Will our politicians forgive and forget?

The F-word has been popping up in all South Africa’s newspapers this week, but not because of a liberalisation of the country’s fairly stringent anti-obscenity standards.

“F” stands for forgiveness and, as Thursday was Reconciliation Day, a public holiday, the press waxed eloquent on the need for it nationwide.

“From a fractured, divided country just a decade ago, our rainbow nation has come a long way,” said the Pretoria News, which gave considerable credit to former president Nelson Mandela for setting the country on the forgiving path.

It quoted his inaugural presidential address 10 years ago, in which he called for the country to “build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and with the world”.

“We are not there yet,” concluded the paper.
“Racism is still an issue, both white-on-black and black-on-white. The race card is played far too often and by too many people in lofty positions. But that we have come this far and have achieved so much, speaks volumes for the ability of the people of this country to forgive and forget.”

But there has been little forgiveness or reconciliation shown in the ongoing war of words between President Thabo Mbeki and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The veteran anti-apartheid campaigner last month criticised Mbeki and the ruling African National Congress for being intolerant to criticism and stifling debate on burning issues such as corruption, HIV/Aids and policy towards Zimbabwe.

Mbeki promptly proved him correct by launching a broadside in his weekly online newsletter. He called the revered former prelate “a charlatan” and a liar. Tutu responded by saying he prays for Mbeki, just as he used to pray for the leaders of the old apartheid regime.

The country’s newspapers have been full of arguments on both sides. Business Day‘s Christine Qunta, who is a lawyer and a close associate of Mbeki, said South Africa’s season of goodwill has been marred because Tutu “threw off his religious frock and turned nasty”.

She charged that “the white right is resurgent and more resolute than before to discredit the democratic order. They have strategically placed black ventriloquists who amplify their messages, couched always in terms that appear to be progressive.”

But Allister Sparks, writing in the Sunday Times, argued that Mbeki’s weekly column has become “a vehicle for personal attacks on individuals”, which are demeaning for a president and South Africa.

“The pettiness of his personal attacks on anyone who dares utter a word of criticism, or even well-intentioned advice, gives an impression of insecurity and intolerance that demeans the man and baffles his admirers,” Sparks wrote.

Criticism and debate are the essence of democracy, concluded Sparks.

“In a country where the ruling party has a 70% majority in Parliament and the official opposition is not a realistic alternative government, it is doubly important that there should be open debate within the ruling alliance and with critical voices in civil society. For the country’s sake as well as his own, the president should set an example in encouraging that rather than vilifying it.”

The letters pages were also brimming with opinions on the Tutu/Mbeki spat.

Thembani Sonjica wrote in the Mail & Guardian that “Archbishop Tutu’s criticism of ANC sycophants is long overdue ... Carrying an ANC membership card in one hand and a gold credit card in the other, they desire to be premiers, ministers, high government officials and MPs ... The gravy train is riding high and fast, with all the fat cats singing Ibuyile iAfrika (Africa Has Returned to Us). We need people like you, Mpilo Tutu. Very few speak the truth in this country.”

Perhaps the public row between the two eminent leaders can be resolved. Certainly the South African press was full of testimonies of forgiveness on Reconciliation Day.

“Three months after Nelson Mandela’s release I received a letter bomb,” said Michael Lapsley, an ANC chaplain in Zimbabwe in 1990. “I lost both hands, one eye and had my eardrums shattered. I realised that if I was filled with hatred and desire for revenge, I’d be a victim forever.”

With so many stories of reconciliation, it is hard not to be optimistic that the South Africa’s leaders will succeed in accepting each other’s point of view.—Guardian Unlimited Â

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