Limpho Hani is still angry about the assassination of her husband, the former anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani. Twenty-three years after he was shot dead in front of their teenage daughter, she refuses to forgive or forget.
When Janusz Walus, the man responsible for her husband’s death, was granted parole yesterday Limpho Hani was furious with the judge who overruled an earlier decision not to set him free – and suggested that the Hani family should “move on”.
Hani’s attitude has always stood in stark contrast to the narrative of forgiveness exemplified by Nelson Mandela in the early years of South Africa’s democracy.
Until recently forgiveness has enjoyed a special place in the story of our remarkable transition out of apartheid. While this may be changing as young South Africans increasingly vent their anger at ongoing racial inequality, the capacity to pardon one’s oppressors is still seen as part of the miracle of our country.
Good apartheid victims wept, they did not rage. They cried out but they dared not swear
Women in particular have been expected not only to forgive, but also to nurture the healing process; not to be bitter and outraged.
And so, by rights, Limpho Hani should have spent the last two decades cutting ribbons and opening memorial centres in her husband’s name. She should have been gracious and pleasant, or serious and reflective; but always, always, forgiving.
She should not have expressed so much anger because frankly, there has been little space or time in this democracy for the unpredictable feelings of victims and survivors of torture and losses beyond imagining.
Good apartheid victims wept, they did not rage. They cried out but they dared not swear. The ugly side of grief – vengeance and the nihilism of loss – have had no place in the vocabulary of the new South Africa. We are a nation founded on the benign principles of tolerance and forgiveness, not on the craggy rocks of fury.
The deal in 1994 when the ANC took power was that the black majority would forgive the white minority. In other words, black forgiveness would be exchanged for white loyalty to the country. Black people would “let” whites live with them in peace because they were needed to run the economy – forgiveness as a quid pro quo for technical skills.
So Limpho Hani’s public refusal to forgive, indeed her flagrant disregard for this founding promise, is almost heretical. In raising sharp and uncomfortable questions, she has reneged on the unspoken post-apartheid agreement. Her hostility shifts the terms of engagement between black victims and white assailants.
Where black forgiveness has not be forthcoming, some white people have sought assurances of their place in the society. This is evidenced in the growing number of whites who voice their concerns that the pact brokered in the founding moments of South Africa’s democracy has been called off.
There is a lot at stake for this group which increasingly complains, for example, that affirmative action represents “reverse racism”. In their view, affirmative action seeks to replace skilled whites with unskilled blacks. They bemoan the new “racialised” terrain of South African debates. Once white skills are no longer necessary – they fear – black rage will have no reason to be curtailed.
This is untrue of course, but it points to a deep-seated set of fears. At the heart of the simmering tensions is a concern, articulated by black and white South Africans alike, that intra-racial anger, if given too much attention, may destroy the very fabric of the nation.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated apartheid atrocities and granted amnesty to those who confessed to their crimes, accepted this as an unspoken tenet. But this invisible worry provided our new nation with a flawed framework for talking about the wounds of the past.
Each story unearthed by the commission was supposed to end in absolution. If only perpetrators told the truth they would be forgiven by the families of the dead and the missing.
Collectively the commission was intended to move South Africans from darkness to light; from not knowing what happened to thousands of activists and ordinary people to forgiving all the newly discovered sins of the past.
In the years since the commission ended in 2005, South Africans have seen that it is not so easy to grieve in an orderly fashion. The power of people like Limpho Hani, who refuse to forgive in a context in which forgiveness is expected, is that they disrupt the status quo. Hani’s anger rages against forgetting. It insists on being heard and it solidifies her husband’s place in the nation’s collective memory.
When so much time and energy has been put into forgiveness, the voices of the hurt and the outraged have a place too
I continue to believe that the political path of reconciliation forged by Nelson Mandela and the ANC was appropriate for the time: It was built on a commitment to peace, which was necessary during turbulent transition. As it came to power, the ANC exercised the gracious restraint that is the preserve of the victorious.
But in a plural democracy such as ours, one where so much time and energy has been put into forgiveness, the voices of the hurt and the outraged have a place too.
If a country that has overcome so much cannot make space for pain that continues to be raw for so many families; if the post-apartheid racial script can only accommodate one way of dealing with pain and if that one way is always through the telling of a redemptive tale; if our stories must always have happy and forgiving endings, then surely South Africans cannot claim to be a genuinely plural society.
If some South Africans are angry and do not want to reconcile then there must be a way for all of us to live with that complexity. If a judge in a wounded society like ours can silence the pain of a woman who refuses to forgive the murderer of her husband, then we are not yet the mature democracy we are striving to be.
Walus, her husband’s killer, may meet the criteria for parole: that is a matter for the justice system to resolve. Should it come, however, his release must not be mistaken for forgiveness. In a country where black lives are still too cheap, South Africans ought to be grateful to the Hanis for being true to their rage.
This is an updated version of an article first published in 2014 when Clive Derby Lewis, who ordered the murder of Chris Hani, was released on parole