I lived in Cape Town, South Africa for six months nearly 10 years after the end of Apartheid as part of a study abroad program focused on the cultural and political transformation of the city. Cape Town and South Africa as a whole is one of the most fascinating places in the world, both for its demonstration that hope can spring out of oppression, and also for its ongoing challenges.
While the end of Apartheid has not brought a smooth transition and South Africa still faces tremendous political, social, and economic challenges, two leaders stand at the forefront of this journey towards a more harmonious global society: Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President, Nelson Mandela. These two leaders are not simply figures for South Africa; they are figures for the entire world, articulating the best part of what makes us human – the ability to forgive but not forget. As we remember Mandela’s life, let us not forget that we are part of his journey – which is the world’s journey, too.
Visiting Cape Town so soon after the fall of Apartheid, nearly everyone I met except for the very young children remembered the way things used to be. My study abroad program had us live with host families – a few different families over the course of the six months, representative of the diversity within the nation. Everyone’s memory had a unique perspective; while some experienced immediate improvement as a result of the end of Apartheid, many experienced a mixed bag. Long-term change rarely brings short-term peace.
One major distinction from our experience in the US – a country that is still slowly overcoming a history of deep oppression by race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation – is the level of openness the public uses to speak about the past. Perhaps my role as a visitor and scholar gave South Africans a greater level of comfort in telling me their stories, but I feel it was more than that.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission sent a loud and clear message to the country and to the world: the only way to move forward in prosperity together is to face the skeletons and demons of the past head on, develop a clear understanding of what happened, deliver justice when needed, and say that we can forgive but not forget. This is easier said than done and the Commission’s ultimate legacy is yet to be determined, but Mandela’s unwavering optimism that humans are capable of reconciliation serves as a beacon of hope in an otherwise messy modern history. Ask yourself, if you had experienced decades of oppression followed by a seemingly endless period behind bars, gazing at the staggering beauty that is Cape Town and Table Mountain, could you smile once again and forgive?
South Africa faces huge challenges, for forgiveness is not a one-time action. Nor is movement beyond oppression a singular event in the United States. Our vows for a more equitable society must continuously be renewed, along with an assessment of where we are, who we are, and where we are going. As long as income inequality exists, we have not arrived as a people. As we pay tribute to the incredible change agent who has left our human tribe, let us remember his lessons, for they are lessons to the world.