What is it that so inspires us about former enemies coming together in a spirit of peace and reconciliation? Retaliation may be our default position, and yet frequently we find that conflict resolved through compassion motivates and encourages us far more than conflict resolved through revenge.
Take for example Nelson Mandela’s statement following decades behind bars: “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I’d still be in prison,” or the recent story from Iran of a mother of a murdered son, who had no intention of sparing her son’s killer from execution until the moment she saw the noose around his neck. Both examples have inspired millions of people round the world to support peaceful solutions to conflict. I know this response well from having created The F Word — an exhibition of personal narratives exploring forgiveness in the face of atrocity. The exhibition was launched in London in 2004 with the war in Iraq still a topic of fierce debate and these narratives of hope seemed to tap into a deep public need for alternative and peaceful responses to violence.
One such story that I collected was that of Ginn Fourie and Letlapa Mphahlele, and recently the award-winning film Beyond Forgiving has further explored this healing narrative. It is the story of how two South Africans — a mother whose daughter was murdered and the former paramilitary commander who ordered the attack — came together post-Apartheid to form an unlikely relationship.
This month, for two weeks, both Fourie and Mphahlele will be in the UK on a speaking tour to promote the film and encourage conversations around forgiveness. It’s a timely undertaking with Desmond Tutu’s book, The Art of Forgiving, just published and the associated Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge also underway. Everywhere you turn these days forgiveness is being reframed from the soft option tendency to pardon, to a positive example of peace activism.
As with other stories I’ve collected over the years, the story of Ginn Fourie and Letlapa Mphahlele not only represents a model for repairing broken communities but also can shed light on our own smaller grievances and provide fresh perspectives. This is what is called restorative storytelling.
The story is in many ways a modern-day parable. In 1993 Mphahlele as director of operations for APLA (African People’s Liberation Army), ordered the Heidelberg Tavern Massacre in Cape Town where among the dead was 23-year-old Lyndi Fourie. Nine years later, with apartheid consigned to history, Lyndi’s mother heard a radio interview with Mphahlele who was in Cape Town to promote his autobiography. Turning up at the book launch she confronted him with her pain. As they got into a heated debate, Fourie describes what happened next.
Letlapa came straight from the podium to where I was sitting and said: ‘I’ll do anything if you’ll meet with me this week.’ In that moment I saw remorse in his eyes and body language. It would have been so much easier if he’d been a monster with horns and a tail — if there was something to hate.
Mphahlele acknowledges how meeting Fourie in 2002 was one of the most profound and humbling experiences of his life. Even though by this time he had renounced violence, he admits, “still I did not feel anything inside. It was only when people extended gifts of forgiveness that the roots of my heart were shaken and something was restored inside me.” In the film he describes this gift of forgiveness as striking him like lightening, an unexpected revelation that “opened a window of light.”
Their meeting and the subsequent work they have done together to promote peace and understanding round the world, is an example of reconciliation in a profoundly human sense — in Mphahlele’s words through “meeting soul to soul, person to person.” It would appear that to listen to the other’s story when no one else will or when you’ve been deeply hurt or violated yourself, is the greatest catalyst for change in countries with a history of sectarian violence.
The reason why this story is compelling and why the film Beyond Forgiving is so important, is that these examples of healing narratives can illuminate the way ahead on a dark and tangled road — whether for groups or individuals. As Mphahlele says in the film, “storytelling is part of the healing process, you release and share something verbally. It’s a catharsis.” And this catharsis isn’t just for the protagonists but also for those of us who choose to embrace the journey with them, to be able to see, as Fourie puts it, “”the woundedness of the other.”