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Reconciliation Beyond the Religious Closet

18/03/2015 10:22 GMT | Updated 17/05/2015 10:12 BST

The big "R" word, 'Reconciliation', the ideal aftermath of conflict, was transplanted in the mid-1990s from the vocabulary of religion to that of secular legislatures. It was needed to deal with... well, what exactly? Closure on political crimes, the need to distance the polity from the past, a desire for future social integration, the righting of wrongs, restorative justice, holding on to grabbed land. You would get a remarkably similar cluster of answers, aspirational, disingenuous or honest, from both Australia and South Africa.

But the mistake lingers on that healing a broken relationship between two individuals and integrating a society divided by conflict is much the same process. "What of the process of reconciliation? It is a manifestly worthy objective but it is not completely clear who is to be reconciled to what or to whom". So wrote the Australian historian, Henry Reynolds in 1996. Notice how "who" and "whom" may refer to the singular or plural.

It was plural in this case. Reynolds was writing in the context of his country's Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act. But, in South Africa in the context of the new Mandela presidency and the government of National Unity, people might equally well have asked the same question in relation to the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, passed by the parliament in 1995, and creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I was privileged to observe reconciliation in the singular during the period of the South African elections in 1994. I was at the Anglican Cathedral in Pietermaritzburg, in the capacity of bag-carrier for former President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. His other helper was a highly experienced bodyguard, a sharply dressed Zambian army officer. Kaunda was good company, except when I probed him on Margaret Thatcher. "You are speaking of my dancing partner". End of conversation.

He had been asked to be in Kwazulu-Natal because of fears that the Inkatha party might choose the bullet rather than the ballot box. Kaunda would have the clout to deal with it. Or so it was hoped. At the last minute, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi pulled back from further violence. Polling was peaceful.

Kaunda in Kwazulu served as the canary down a mine-shaft. If we were in an ANC area he was pressed by the crowd wanting to shake his hand and embrace. In an Inkatha area, you could smell the hostility. Kaunda had, of course, housed the ANC's headquarters in Lusaka for many years.

We were at a night vigil for peaceful elections, the kind I liked: you could leave after a decent interval. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was sitting inconspicuously at the back of the cathedral. Archbishop Denis Hurley was about to give a short meditation. It was all relaxed, surprisingly informal and not crowded. We were seated half way up the central aisle with the bodyguard on one side of Kaunda and myself on the other.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a powerfully built white man barreling up the side aisle. I tensed. The bodyguard spotted him too but didn't flicker. The man, obviously disturbed, was quickly level with our row of pews, and worst fears realized, his trajectory was into it towards the bodyguard.

Still no reaction. Then to my amazement the bodyguard allowed the man to push past him and to slump down on the other side of Kaunda. I was astonished. To my relief no attack took place. The man was wracked by sobs. Within seconds our pew had turned into a confessional.

He had been in South African Special Forces. He had been on a major raid on Lusaka, killing Zambians and South Africans alike, ANC houses attacked. He wanted to ask forgiveness and pardon.

Kaunda sat serenely while it all poured out. In response he simply held the soldier's hand. I'm not sure he said more than a word or two. The trade-mark white handkerchief came out for the soldier's tears. Soon the sobbing abated and the confession ended. They must have sat quietly for several minutes. Then the soldier simply got up, walked quietly away and left the cathedral.

To this day I do not know how the bodyguard knew it was safe to let him past into killing range of Kaunda. He just smiled when I asked. Perhaps years of experience and instinct. Perhaps he had seen that the soldier was sobbing as he came towards him. Yet what guarantee was there that worse was not to come?

The picture of this white Special Forces officer and the black - enemy - President holding his hand, the emotional repentance, the still moment at the end when neither spoke, have stayed with me as an image of reconciliation. It had a strange quality of seeming both singular and plural, just two men, yet representing two great contending groups, African and Afrikaner nationalists. It was to be some time before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission started work.

I am sure that during the Sermon on the Mount there was someone at the back of the crowd who piped up with "Yes, that's all very well, but it's not that simple". Reconciliation in a divided society is not that simple. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed just how complex. But sometimes, between two people, gracefully open to reconciliation, it can happen. I don't know what happened in that cathedral but I thought then, and think now, that it was something important.