By Zara Houshmand
The inclusive spirit of ubuntu holds those within its embrace to moral and ethical accountability, and plays a fundamental role in politics. This is especially true of the politics of forgiveness and psychological healing in the aftermath of mass trauma and violence. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela has explored this territory in depth in her research and writing, and while serving on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during South Africa’s transition from the oppression of apartheid to democracy.
Gobodo-Madikizela spoke of Hannah Arendt’s view that the radically evil acts of the holocaust were beyond the reach of apology, forgiveness, or even punishment because it would be impossible for the punishment to be commensurate with the deed. The experience of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission challenged that view. Faced with the individuals who had tortured and murdered their loved ones, many South Africans were deeply moved to forgive those who had harmed them. In an effort to understand the nature of forgiveness that does not minimize the irreparable harm of evil acts, but looks truth in the face and still finds a way to move toward redemption, Gobodo-Madikizela conducted interviews with those who had forgiven. She shared stories from those interviews that threw light on the role of ubuntu in the psychological healing of trauma.
A woman whose son was brutally murdered had attended the hearings daily, and made a point of dressing her best, wearing a hat she had knitted and beadwork of her own making. She wanted to be visible to prove she had not been destroyed; she wanted her son’s killers to recognize her as a proud human being. When the black police informer responsible for her son’s death asked to meet with her, she agreed. She described how, in expressing his remorse, he laid his soul bare. His vulnerability evoked for her the nakedness of an infant in the womb. She felt empathy for the mother who gave birth to him, who had named him Tibelo, which means “prayer,” and who would have been pained to know of his deeds.
A word that she used—inimba—led Gobodo-Madikizela to understand the importance of the body’s role in the healing of trauma. Inimba is translated as “umbilical cord” but it means much more: a deep personal connection, felt as a movement in the body behind the navel. Rather than a connection with the person asking forgiveness, it is felt as an affinity, a shared common ground, womb to womb, with that person’s mother. Inimba recognizes another person in a way that encompasses their own relationships, that puts you in their shoes and engages with the questions they engage with. It is a profound act of imagination that embodies what Archbishop Tutu calls the inextricable interwovenness of who we are.
Gobodo-Madikizela spoke of how the very language and deep communal structures of African culture have enabled forgiveness. When this woman faced her son’s killer and he asked for forgiveness, he addressed her as “my parent.” She represented not just her own pain, but the whole community that he had harmed. The many-layered richness of her story helps us to understand what the concept of ubuntu really means.
The Nazis who were charged with crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials were hung quickly without a chance to reflect on their deeds and in many cases went to the gallows unrepentant. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission instead forced the perpetrators of apartheid to be accountable. Amnesty was granted in exchange for speaking the truth fully, though their accounts were investigated and verified. The truth-telling was an opportunity to look deeply into themselves and face the lies that had silenced their conscience. Not everyone was capable of this—some continued to justify themselves and make excuses. But those who came to feel remorse found that opening themselves to the pain of those they had hurt enabled them to reclaim the humanity they had silenced in becoming murderers and torturers. “Shame makes you human,” says an African expression. In that moment of vulnerability and remorse—of seeing their victim’s humanity—a space opens for the victim simultaneously to see the humanity of the perpetrator. The healing that occurs on both sides in reconnecting with their mutual humanity reveals the power of ubuntu.
Gobodo-Madikizela acknowledged that South Africans who came of age after apartheid but still live in the humiliation and hardship of persistent, trans-generational poverty have become cynical about the idea of forgiveness. It has not solved their problems. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not address the structural issues that led to apartheid or its economic effects; that was not its purpose. Its purpose was to create a language to talk about the suffering—not to explain it away but “to reconnect with who we are as human beings living together in a country.” It was a first step before structural transformation could be possible.
Thupten Jinpa reflected on Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s analysis of how the healing of truth and reconciliation depended on both the relational dimension and the embodied subjectivity of those involved. The physical experience of emotion in the body clarified the nature of one’s relationships to others. Though the process she described was embedded in African culture, he was looking for what might serve universally. He wondered if the relative lack of success of the truth and reconciliation process that addressed the generational trauma of Canada’s First Nations might be attributed to the neglect of embodied experience in the process. Gobodo-Madikizela responded that universalizing should not be avoided, but there was a need to acknowledge the African source of ubuntu as a philosophy that supported truth and reconciliation—especially because African knowledge is so often marginalized—and to find ways of doing this work elsewhere that are fully conscious of the local needs and circumstances.
When asked about how to create spaces that will foster forgiveness, she warned that framing the goal of the work as forgiveness turns people off. Forgiveness can happen when people come together with a sense of openness, but it cannot be goal-driven. Instead, “what makes it possible is exposure and witnessing the story of the other.”
Mhondoro Mandaza observed that the discussion of ubuntu, forgiveness, and reconciliation was relevant not only to the politics of the apartheid system, but to our closest relationships—between a man and wife, parents and children—and to our relationship with the natural world. In each of our encounters with the world we need to engage in open dialogue, and to remember that we are constructing our selves based on the people we choose to interact with and the groups we choose to belong to.
Michael Eze reflected on the relevance of Gobodo-Madikizela’s presentation to his own initial proposition, that every encounter is a recreation of the self, and to his urging that we should engage in dialogue with those we dislike. Countering those who had suggested that such an encounter would have a corrupting influence, he recalled the Biblical notion that light prevails over darkness and how the spark of human goodness similarly can overshadow evil when we share our perspectives and vulnerabilities. “That person I don’t like is still a gift to my humanity. He’s a part of who I am. He still constitutes my own humanity.”