Many people alive today are still recovering from wounds suffered during South Africa’s chaotic transition to democracy 20 years ago this month, Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes said Tuesday.
At a conference on “the hard work of reconciliation” in International House, a handful of those survivors were onstage to share their personal stories during the first of a series of campus events celebrating the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
They included South African Justice Albie Sachs, who helped draft South Africa’s Constitution and served as a jurist in the Constitutional Court.
“The person called the epitome of forgiveness,” Nelson Mandela, “didn’t use the word ‘forgiveness’ once” in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Sachs said. Reconciliation, he said – echoing a sentiment expressed by the other panelists – is “much more powerful than personal forgiveness.”
Sachs himself lost an arm and an eye in a car bombing by the apartheid regime while working for the African National Congress. He recalled experiencing “a sense of joy and euphoria that is still with me” when he woke in the hospital after the bombing and realized he’d survived the murder attempt he’d long feared. It was “the utter conviction that as I got better, South Africa would get better.” Rule of law would “be my vengeance.”
Also there to give witness to the redemptive power of reconciliation was Linda Biehl, whose daughter Amy, a 26-year old American student, was killed in South Africa during an anti-apartheid demonstration. She spoke in tandem with Ntobeko Peni, who was convicted in the attack but became a partner with Biehl in helping youth in impoverished townships.
“I would not be the person I am today” if not for the truth-and-reconciliation process – a process “I was totally against” at first, Peni said. About 20,000 people have testified before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, airing crimes committed by both the brutal apartheid regime and its opponents.
Manfred Jacobs, a black South African correctional officer, shared personal anecdotes about Mandela’s transformative effect on prison guards – by learning Afrikaans and reaching out to them as persons. “Tata really tried to break down barriers,” he said of Mandela, whom he met during Mandela’s imprisonment.
Two speakers from the Americas followed the panel on South Africa: Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, a shaman and lands-rights activist from the Brazilian Amazon, and bioarchaeologist Ventura Perez, who spoke about the repatriation of Yaqui Indian remains as restorative justice in the U.S.-Mexico border region.
Explaining the two speakers’ connection to the South African experience, Scheper-Hughes noted that after the end of apartheid, Mandela came to the Bay Area to thank local activists, including those at UC Berkeley, for their support. During that visit, she said, Mandela received many letters from indigenous people in the United States and the Americas describing appalling living conditions and treatment.
Those letters “have left me deeply disturbed,” he reportedly said, urging U.S. activists to turn their attention to ongoing human-rights abuses on their own shores.