The soul of wit
27 August 2016 01:22 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

A look back: Limpho Hani, Clive Derby-Lewis and the power of refusing to forgive

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

Limpho Hani is often visibly angry about the assassination of her husband. Twenty-one years later, she refuses to forgive or forget. In fact, she bristles with rage when the subject of her husband comes up. The loss of her husband, the father of her children, is not something she is prepared to approach gently. She has not forgiven Clive Derby-Lewis and her anger must be respected.

In the last few days the public conversation has turned to whether or not the country has moved on enough to release Derby-Lewis. Some have suggested that he is sick and old and has served his time. The grand narrative seems to be that treating him with kindness is a marker of our maturity as a society.

This sense that society has to be ‘bigger’ than the racist killer is a defining feature of the new South Africa. Forgiveness plays an iconic role in our post-Apartheid national identity; those who forgive are revered as heroes of a special kind. More than any other trait, South Africans see forgiveness as part of the miracle of our transition to democracy.

Women in particular are expected not only to forgive, but also to mother. Their role is to help the healing process, to not be bitter and outraged. As so, by rights, Limpho Hani should be cutting ribbons and opening memorial centres in her husband’s name. She should be smiley and chirpy, or serious but reflective, but always, always, forgiving. She should not be so angry because frankly, there is no space or time in this democracy for victims and survivors of torture and losses beyond imagining to be angry.

Apartheid’s victims must weep, but they must not rage. They must cry but they dare not swear. The ugly side of grief, which is vengeance, the nihilism of loss - these have no place in the vocabulary of our democracy. We are a nation founded on the benign principles of tolerance and forgiveness, not on the craggy rocks of fury. The deal in 1994 was that the black majority would forgive the white minority. In other words, black forgiveness would be exchanged for white loyalty to the country. Black people would ‘let’ whites live with them in peace because they were needed to run the economy – forgiveness as a quid pro quo for technical skills.

So Mrs. Hani’s public refusal to forgive, indeed her flagrant disregard for this founding promise, is almost heretical. She (and others like her in the Khulumani Support Group) is reneging on the unspoken post-Apartheid agreement. Her hostility changes the terms of engagement between black victims and white assailants. When black forgiveness is not forthcoming, there is an almost atavistic sense in which in our national consciousness, whites can no longer be assured of their place in this society.

Indeed, the rage of some (certainly not all) whites is epitomised in the rejection of affirmative action. The anger at the perceived injustice of affirmative action is precisely about this growing sense that the deal that was brokered in the founding moments of this democracy has been called off. The fear of those who oppose it, is that affirmative action seeks to replace skilled whites with unskilled blacks. Once white skills are no longer necessary, the logic is that black rage will have no reason to be curtailed.

This is untrue of course, but at the heart of the simmering conflict about affirmative action is the fear (perhaps felt by blacks and whites alike) that intra-racial anger, if it is allowed to surface, may destroy the very fabric of the nation.

The TRC accepted this as an unspoken tenet, and so it provided our newly-birthed nation with a framework for talking about Apartheid’s wounds. Each story unearthed by the Commission was supposed to end in forgiveness. Collectively, we were to move from darkness to light, from not knowing what happened as a country, to knowing and then to forgiving.

Except of course that sometimes it is not so easy to grieve in an orderly fashion. Sometimes, when you have lost someone unjustly, you hate that they are gone, and you are not interested in forgiving.

The power of not forgiving, in a context in which forgiveness is expected, is that you force difficult conversations and you disrupt the status quo. The power in Limpho Hani’s anger is that it rages against forgetting. It insists on being heard and it solidifies his place in our collective memory.

I am not proposing that we become a society founded on anger. The path forged by Nelson Mandela and the ANC was the correct one. It was built on a commitment to peace, which took the form of accommodation and this as necessary. There was a sense in which our liberation was seen as a moment in which to exercise the gracious restraint that is the preserve of the victorious and we used that moment wisely.

And yet in a plural democracy such as ours, one where so much time and energy has been put into forgiveness, the voices of the hurt and the outraged have a place too. Surely we can create space for the deep sadness that twenty years will not quell.

If we cannot make space for pain that continues to be raw for so many families who lost loved ones; if our racial script can only accommodate one way of dealing with pain and if that one way is always through the telling of a redemptive tale, if it always has a happy, forgiving ending, then surely we can’t claim to be as plural as would like to be.

If the truth is that some of us are angry and do not want to reconcile, then this new country that we have moulded in our image over the last twenty years must find a way to live with and reflect that complexity. If South Africa is afraid to listen to voices that refuse to forgive, then we are in trouble.

We must accept that Mrs Hani and her family can live in this society, can mingle with people of all races with dignity and respect, and they can also refuse to forgive the man who killed their husband and father. Clive Derby Lewis may be sick and dying and so he may well be released. But his release – should it come – must not be mistaken for forgiveness. We ought to be grateful to the Hanis for being true to their rage. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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