The
Archbishops racially diverse staff reflected his commitment to building
a new nation. It was one of very few places I encountered where people of
different races worked together as equals.
Former-president Mandela often spoke of reconciliation and set the tone
for the peace that would be pursued in post-apartheid South Africa. Archbishop
Tutu provides the moral voice that allows reflection on the importance of
reconciliation instead of retribution. Tutu served as chairman of the Truth
& Reconciliation Commission, uncovering the truth about the atrocities
of the apartheid era without the confrontation and silence that would have
been part of criminal proceedings against human rights violators. While
there are criticisms of the Commission, introducing the truth about apartheid
into the common experience has been tremendously valuable in enabling people
to move forward, their pain acknowledged.
Inspired by the Archbishops spirit of peace and reconciliation, a
new Desmond Tutu Peace Center is being developed in Cape Town. The Center
will attract people from across Africa and all over the world to draw upon
the hopeful spirit that sustained the anti-apartheid movement.
There is, of course, still great anger in South Africa, much of it justifiable.
Yet eight years after those first democratic elections with their long,
winding lines of voters, South Africa still offers Africa, and the world,
Last April while visiting a friend who is a black pastor outside Johannesburg
we were inspecting his cars ailing water pump. His next door neighbor
in the formerly all-white neighborhood, a much older white Afrikaner man,
joined us. Introduced, we exchanged pleasantries in Afrikaans, and then
the neighbors stuck their heads under the hood of the car to examine the
pump, talking the whole time. These are two men who would never have been
neighbors, perhaps never would have met, in the legally segregated and highly
adversarial and violent world of apartheid. Now they are neighbors, helping
each other as neighbors do. When my friend Modise and I got in the car I
looked over at him. He was already looking my way, anticipating a reaction.
I simply said, Amazing.
Modise smiled and replied, Amazing.
Marcus White91 is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Conference
of Greater Milwaukee. During 1988, 1989, and 1990 he worked in South Africa,
including an internship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. During 2001 he returned
to South Africa for five weeks to interview leaders in the faith community.
Contact White at: MarcusWhte@aol.com
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