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Op-Ed: Considering forgiveness in the light of De Kock’s parole

There’s a great difference between the concept of forgiveness, and the necessity of holding those who have committed acts of great hostility to account. Insisting that those with a debt to society pay their debt is not the same as being churlish or holding a grudge. By JANE QUIN.

Last year I wrote an open letter to the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services putting forward my objection to the early release of Eugene de Kock after serving only 20 years of his 212-year sentence for Apartheid crimes [Daily Maverick, 27 June 2014].

Now, in the face of the media around the actual release of De Kock, I feel the need to better articulate my ideas around the notion of forgiveness. I get a sense of ‘victim blaming’ in the current discourse, as though those who don’t ‘forgive him’ are socially and/or psychologically maimed and maladjusted, with words like ‘holding onto grudges’ and ‘wallowing’ being bandied about.

I am not generally a great believer in punishment and retribution. I am, however, a believer in social processes of collective means of control for mutual well-being of all within the reality of unequal vulnerability to harm. That is, social justice despite unequal power and contesting motivations.

For all its imperfections, the TRC was SA’s collective attempt to weld such a social process for the purpose of reconciliation with the truth of our hard historical reality from which we would be living our present and building our future. It was a process for and about actual individual lives and hurts and deaths. It was also a process for and about our society as a whole. It presented a way to hold humans accountable for their actions according to the principles the society was trying to promote in practice.

It was a process with the nearly impossible task of making a way to bring reconciliation between individuals in a common society with differing amounts of power to prevent and protect themselves and their loved ones and comrades from harm, as well as different amounts of power to perpetrate harm. The process was the social contract we made to structure such a process. It then becomes the responsibility of the state to see it carried through, and the responsibility of individuals to heal themselves as perpetrators, victims, survivors, witnesses, friends and families of… according to the processes of reconciliation. Of course, barring the dead themselves, who have had their power to heal, forgive, reconcile etc. taken from them for infinity by the perpetrators of their deaths.

These processes concern individuals and the social practices. In my case, a particular individual victim among other loved and cared about people is my sister Jackie. I am not Jackie. I am alive and she is dead. Nothing I do, think or feel will change that reality. No-one but Jackie can ‘forgive’ or not the forcible cessation of her life. My sadness and anger at her lack of choice in the matter of the loss of her life and lifetime, and her absence in mine will always be there in some degree. Of course I am reconciled to them in measure. I have to be. It’s the nature of acceptance of reality. I also don’t ‘wallow’ in these feelings. But I do acknowledge them, manage them, and also perpetually endeavour to put them, like all experience and emotion, to constructively use in learning how to live well in the world for the benefit of myself and the world. Being human, I do this more and less successfully depending on the confluence of the myriad factors that make up the moments of our lives as complex living creatures.

Another particular individual in my immediate sphere of being is a perpetrator of multiple harm, Eugene de Kock. De Kock himself is not someone whose well-being I am concerned with or about. I don’t wish him well. But neither do I actively wish him ill. I wish I had nothing to do with him personally or him with the reality of my life experience. But I didn’t get to make that choice. His life intruded and intrudes on mine because he is a person who actively sought to inflict harm on other human beings. Not in direct defence of those he loved, but even in a neighbouring country’s ‘legalised’ killing institutions – the national army of then-Rhodesia. One of the people his activities fatally affected was my sister Jackie and her husband Leon.

The TRC saw fit to refuse De Kock amnesty because he could not show political motivation. Remember too that he was only tried for a fraction of his crimes. The victims of those left off the list are ignored and invalidated by the formal legal and political processes presently playing out.  

When I continue to stand, as I do, against De Kock’s early parole according to the terms of his original TRC sentencing, I do so because I am against the erosion of that social contract we as a country made to hold perpetrators of harm accountable for their actions. I do so because I am for a social justice that requires us to balance the means of control of individuals to protect themselves and their loved ones from harm, or to perpetrate harm upon others.

My desire for De Kock to serve more of his sentence is not integral to my personal healing in respect of the murder of my sister. It is integral, though, to my personal political convictions regarding how we reconcile differences of power and perpetration of harm in a world in which some people will always be more vulnerable to the destructiveness of others. Inasmuch as De Kock should be serving a greater portion of his sentence, so too should those not yet prosecuted for Apartheid crimes who didn’t receive or apply for amnesty be tried for the harmful choices they made – acts they committed or commissioned. The testimony and evidence is already on record. It seems only the political will to enact the justice is not.

I don’t understand how we consider such lack of holding to historical account to be a matter of forgiveness necessary to ‘restitution’ at the same time as we – correctly – call for accountability of current leadership and citizenship in our country. DM

Photo: Eugene de Kock at the TRC hearing in Johannesburg. Picture taken December 1997.



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