To forgive and to forget
ON THE ISLE de Paris, behind Notre Dame on the Seine is the Memorial to the Parisienne Jews who were executed in the gas chambers by the Nazis. I visited it some years ago and recall it as the most claustrophobic place I've ever been in. It is a modernist brickbuilt monument, sunk below ground level, approached down a narrow steep brick stair. From the small courtyard you enter an ante-chamber. Straight opposite is the long corridor of tiny light bulbs representing all those who died.
To either side is a parse gas chamber cell. But the real shock was the inscription over the door which you see as you leave: "Pardonne main n'oubliez pas". It worried me for weeks. How can you forgive, if you don't forget, if you are always remembering what happened? Won't the past rankle unless it is expunged and forgotten? Surely forgetting is an essential prerequisite to forgiving?
It was Nelson MandeIa's reported comment "Let bygones be bygones" that brought the query back. Certainly his tone throughout the whole election process has been conciliatory rather than triumphalist, with a careful and deliberate inclusiveness. In his victory speech he congratulated President De Klerk commenting "for four years we have worked together, quarrelled, addressed sensitive problems and at the end of our heated exchanges were able to shake hands and to drink coffee.". He also congratulated Dr de Beer and General Viljoen as "worthy South Africans".
In view of the fact that there are over 15 million blacks living in poverty in the homelands and only 70,000 white farmers in South Africa, Mandela's remarks could be regarded as over-generous, especially since for most of his adult political life his experience of imprisonment paralleled the experience of over 3 and a half million blacks who were forcibly removed from their smallholdings and herded into township homelands between 1960 and 1990. It would be easy to insist that as democracy breaks through, numbers are now on his side.
Notably included in the ANC's reconstruction programme are proposals for "museums" to "offer an overview of events during the apartheid years", according to the ANC General Secretary. Specifically, there has already been a commitment to preserve Pretoria's Voortrekker Monument, the Afrikaner shrine to the trekkers of the 19th century. Already "whites only" signs which once appeared on park benches and all public facilities are sought-after collectors' items. All this is in stark contrast to the public statue-smashing that accompanied the dismantling of the former Soviet Union.
But then Mandela's theme is national unity, not deliberate disintegration, a national unity rooted in keeping faith with "the people of South Africa".
"It is you, the people, who are our true heroes," he declared. "I stand before you filled with deep pride and joy pride in the ordinary humble people of this country. You have shown such a calm, patient determination to reclaim this country as your own. And joy that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops, free at last. I stand before you humbled by your courage, with a heart full of love for all of you. I regard it as the highest honour to lead the ANC at this moment in our history, and that we have been chosen to lead our country into the new century."
Steve Biko insisted that "even in this environment we must develop hope, hope in ourselves and in our country, in a sense of our own humanity, our legitimate place in the world".