Could you forgive?

Westminster bridge darker

Ginn Fourie and Letlapa Mphahlele arrived in the UK for the eagerly anticipated Beyond Forgiving speaking Tour (18-30 May) that aimed to inspire and left many lingering on the key question of ‘Could I forgive?’

Initiatives of Change in partnership with The Forgiveness Project and The Wilderness Foundation hosted Fourie and Mphahlele, the two South African protagonists of the award-winning documentary Beyond Forgiving. Touring the country they shared a platform at six public screenings visiting universities, schools and community outreach programmes in Belfast, Bradford, Durham, Liverpool, London and Oxford. Marking 20 years since the end of Apartheid, this was a chance for people in the UK to hear a moving story of ‘tragedy and hope’ and how it is possible to go beyond forgiving to break the cycle of vengeance.

A journey of forgiveness

From Oxford’s dreaming spires to Belfast’s peace line, the message that Fourie and Mphahlele carried was that ‘forgiveness is not a destination but a journey.’ At South Africa House, London (19 May) His Excellency Mlaba also commented on the ‘forgiveness journey’ that provides ‘lessons for the world.’ A similar sentiment was echoed by historian Dr Peter Shambrook in Durham, ‘Forgiveness and reconciliation is a process, a journey over many years. A journey with no map.’

There is little doubt that Fourie and Mphahlele’s visit to the UK has inspired and captured the hearts of new audiences across the country, different cultural backgrounds, religious communities, and for both old and young. But what is the meaning of forgiveness, how does this make you feel and why is it important? These were questions that Fourie expertly facilitated and encouraged audiences to reflect upon at each event.

The forgiveness challenge

In London’s East End with the Life Line Institute (20 May) hands shot up fast from the young British gathering obviously inspired by the film who had little awareness before that day of the social injustices of Apartheid; the years of conflict around the world or the movement towards restorative justice. With razor sharp questions, the young group attempted to make sense of the circumstances of how a white Christian woman could forgive a black atheist man for killing her only daughter.

A young boy asked Mphahlele, ‘So the lady forgave you for what you did but could you forgive yourself?’ This was a common question that was also raised by a young man at the Royal Geographic Society event. Such clarity and pertinence startled and moved many to reflect on how to cultivate forgiveness in their own lives. Mphahlele’s response was soul searching. He challenged us to rethink the way we treat ourselves around self-forgiveness, with dangers and links to suicide attempts, eating disorders and alcohol abuse, critical in the psychological well-being and spiritual health of an individual.

Forgiveness misconceptions

A common misconception of forgiveness was posed at various screenings: Does a person need to apologise first before somebody can be forgiven? In Durham, an Australian lady asked the question of Fourie. ’You were able to forgive before there was a “sorry”… In Australia the “sorry” has been refused as it is seen as an empty gesture… Forgiveness is different to saying sorry.’

As Fourie commented, forgiveness should not be confused with conciliation. ‘While conciliation is important it depends on the person being forgiven and for further and deeper communication to happen both ways.’ It is well known that Mphahlele refused to apologise at the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) and talks candidly of why he would not apologise: Mphahlele said, ‘For me saying sorry is as good as not saying sorry if it’s not followed up by action… I was not prepared to face the TRC as I believed it was a sham where those who were accompanied by lawyers manipulate what was not the truth.’

In Q&A sessions following the screenings, an audience member in Bradford, who had lived and worked in Namibia said, ‘The film just talks to your humanity.’ Fourie admitted that the act of forgiveness was an affirmative ‘restoration of our humanity’. She described her raw emotions from feelings of numbness and anger; the futility of why her daughter had to die, to regaining her composure and humanity by ‘following her heart’.

Could you forgive? The lingering question remains for each one of us and how this relates today. Despite the circumstances that defy comprehension Fourie and Mphahlele have every reason to hate each other but are inspirational in that they have found a way to move forward – both being victims of Apartheid.

As Fourie observes, forgiveness is something that is entirely up to an individual; reconciliation is where two people come together in mutual respect and requires both parties working together. Although reconciliation may follow forgiveness, it is possible to forgive without re-establishing or continuing the relationship.

Fourie and Mphahlele both emphasised that the reason why they were able to undertake this journey was that ‘forgiveness is something we all long for’. For many, the healing power of forgiveness allows people to move on without grief and pain in their lives.

by Yee-Liu Williams

Categories: Forgiveness