No Future Without Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu — Book Review

by Patrice M. Wilson

To review this book, though it is 23 years old, serves as a fitting tribute to the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu (10/7/1931 – 12/26/2021), and a way to make note of his leadership in the two most daring events of our time: the end of apartheid and the attempt to reconcile both sides of the conflict. That the Presidency of Nelson Mandela occurred on April 27, 1994, was the ultimate step to clinch cessation of the most notorious socio-political ideology and practices that any country has experienced. In addition, I have read many works about the aftermath of colonialism, but I cannot recall any that mention, much less emphasize, forgiveness as the major factor in recovering and moving forward.

As Tutu points out in the third chapter of the book, it seemed ordained by the Higher Power that the election of Mandela was possible, through a series of steps that he and others had taken over time. He quotes Luke 1 in saying that each of these steps provided for the final ones to be taken “in the fullness of time.” The analogy is apt, in my opinion, as the birth of freedom was accomplished in both scenarios.

Tutu posits that the ideology of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that he chaired was based on practicalities as well as spiritual considerations. His being head of the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Capetown gave him a background suited for both. In the first chapter, he cites the fact that black South Africans are creatures made in the image of God, as one of the main reasons why apartheid and other such practices could never be valid; he then cites the 1958 Sidney Poitier – Tony Curtis movie The Defiant Ones as an example of how both sides had to help each other to be free in the aftermath of the horrors perpetrated by apartheid and its supporters.

He continues by saying that he tried to avoid two unacceptable alternatives to what came to be the TRC’s approach; his second chapter is called “Nuremberg or National Amnesia? A Third Way.” This way is based also upon the native South African way of life called ubuntu, which states that the humanity of all is “inextricably bound” in that of the individual, and vice versa; that community, friendliness and harmony are the true earmarks of a successful society. Would that the Afrikaners had shared these beliefs, instead of using Christian ones to wield power in their own name, as they imposed upon the natives of South Africa. In fact, their racism was based on their belief in a superiority which they viewed as a gift from God.

Because of all the factors mentioned so far, Tutu notes, the TRC did not require remorse on the part of perpetrators of violence during apartheid, in order for them to apply for or be granted amnesty. I noticed that some of their testimonies in confessing what they did, were delivered in a matter-of-fact tone devoid of emotion. Others did show some sorrow, but my impression from the book is that overall, the native South Africans were more willing to forgive than the Afrikaners were willing to show remorse, thus proving the wisdom of the TRC. The effect of amnesty, ironically, rendered the offense(s) as if they never happened, according to the example taken from Christ’s Good Shepherd role, and scriptural references like the one that states that there is even greater joy in Heaven over one repentant sinner than over 99 that needed no repentance. I thought at that point of my reading, “But doesn’t the person have to be sorry for what s/he has done?” I concluded that only the Lord and not humans can be sure whether they are or not.

For the victims, it seemed important that in order for them to forgive, they must know whom to forgive (Chapter 7). This personal touch is a manifestation of ubuntu. The confessions of the violators and the revealing of violations by their victims were meant to give closure and healing; for example, the relatives of those that had disappeared should have the chance to find their remains in order to give them a decent burial. Regardless of which side the violators of rights were on, they were treated in the same manner.

I cannot help but be remarkably impressed by the spirituality, the humanity, the humility and the sacrifice of the members of the TRC in their endeavors to heal all of South Africa’s people, post-apartheid. Though the stage had been set over time for the TRC to exist in that particular country, I would wish that all conflicts be resolved in the Commission’s peaceful ways, which they made real at their own personal expense. Tutu reports that many members suffered from mental health issues over time, some almost on the verge of breakdown, especially during the 18 months of TV aired testimonies. For these reasons, I have noted how daring it was for the Commission to be formed and to do what it did. I have gained so much insight into the nature of their work; I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to read this book. Finally, I am in agreement with Tutu when he gives credit to God for working in time, for the right time to come upon this troubled nation—I would add, for providing it with a leader like Desmond Tutu.

Whether or not you know a good deal about the events described in this book and referred to in this review, I believe that each person will finish a careful reading of it with a renewed trust that God is indeed at work here with us in time; that we live in a moral universe and that virtue and virtuous behavior will have the last word on this earth, as Tutu reiterates. The book can also be a light leading to more possibilities of peace through truth and reconciliation in this world, replacing punitive with restorative justice, a solution desired by all people of goodwill.


Born Catholic in Newark NJ, raised in Catholic schools, Patrice M. Wilson has a PhD in English from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, having earned her MA there and her BA at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was editor of the very fine Hawaii Pacific Review for 16 years while teaching at Hawaii Pacific University. She has three chapbooks of poetry with Finishing Line Press, and one full-length poetry collection with Christian publisher eLectio Publishing. Dr. Wilson recently spent five years in the cloistered Carmelite monastery in Kaneohe, HI. She is now a retired professor living in Mililani, Oahu, HI.

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