Mandela, justice and forgiveness
FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, World Economic Forum, Davos, 1992The guff about forgiveness that has been gushing forth since the death of Nelson Mandela is really quite... well, unforgiveable.
Mandela is rightly much admired for having rejected hatred and making an accommodation with his erstwhile persecutors rather than seeking revenge. This was indeed the behaviour of a statesman and a remarkable individual, and it would be wonderful if others could emulate that.
However, the context is all-important. First, you can only forgive your persecutor if you are in a position to do so – if you have won political power over them, or even more fundamentally if you have survived any attempt by them to harm you.
And second, while you are entitled to forgive someone who has done harm to you personally, you are not entitled to forgive those who have not done you any harm but have done harm to others. Only the victim is in a position to forgive. If others do so, this is a presumptuousness which can lead straight to gross injustice or worse. There can be no forgiveneness for Stalin, Hitler or Mao. To ‘forgive’ them would be to betray their victims and negate their suffering.
Obvious as these points may appear to some, for many others they are not self-evident at all. On the contrary, the prevalent mood in the west holds that compromise and accommodation are always preferable to conflict or war; that in the interests of ‘peace’, you must somehow blind yourself to the fact that the other guys are continuing to butcher people or even still intending to kill or conquer you. Not so much forgiveneness as a ‘get out of jail free’ card.
It is a view which does not acknowledge the crucial difference between magnanimity in victory and surrender to an active enemy. Nor does it recognise the difference between odious regimes which may give ground in their own interests, as happened in apartheid-era South Africa, and fanatical regimes which view any compromise merely as a faster way to achieve their infernal ends, as is the case today with Iran. It thus leads straight to the appeasement of the unappeasable and the victory of evil over good.
In today’s climate, however, where good and bad have become relative concepts, people have increasingly lost the will to fight for the former against the latter. They would rather reach an accommodation, even with active enemies. But you cannot split the difference between good and evil, for what you end up with is merely a sanitised form of that evil.
Moreover, with the distinction between good and bad now very blurred, the division that is now deemed to count instead is between victims and oppressors. The result of that deeply questionable distinction is that bad behaviour by those perceived as victims is ignored, tolerated or condoned (while good behaviour by those perceived as oppressors is correspondingly denied). So the appalling savagery by the ANC in burning perceived ‘traitors’ alive through ‘necklacing’, for example, is all too easily ‘forgiven’ – indeed, forgotten – by those who believed the ANC could not themselves be oppressors because they were victims. And how does one square Mandela’s signature characteristic of forgiveness, which in the eyes of so many turned him into a figure of unimpeachable goodness, with his embrace of Soviet communism, which persecuted, imprisoned and murdered so many millions of people?
In similar vein, it is hard not to conclude that substituting ‘truth and reconciliation’ for justice against the Afrikaners who oppressed black south Africans, as well as failing to act against those black south Africans who burned people alive, might well be the reason many fear a bloodbath now that the restraining presence of Mandela himself has departed. It is why criminal trials are necessary against war criminals, Nazi or otherwise, without limit of time – not just to obtain justice for their victims, but because unless a society expresses its collective abhorrence of such deeds, it is more likely to commit them again in the future.
Forgiveness may be necessary for an individual to move from darkness into light; but justice is essential if a society is to be civilised. Forgiveness is a great virtue; but it can never be at the expense of the fundamental moral distinction between right and wrong, good and bad. To make it so, as many are now doing over Mandela’s legacy, is another example of the vicious culture of sentimentalisation to which the morally confused west is now unfortunately all too prone.