If you have read the history of a Third World country and watched it emerge from periods of repression and conflict, you will certainly appreciate this work on South Africa. This country confronts a legacy of deep social, economic, and political division, which also has a significant racial overlay. How it deals with its past and yet embraces with hope a new world, a transformed world, is portrayed in this book.
This work has its origin in a project designed to understand better the interrelationships between truth-finding and reconciliation in South Africa. The process began with a series of open-ended questions that served as the basis for a conversation with various religious leaders. The book provides the perspectives of thirty-three leaders, both clergy and laity, from different faith communities: Protestant, Roman Catholic, African Indigenous Church, Orthodox Christian (Coptic Church), Jewish, Muslim, Bahai, and Hindu. Their views were sought on the success of South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Under the direction of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC was mandated to "promote national unity and reconciliation in a spirit of understanding which transcends the conflict and divisions of the past."
In-depth interviews with these leaders directed them to consider the concept of reconciliation and the differences and similarities between religious and political approaches to this issue. They were asked to look at the role that forgiveness plays in this process and the appropriate function of religious representatives. Finally, they assessed the contributions and limitations of the TRC and discussed what initiatives contemporary religious communities are taking to promote reconciliation among the members and the wider society.
The book provides a unique resource for those interested in the process through which parties in a divided society can work toward reconciliation. In particular, it points to the roles religious leaders can play and offers a case study of how theory can be applied to real education, often with surprising results. Perhaps the success of this book is in its honest sharing of the views of all those involved. It does not cover over in any way the struggles that still exist in South Africa. Rather it reveals very openly what some perceive as the failure to deal with the past and the weaknesses still present in the society. The TRC was not a perfect instrument, but, as many would say, it was a beginning. It laid a foundation for reconciliation through providing truth and a space for dialogue.
As reflected in the interviews of the church leaders, they generally see reconciliation as a task for which the church is uniquely qualified. However, what specifically the churches can contribute to the process of reconciliation is not spelled out in these interviews. The conversation between religious, political, social, and psychological approaches is clearly needed to strengthen the churches' role in promoting reconciliation. The leaders of faith recognized that reconciliation is something that would take decades and generations. You can not bring about justice, peace, harmony, and respect overnight. An atmosphere of trust, honesty, forgiveness, and reparation takes time.
The editors point out that the TRC had its critics in the following areas: (1) law and morality, (2) restitution, a requirement for reconciliation, (3) composition. There were others, but these stand out as the major ones. In regard to law and morality, some wondered whether the TRC was conflating the legal process of amnesty with the religious concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness includes repentance and the promise of justice. Amnesty, in many cases, did not include these aspects. As for restitution, several wondered how this topic would be addressed. For example, some interviewees stated that if economic justice is not addressed then it blocks reconciliation. Finally, the composition of TRC was questioned. Is it too dominated with religious leaders? Perhaps, it should be composed of social scientists, political activists, and people who are expects in effective reconciliation. The view of some was that the religious approach to reconciliation was "putting a political bandage over the apartheid era so we can limp into the new South Africa."
The editors conclude their work with an appendix that is very informative. This section included (1) a document produced as a result of collective reflection by a group of Christians and church leaders, (2) a religion census for 1996, and (3) a letter submitted to TRC with close to 400 signatures of ministers. What the first document gives us is the beginning of South Africa's theology of reconciliation. All believers in God could adapt this to many other world situations. It is very relevant for us today.
At a time when there is so much conflict and division among social, political, and religious groups, this book would serve as a valuable resource. In sharing the experience of one nation and its progress through reconciliation and renewal, it has aided other nations and, therefore, the world. For any course in the area of justice and peace, this book would be very appropriate. I would strongly recommend that this book be in the library of every college/university and school of theology.