Why do we find forgiveness so difficult?

  • Making Progress
  • Thursday, 05 Dec 2019

In December 2015, my family and I went on holiday to South Africa.

I have always wanted to visit South Africa because being a history buff, and I had read a lot about its history, especially about the period of apartheid.

Having read Nelson Mandela's autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, I had wanted to see first-hand how Mandela spent 18 out of his 27 years behind bars, incarcerated on Robben Island. Mandela was jailed because he fought back against the nefarious apartheid regime and for justice and equality of all South Africans.

Robben Island, a desolate outcropping five miles offshore, is a testament to courage and fortitude in the face of brutality, a must-see for any visitor to South Africa. Tours leave Cape Town four times a day, and the trip includes a bus tour of the island and a visit to the prison.

As I embarked on my journey from Cape Town to Robben Island, many things went through my mind.

First, it was sadness – how some can be so cruel to their fellow man.

The previous day, I had undertaken a tour of Cape Town and we visited the former ghettos. The horrors inflicted on black and other South Africans by the apartheid regime was unimaginable – stripped of their dignity, denied their rights and heritage, consigned to a life of squalor and systematically proscribed human, educational, social and political rights.

Second, it was about Mandela, how a man could be subjected to much abuse and suffering, and yet forgive his tormentors.

Third, it was about the double standards of the western world. Despite all their proclamations for human rights and justice, they effectively kept the apartheid regime in power. With such a dark history, I would never want to be lectured by any of them on human rights or justice.

As we disembarked from the ferry and got onto a bus for the first part of the tour of the island (now a museum) still had an aura of darkness – I felt there was evil lurking everywhere.

Our guide, a former detainee himself, gestured to a limestone quarry on the side of the road. It was here that Nelson Mandela toiled virtually every day for 13 years, digging up rock, some of which paved the road we were driving on.

The sun was relentless, the quarry so bright and dusty, that Mandela was stricken with "snow blindness" that damaged his eyes. That is why Mandela had to wear sunglasses when he was in the sun.

But Robben Island had also been a great centre of learning, where detainees like Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki (the father of former South African president, Thabo Mbeki) used their time to teach each other literature, philosophy and political theory. They also dared to dream of a post-apartheid South Africa where everyone would be equal.

As we went in Mandela's cell, his words from his autobiography came to mind; "I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet, and my head grazed the concrete on the other side."

Notwithstanding the horrors inflicted upon him – after Mandela was released from that wretched prison, in his first speech on Feb 11,1990, before a crowd of 100,000 South Africans in Cape Town, he said; "Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom... I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you the people."

Mandela did not talk about revenge or vindictiveness; he spoke about justice, peace and freedom for all South Africans, including those who supported apartheid.

Now, this brings me back to Malaysia.

We have been preoccupied with the story of Chin Peng and the return of his ashes by his former comrades in mid-September.

Of course, much of the debate and rhetoric around Chin Peng and the Communist Party of Malaysia has been political. Still, we cannot deny the genuine anger and anxiety that confronts those who witnessed first-hand the horrors inflicted by the CPM during its 21-year insurgency.

Many Malaysians lost their lives and suffered torture at the hands of the CPM.

However, in 1989, the Hat Yai Peace Accords were signed – the CPM was dissolved, the insurgency ended, and it provided for the return of all CPM leaders to Malaysia.

However, due to reasons political and emotional, Chin Peng could never return.

In September 2016, the Colombian government and FARC rebels who fought a brutal, violent and lethal civil war from 1964 to 2016, signed a peace agreement similar to the Hat Yai accords.

However, unlike the CPM, the FARC rebels were allowed to form their political movement and incorporate themselves into mainstream Colombian life.

Many people did not want peace in Colombia, and they tried to scuttle the peace process.

In welcoming the peace accords FARC leader, Timochenko, said,"peace is the most beautiful of victories."

Back to the controversy of Chin Peng and his ashes, I sometimes wonder, why is forgiveness so difficult?

Mandela was able to forgive his tormentors and was elected to the South Africa presidency in 1994 with former apartheid President, De Klerk as his deputy president.

Timochenko's words softened the hearts of many Colombians who suffered untold horrors at the hands of the FARC rebels and reminded them that peace is better than war.

But in Malaysia, we still find it so hard to forgive because I believe a lot of our history with the CPM is examined via racial lenses – forgetting that the CPM was also multi-racial.

I abhor communism and everything it stands for, but like Timochenko, I too believe that peace is the most beautiful of victories. The Hat Yai Peace Accords should be celebrated as the triumph of reason over terror, not the triumph of one over another.

To forgive is to purge oneself of the pain and horrors of the past, thus allowing us to move on. Malaysia must move on from the CPM insurgency and the unnecessary burdens of history.

Because like Mandela tried with South Africa, we as Malaysians must do the same with our country. We should look to the future, learn about the values of forgiveness and build and sustain a country that brings out the best in all of us.

As Mandela put it most eloquently,"Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies... Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear. That's why it's such a powerful weapon."

And as my Robben Island guide answered me with a wry smile when I asked him how he could be so forgiving after all he had gone through during captivity,"because hating someone is so hard, moving on is easier."

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Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal is an Advocate & Solicitor. He was formerly Political Secretary to the Minister of Plantation Industries & Commodities.


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