Lessons in Restorative Justice Coming to Canada from South Africa: Bishop Desmond Tutu and the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”

World Cup soccer has highlighted the nation of South Africa. Less well known is how South Africa’s turbulent racial history and its transition, beginning in 1994, from a racially segregated state to one built on equality and inclusion has influenced other countries. We know Nelson Mandela played a huge role in South Africa’s change, but no less significant has been the leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu. This man has been credited with finding a way to allow repentance to flourish at a time when revenge came knocking at the door. He is also credited with a restorative approach that has been embraced by many groups, including Canada’s First Nations people.

Every student who graduates from middle or high school should be able to identify Bishop Tutu and know his story, which shows what can happen when a nation adopts “restorative practices” to deal with a generation of brutal injustice. Bishop Desmond Tutu was the architect and leading proponent of implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (TRC). This commission oversaw and recorded the stories of thousands of victims and provided an opportunity for the perpetrator of injustice to meet the victim and seek reconciliation and request amnesty from prosecution.

To read, to listen to, and to see the grievances experienced by the victims and the abuses perpetrated by those in power elicits disbelief and perhaps shame in those who familiarize themselves with the stories. Students will need to confront this troubling question: How can people be so brutal to one another? However, to see and hear people forgive and to ask for forgiveness for unspeakable cruelties will overpower the despair and leave students with a sense of wonder at what forgiveness can accomplish. Those who are willing to uncover the facts surrounding this South African experience will learn some very valuable life lessons.

Students in Christian schools hear about the need for forgiveness and restoration all the time. For many, the phrase “Jesus died to forgive me of my sins” has become a thoughtless mantra. So how do Christian teachers equip their students to think about the concept of forgiveness? The South African story provides a compelling example that students need to hear. The message of “forgiveness” of Jesus was carried through the centuries by the church and was picked up by Bishop Desmond Tutu and contextualized for the new South Africa.

When the TRC’s work was finished and the report presented to the government, Bishop Tutu had this to say: “The TRC was “an indispensable way to healing. Let the waters of healing flow from Pretoria today as they flowed from the altar in Ezekiel’s vision to cleanse our land, its people, and to bring unity and reconciliation. We will have looked the beast in the eye. We will have come to terms with our horrendous past and it will no longer keep us hostage. We will cast off its shackles and, holding hands together, black and white will stride into the future, the glorious future God holds out before us—we who are the Rainbow people of God—and looking at our past we will commit ourselves: Never again!”

A little known fact is that Bishop Tutu’s approach to reconciliation has been adopted recently by the Canadian government and First Nations people. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]