What is it that so inspires us about former enemies coming together in a spirit of peace and reconciliation? Retaliation may be our default position, and yet frequently we find that conflict resolved through compassion motivates and encourages us far more than conflict resolved through revenge.
Take for example Nelson Mandela’s statement following decades behind bars: ‘I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I’d still be in prison,’ or the recent story from Iran of the mother of a murdered son, who had no intention of sparing her son’s killer from execution until the moment she saw the noose around his neck. Both examples have inspired millions of people round the world to support peaceful solutions to conflict. I know this response well from having created The F Word – an exhibition of personal narratives exploring forgiveness in the face of atrocity. The exhibition was launched in London in 2004 with the war in Iraq still a topic of fierce debate and these narratives of hope seemed to tap into a deep public need for alternative and peaceful responses to violence.
As with other stories I’ve collected over the years, the story of Ginn Fourie and Letlapa Mphahlele not only represents a model for repairing broken communities but also can shed light on our own smaller grievances and provide fresh perspectives. This is what is called restorative storytelling.
There is a particular scene in Beyond Forgiving that audiences across the UK seemed invariably moved by. It is when Letlapa is talking about the gift of forgiveness handed to him by Ginn. He describes how it was not something he was expecting, certainly not something he deserved, but it transported him to an entirely different landscape. ‘Forgiveness was like being struck by lightning, out of the blue. In a cloudless day lightning strikes you… it is the opening of a world which was until then closed to you,’ he says. These are powerful words because they sum up the magnitude of the gift of forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t a pro-social act born out of the victim’s 22 by Marina Cantacuzino Founder, The Forgiveness Project A re-humanising gift Books and DVDs generosity but a rehumanising gift emphasising the humanity of the perpetrator.
During the 10-day speaking tour, the story was a public demonstration of how Ginn’s forgiveness of the man who gave the orders for an attack that killed her only daughter can rehabilitate the offender, assist in a victim’s recovery and generate healing on a personal and societal level. Again, as Letlapa said, “It was only when people extended gifts of forgiveness that the roots of my heart were shaken and something was restored inside me.”
Their meeting and the subsequent work they have done together to promote peace and understanding round the world is an example of reconciliation in a profoundly human sense, in Letlapa’s words through ‘meeting soul to soul, person to person.’ It would appear that to listen to the other’s story when no one else will, or when you’ve been deeply hurt or violated yourself, is the greatest catalyst for change in countries with a history of sectarian violence.
The story of these two remarkable South Africans, a relationship clearly based on honesty and integrity, was presented to audiences across the UK as people unpacked their own stories and related to the pain of others. Referencing her own ancestors’ responsibility for their Anglo-Boer past, at times Ginn would challenge the British audience about their own complicity in the injustices of the past, namely colonialism and the exploits of the British Empire. The insinuation was that it is the responsibility of the living to heal the dead.
The reason why this story was so compelling, and why Beyond Forgiving is so important, is that this healing narrative can illuminate the way ahead on a dark and tangled road – whether for groups or individuals. As Letlapa says, ‘Storytelling is part of the healing process, you release and share something verbally. It’s a catharsis.’ And this catharsis isn’t just for the protagonists but also for those of us who choose to embrace the journey with them, to be able to see, as Ginn puts it, ‘the woundedness of the other’.
by Marina Cantacuzino
Founder, The Forgiveness Project