Book Review: No Future Without Forgiveness

Archbishop Desmond Tutu at Emory University Atlanta, Georgia USA. Reuters

Written by Michael Prins

Canadians alongside First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples are on a journey for truth and reconciliation. Sobering events involving Indigenous people during Canada’s relatively young history have led to changes in our school curriculum, in funding, in the naming of places, and much more. We now have a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. White Canadians like me are paying more attention, and I often wonder about my part in this process. It was time to look into truth and reconciliation more.

No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu focuses on events following the end of Apartheid during and surrounding the initial years (1995 to 1998) of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—the first of its kind. President Nelson Mandela named Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu the commission’s Chairperson. 

Here’s a quick historical run-through. In 1990, South Africa officially unbanned political parties, allowing for a truer democratic process and leading to the leader of the liberation movement Nelson Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison. South Africa held its first free election in 1994 in which all races could voteNelson Mandela was voted in as President. This new government birthed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC had three specific purposes: “to discover the causes and nature of human rights violations in South Africa between 1960 and 1994; to identify victims with a view to paying reparations; and to allow amnesty to those who fully disclosed their involvement in politically motivated human rights violations.”(1)

The book is Tutu’s way of living out the belief that the TRC advocated, that is, to shed light on the truth, and trust that reconciliation will follow. By getting the truth down on paper, it will be remembered. By leaning into his celebrity, Tutu could share this truth with a much wider audience.  

It’s no wonder he wrote this book in 1999, only a year after the commission delivered its five-volume report to Mandela’s government and fulfilled a primary mandate. It was likely his own way of processing what he’d witnessed. Tutu could, of course, have written his own tell-all book of what he personally endured growing up and raising a family under apartheid, and his involvement in bringing it down. But not in this book. This book educates people like me who know too little, and honours what it meant for the victims who stepped forward to tell the truth. 

What To Expect

In the first four chapters, I learned more than ever before about life under apartheidthe racial separation of whites and non-whites. Rather than spend much time detailing the history of colonialism or how apartheid came to dominate, Tutu imparts what apartheid was really like. Apartheid wasn’t just separate bathrooms and line-ups. It meant midnight raids for ID checks, being relocated from one's generational home into poverty, mistrust and abuse from police. It dehumanized so many South Africans—the survivors who were treated as lesser beings, and perpetrators whose aggression turned them into monsters. 

Tutu dives into the racial atrocities committed against non-white South Africans that would be key catalysts to start monumental change at a political and social level. He touches on other factors, including the how hatred for communism distracted Western powers from caring what was happening, the inspirational character of Nelson Mandela, and pivotal civil conflicts. 

The beginning of the TRC was anything but peaceful; Tutu called it “hell”, given all the long debates, opposition, and messiness. It’s easy to perceive this process as peaceful given its name and lofty moral goals, but it was anything but. 

In the first 50 pages, Tutu also explains how South Africa’s TRC was, in theory and practice, so different to the post-World War II punitive Nuremberg Trials in Europe. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided amnesty from a long list of crimes for anyone—perpetrator and victim alike—who stepped forward to tell the truth and possibly claim responsibility for events and experiences since 1960. (Thus, why it was not a trial.) Because of this, punitive manhunts were to be avoided in South Africa, and a cycle of revenge could be ended while a nation focused on letting it all out and forgiving.

Things start to get real in chapters six through eight, which make up nearly half of the book’s literary content. Tutu retells personal stories, some so atrocious they can’t be made up. Brutal testimonies of awful things done to Black people, given by Black and Whites both. And yet, once told, were met with relief and surprising actions of compassion. Throughout, Tutu ponders the nature of humanity, faith, and God in the midst of incredible brokenness. Which eventually leads to some sobering and some happy revelations that wouldn’t have come about any other way. 

He concludes by holding strong to the book’s title, overarching theme, and ultimately his “one sermon”; that is, recognizing grace and choosing forgiveness. The TRC could not singularly solve or end the effects of apartheid. Broken economic and judicial systems in particular, much less the attitudes of real people, were not within the TRC’s control. To this day, it is still criticized for its "lack of justice". And what happened cannot be undone. But, by admitting to what happened and showing remorse, signified a hope that such events will not repeat and that behaviours may change. And, that with God’s grace, a nation could heal.

(Philip Littleton/AFP/Getty Images | www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/30/best-way-respond-our-history-racism-truth-reconciliation-commission/)

I Got More Than I Expected

It’s risky to pick up this book without any knowledge of its context. I’m of Dutch descent, have worked professionally with a few South Africans, and my cousin married a man from that area. But what bits I’d picked up in passing were not enough. Keeping straight some of the political parties alone required some Googling.

I had to put the book down a lot (and not to do some Googling). Apartheid is something I had heard about, an “awful thing" they had over in South Africa, but I didn’t really learn much about it in school growing up in Western Canada. I imagine you might say the same. But reading this, I needed mental breaks. There are things described that I did not think a human could dream up, much less do. Demolishing of communities and forced resettlement into townships, labour farm colonies for anyone the government didn’t like, days of torture inflicted by police forces, mutilation of bodies, and more. It hit me hard.

But don’t let my experience scare you off. Tutu’s writing style is eloquent and accessible. And Tutu does not dwell on the atrocities—though he certainly could tell account after account he heard while presiding over the amnesty process (in the end, the TRC took 21,000 testimonies with 2,000 told in public hearings). He chose stories as key examples that communicate realities not to be repeated, and to showcase how amazing forgiveness really is. The stories of resilience and what survivors chose to forgive are truly astounding.

I gained a new sense for why “truth” is the first word of the Commission's title. Prioritizing truth was the huge first step toward peace. Creating a safe environment for that (granting amnesty, providing translation, holding hearings, etc.) shifted the focus onto transparency when the nation had endured decades of undercover horrors. This “coming out” was necessary for survivors and oppressed communities, but it was also a major step in healing for those who committed heinous acts. Tutu shares accounts of perpetrators who lived in their own “hell”, tormented personally by what they’d done and kept quiet on. The uncovering unified a hurting nation around a new desire “to rehabilitate and affirm the dignity and personhood of those who for so long had been silenced, have been turned into anonymous, marginalized ones.” (2) 

I must say, I was deeply impacted in the first dozen pages by Tutu’s summary statements. Applied to my own situation as a white man in Canada, I was humbled by how this statement can be applied to Indigenous Peoples here: 

“It [the hearings] was wonderful vindication for all of those who had borne the burden of the heat of repression, the little people whom apartheid had turned into the anonymous ones, faceless, voiceless, counting for nothing in their motherland, whose noses had been rubbed daily in the dust. They have been created in the image of God but their dignity had been callously trodden underfoot daily by apartheid’s minions and those who might have said they were opposed to apartheid but had nonetheless gone on enjoying the privileges and huge benefits that apartheid provided them—just because of an accident of birth, a biological irrelevance, the colour of their skin.” (3)

South Africa’s TRC set the stage for other nations’ paths toward healing. It formed a foundation for Canada’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many of the sentiments Tutu discusses I see also playing out with Canada's Indigenous Peoples. Here, too, Murray Sinclair, former Chairman of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, called for openness, rallies, educational avenues, listening circles, and the like to hear the stories of what people had experienced. And not to call for shame and punishment and retribution, but to create a space to be heard, restore dignity, “out” the bad and hope for the good. I can only imagine how a First Nations, Metis, or Inuit would relate as they read and see parallels. 

September 30 marks Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada. I know there are those out there who will treat it like another day off work. Nor is this the only day to pursue its goals! But, much like how the commission is a season of intentional focus, it’s good to have time set aside to pursue healing. Take time that day to share or listen to someone’s story, and help us heal together.  

(John Woods / The Canadian Press | www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-live-truth-and-reconciliation-day-september-30/)

More About Desmond Tutu

Four years after writing No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu wrote what can be seen as a sequel, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Times, which is co-authored with Douglas Abrams. It’s known for being even more of a personal reflection of his time on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Desmond Tutu’s accolades are long and impressive. He authored and co-authored dozens of lectures and books, many of which were best-sellers. He was also the former Archbishop of Cape Town for the Anglican Church. He was a vocal and peaceful activist for Black and women's rights across Africa. He was nominated four times for the Nobel Peace prize and finally won in 1984. He was husband to Leah, father to five children, and like a father and mentor to countless more. Desmond Tutu passed away in December 2021 at the age of 90.

I wish I could’ve heard the former Archbishop speak in person. He was famed for his impish humour and ability to deliver a sermon; hearing these personal memories and others’ stories, and his take on events and faith in his own voice, would’ve been a rich experience. 

1. https://www.apartheidmuseum.org/exhibitions/the-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-trc
2. Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Image Doubleday, 1999), p. 6
3. Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Image Doubleday, 1999), p. 30



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Food for the Hungry: Book Review: No Future Without Forgiveness
Book Review: No Future Without Forgiveness
The Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada is ongoing. What can we learn from the original model implemented in South Africa after Apartheid?
Food for the Hungry
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