Defend Truth


On forgiveness

Why are certain people’s repentance accepted and others not? Is one person’s apology, another person’s betrayal?

American news anchors are outraged at the news that Oscar Pistorius is to be released after serving ten months for the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp.

“This is unforgivable!’ bloviated one. “South Africa you should be ashamed!”

In a country heavy with terrible deeds, it is difficult to know what criteria a crime must meet before it requires public repentance by its perpetrator and forgiveness from its victim – or American news anchors.

I was pondering on these things in relation to Clive Derby-Lewis’ invitation to Chris Hani’s widow to visit him so that he could make a personal apology to her.

In papers presented to the court during his successful appeal for medical parole last week Clive Derby-Lewis asked South Africans to forgive him for robbing the country of an ”icon” and a potential future president.

But despite Derby-Lewis saying that he had experienced severe guilt and remorse, for many, his remorse is like an innoculation that doesn’t take.

Derby-Lewis, the mastermind behind the April 1993 assassination of Hani, and hitman Janus Walusz, who pulled the trigger, were convicted of the murder in 1995.

Derby-Lewis, 79, is dying of lung cancer. He has been repeatedly denied medical parole since he began his battle to go home several years ago.

Why are certain people’s repentance accepted and others not? In his TRC testimony Clive Derby-Lewis made religious justifications for his crimes:

“As a Christian, my first duty is to the Almighty God before everything else. We were fighting against communism, and communism is the vehicle of the Antichrist.”

Would it help if Clive Derby-Lewis offered to wash Hani’s widow’s feet? Perhaps foot washing as community service?

Is one person’s apology, another person’s betrayal?

There is, it seems no psychological balm in this Gilead. There is no forgiveness or wish to heal.

Those who refuse to release resentment remain puppets of the past. The truth about our past should transform all of us from a fragmented nation into a unified people who care for each another.

One remains puzzled at the antipathy towards Derby-Lewis, which is in sharp contrast to the response towards Eugene de Kock’s expressions of regret.

Why was such charity shown to the man who has been dubbed “Prime Evil’ and ‘the deadliest cog in Apartheid’s racist machine?’ The most notorious Apartheid-era assassin received parole after spending 20 years in prison.

As commander of Vlakplaas, Mr de Kock and his men planned the deaths, kidnappings and torture of anti-Apartheid activists. As someone put it, de Kock became a kind of polygraph machine of the commission as he connected the dots to reveal a grisly catalogue of horrors.

Mr de Kock received amnesty for the crimes he had committed for political reasons, but enough of his deeds remained unpardoned for South Africa’s courts to afterward find him guilty on 89 charges and sentence him to 212 years in prison.

Mr de Kock openly confessed his regret directly to victims and admitted that nothing could redeem him.

Many of his commanders refused to apply for amnesty. Politicians denied that he had carried out their orders.

During the time of the TRC, an army general and 19 members of the top military brass appeared in court on charges of murder and creating hit squads to destabilize the country, but after a seven-month trial, all 20 were cleared, so Mr de Kock, as ‘Prime Evil’, became one of only three white men after 1994 to be jailed for atrocities committed during Apartheid.

Is this forgivable? Is this why there remains such antipathy between (certain) blacks and whites?

Why should one forgive? Who should one forgive? Do white people require more forgiveness than black people? Is forgiveness possible in this instance?

Is one person’s apology, another person’s betrayal?

Willem Ratte, as second in charge of the Western Area Battalion at Nepara, wrote an open letter to the former South African Deputy Minister of Defense, Adriaan Vlok. Ratte’s view was that Vlok had betrayed the South African Defence Force:

“I could not help noticing that in 2006 you washed the feet of one so-called Reverend Frank Chikane, a political priest and supporter of the race-based Black Consciousness Movement and later an influential member of the African National Congress’ National Executive Committee which had earlier waged war against us.”


A number of psychotherapeutic models of forgiveness have been developed, implemented, and evaluated with a variety of outcome measures. Two of the most frequently used and researched models are those created by Enright & Fitzgibbons (2000) and Worthington (2006).

In their early work on forgiveness, Enright and the Human Development Study Group (1991) described forgiveness as “the overcoming of negative affect and judgment toward the offender, not by denying ourselves the right to such affect and judgment, but by endeavoring to view the offender with compassion, benevolence, and love while recognising that he or she has abandoned the right to them.”

In a later article, Enright, Freedman, and Rique (1998) explained that forgiveness is more than just accepting what happened and moving forward with one’s life because this strategy has not changed one’s perspective about the offender.

Forgiveness is not forgetting, but instead, forgiveness changes how one thinks about the offence.

Forgiveness is more than just releasing anger toward the offender; forgiveness also includes developing compassion, generosity, and even love.

Forgiveness is not just for the person who was injured. Because of how forgiveness affects the injured person by decreasing negative thoughts and emotions and increasing positive thoughts and emotions, those close to the individual also can be positively impacted by the injured person’s improved psychological functioning.

How very, very far we are from this nuanced – and advanced – spiritual and psychogical state of being. How much hatred still festers. I see the xenophobia and I fear the ball of anger in South Africa will split it apart.


Recently I was watching ‘Angels in America” Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.

At the funeral of his estranged Bubbe, Louis tries to get his rabbi’s advice about his instinct to abandon his lover who has AIDS.

Rabbi Chemelwitz of the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews snaps:

“You want to confess, better you go see a priest.”

“Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt.”

Unfortunately, this spiritual leader (played by Meryl Streep) offers Louis no advice on how to assuage his guilt.

According to the Torah, it is a mitzvah, a divine command, to forgive. The Torah explicitly forbids us to take revenge or to bear grudges (Leviticus 19:18). It also commands us, “Do not hate your brother in your heart.”

However, spiritual enlightenment will not provide the forgiveness Louis craves. Jewish law rules that a person cannot obtain forgiveness from God for crimes committed against others.

Offenders are required to express remorse, genuine repentance and provide recompense to victims if necessary.

Offenders must directly approach their victims – and ask for forgiveness three times.

In the midst of their grief over the Amish School Shootings in 2006, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, and they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.

The afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer, Charles Roberts. That same day Amish neighbours visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.

The Torah explicitly forbids us to take revenge or to bear grudges (Leviticus 19:18). It also commands us, “Do not hate your brother in your heart.” The Lord’s Prayer speaks of “Forgiv[ing] us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”

But in the end are these not white, Western constructs?


Perhaps it is the societal status that the victim holds that decides?

Apparently those murdered on farms don’t require public apologies. Somalis and other ‘illegal immigrants’ who are torched to death obviously don’t need to be apologised for. Neither do rape victims…

As is always the case in South Africa it’s the little things that are considered outrageous while camels pass through the eyes of needles with ease.

There are some that found the recent ‘hatred’ experienced at the Franschoek Literary Festival totally unforgivable.

Mike van Graan, playwright and director of the African Arts Institute puts it this way:

South Africa’s reputation as a violent country reached new heights at the recent Franschhoek Literary Festival where Democratic Alliance members – thinly disguised as festival audiences – assaulted mostly young black writers with their collective white gaze.

One young writer, Ntomba Zana, spoke of her tremendous pain after being hit by a volley of compliments about how well she spoke English. “Phew! I now know what Saartjie Baartman must have felt like”, she said, vowing never to return to the festival as a performing monkey, unless it was “to teach these people to say ‘Nkandla’ properly.”


Perhaps it is time that we accepted that South Africa is a geographical destination. There are no common credos about forgiveness or repentance. Until we share a commonality on such things deep divisions will remain in our society.

Until we are united in our grief we will not be able to heal. DM

P.S. Let the record show that I was on an assassination hit-list and my apartment was bombed by a faction of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, led by one Cornelius Lottering.

He still hasn’t apologised to me.

Jani Confidential A Memoir by Jani Allan is published by Jacana Media.


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