Apartheid survivors and human rights activists shared their stories of forgiveness and reconciliation during a Monday panel in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s election to the South African presidency.
Chaired by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a campus anthropology professor, the panel drew hundreds of people to International House’s Chevron Auditorium and included six speakers from the United States, South Africa and Brazil. Scheper-Hughes opened the symposium by stating that reconciliation and forgiveness in South Africa is about “pulling up your sleeves and getting down to the business of creating a new state” rather than being simply about emotion.
Albie Sachs, a human rights activist and lawyer, was targeted by the South African government for defending people charged under apartheid laws. He was arrested, held in solitary confinement and in 1988 lost his arm and sight in one eye due to a car bomb planted by government agents. During his recovery, Sachs served as a Constitutional Court justice and helped write the new constitution of South Africa.
“I said to myself, if we gain democracy … if we get the rule of law, that will be my soft vengeance,” Sachs said. “To me, that is central to forgiveness and reconciliation.”
Panelist Linda Biehl spoke about the death of her daughter Amy, whose life was taken in 1993 by members of the Pan African Student Organization, or PASO, the student arm of a militant South African anti-apartheid group.
Standing beside Biehl at the panel was Ntobeko Peni, one of the four people put on trial for Biehl’s daughter’s death. Peni faced the violence of apartheid from an early age, which led him to seek support from PASO. After his incarceration, Peni was granted amnesty through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and then he reached out to Amy’s parents.
“Sometimes it is very important that wounds are touched, not for the purpose of inflicting pain, but for the purpose of proper healing.” Peni said. “If it were not for the reconciliation aspect that I experienced with the family, I would not be the person I am today.”
Together, Biehl and Peni have worked in Cape Town under the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, helping thousands of township youth with projects including AIDS work, arts and music.
Other panelists included tribal anthropologist Ventura Perez and Manfred Jacobs, who came to personally know Mandela while employed by the South African Department of Correctional Services. Davi Kopenawa Yanomami — shaman and spokesman for the Yanomami people — commanded a standing ovation from the audience as he called on the American public to rise and defend indigenous rights around the world.
“It’s very important that peoples of the planet meet together,” said Kopenawa. “We’re all different, but it’s important to come together.”