The Healer: Forgiving a Torturer

By Susan Collin Marks

One Thursday afternoon in October 1992, I witnessed forgiveness in action. I was working on the South African National Peace Accord, and I had organized a workshop in Cape Town for the police and a number of civil and human rights NGOs to clear lines of communication between the two groups.

It was two-and-a-half years since the historic release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison. South Africa was groping its way towards a new order, trying to weave together a highly diverse society that had been methodically torn asunder by centuries of oppression, racial discrimination, and injustice, formalized under the doctrine of apartheid. What we were trying to do in the framework of a police-community relations forum was nothing less than the conversion of a relationship of the deepest suspicion and enmity to one of cooperation and mutual trust.

Now, as the workshop participants trickled into what was for most of them their very first meeting as fellow citizens on neutral ground, the air was charged with tension and uncertainty. I watched as police officers and civil-society representatives – black, white, and so-called Coloured – chose their seats. In the usual pattern, most sat with people they knew, people most like themselves. Not surprisingly, very few sat near to those they saw as being from an opposing group. A kind of emotional apartheid shrouded the room.

Then Stewart appeared.

He was an African in his early thirties, soft-spoken, quietly dressed. He seemed unremarkable, but only for a few seconds, because then one caught something of his dignity, his stillness, his reserved strength, and was instinctively drawn to him. Here was someone to trust. He was a courageous veteran of the struggle against apartheid who had been imprisoned and tortured by the police and now was working as a paralegal to help others in the fight for justice.

Stewart surveyed the room, his eyes sweeping the circle. He hesitated briefly and then made his decision. Slowly but confidently, he walked toward a vacant seat next to a police major. Before acknowledging the warm welcome of colleagues and friends, he sat down and turned to greet the police major, shaking his hand. Only a handful of people in the room knew that Stewart had chosen to sit beside his former torturer.

Whether they ever spoke another word, I do not know. What I do know is that in Stewart’s quiet, unassuming act, I witnessed forgiveness in action.

Susan Collin Marks is the Executive Vice President of Search for Common Ground, an international conflict-resolution organization.

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