Power of Forgiveness in South Africa

The Truth Commission gave amnesty in June to militants who admitted to a church massacre.

"My wife was sitting by the [church] door, wearing a blue coat. Do you remember it? You shot her."

Last year, Dawie Ackerman confronted the black militants who attacked St. James Anglican Church in Cape Town in July 1993 and asked them to tell the truth. In turn, they asked him for forgiveness, which he and other members of the congregation have granted.

His questioning of the young black militants who murdered his wife remains one of the most spellbinding, inspiring moments of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Indeed, that interchange was the reason the TRC was created.

The TRC completed the painful circle last month by granting amnesty to the men who targeted the church because it was in a white neighborhood.

Amnesty is granted not to condone violent acts, but to encourage their telling in public, in the belief that such telling will help heal the wounds of South Africa's past.

Bassie Mkhumbuzi, Thobela Mlambisa, and Gcinikhaya Christopher Makoma were guerrillas in the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), the armed wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress when they attacked St. James July 25, killing 11 people and injuring 50.

Thanks to the TRC, Mr. Makoma has left the prison where he was serving a 23-year sentence for the murders. The other two men were still awaiting trial and have also been freed. "Now it's time for us to put this behind us," says the Rev. Brian Cameron of St. James.

Forgiving a murderer

The amnesty decision "has brought a sense of closure to all this," says the quiet-spoken Ackerman, who says he and his new wife are ready to enter a new phase in their lives. "When those young men asked for forgiveness, I felt they were sincere. It brought release. They were very young, they were just 16 or 17 when it happened, and they were even younger when they were recruited into the APLA.

"I've great sympathy for the fact they were impressionable, and I know the political background against which these deeds were committed," he adds.

Others have far less sympathy. Many whites are angered that amnesty has been granted to the murderers who defiled a religious sanctuary. They consider the attack on the church a far more evil deed than anything whites did to blacks under apartheid.

"I get a lot of criticism from people," says Ackerman. "They say, 'How can you forgive a murderer?' Well, the apostle Paul started out a persecutor of Christians. He was there when Stephen was stoned to death, and yet Paul was forgiven.

"My wish for those young men is that they use this newfound freedom to seek the ultimate freedom, which is freedom granted from God, freedom from sin."

Yet opinion-makers persist in trying to whip up negative sentiment. The Freedom Front, representing white Afrikaaners, expressed its outrage over the amnesty decision. A headline in the Cape Times alleged "bitterness" on the part of the St. James congregation - but churchgoers spoke only of forgiveness.

That is not to say that the congregation is happy with the TRC process. While it was beholden on them, as Christians, to forgive, church members argue that the state is simultaneously required to administer justice. Bishop Frank Retief said in a press release, "we have reservations that amnesty has been granted to two of the perpetrators without a criminal trial being held.... Without prior trial and verdict, amnesty appears to us to suggest a degree of implied innocence in the face of gross human rights violations."

Helping others

The amnesty announcement elicited another example of the generosity of the St. James congregation. Last month, Bishop Retief revealed that the congregation had helped the families of four Russian sailors who were killed in the St. James attack. With money from the massacre relief fund, Ackerman and a translator traveled to Russia to take $10,000 in cash to each family that had lost a breadwinner in the massacre.

"In several cases, they found the families of the dead sailors living in abject poverty," says Retief. "To them, $10,000 was a lifetime's pension. This was one of the positive things to have emerged from the horror."

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