First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
Talking it Over

March 25, 1997

I've been traveling in Africa throughout this Holy Week, when Christians all over the world celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of my favorite preachers, Tony Campolo, in a sermon titled "Sunday's Coming," makes the point that no matter how grim or hopeless life may appear, just as it did that first Good Friday, there is no permanent place for despair because Easter Sunday will dawn, bringing with it the hope of new life.

One does not have to be a Christian to appreciate the Easter message. People of all faiths-and those of none-need to believe that "Sunday's coming." Because if they do, they can change the world around them. That is what's happening right now in South Africa.

The peaceful transformation in South Africa is rooted in the Easter message of forgiveness and reconciliation. One key element of the nation's transition to democracy after four decades of apartheid is the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

When I visited members of the commission during my recent trip to South Africa, I was struck by how, in the most ordinary of conference rooms, people are undertaking the most extraordinary of efforts. They are working to complete their nation's healing after generations of injustice, inequality and brutality. And they are seeing to it that South Africans fully understand their past so that they may create a future in which every citizen has the opportunity to live up to his or her God-given promise.

One cannot spend time in South Africa without being inspired by the democratic awakening that is taking place there. Yet, as we Americans know from our own history, building and sustaining a democracy is a complicated business. It takes patience, courage, and-most difficult of all-a spirit of tolerance and unity that often conflicts with human nature and local history in many parts of the world.

The commission, appointed by President Nelson Mandela, is asking those who committed hate crimes during apartheid to come forward and confess. In return for telling the truth, they are given amnesty from prosecution.

It's a controversial undertaking but one that reflects the spirit of President Mandela, Archbishop Tutu and other anti-apartheid leaders. They believe that South Africa cannot move forward to true democracy and equality for all citizens without a spirit of forgiveness. They also know that forgiving has a prerequisite: knowing the truth.

As one witness before the commission put it: "I want to forgive, but I need to know who and what to forgive."

This is no easy task for all those whose loved ones died in the struggle for freedom. The loss of any life is painful, but it is more painful still if it results from what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called "the stale bread of hatred." For most of us mere mortals, forgiveness is often harder to summon than a desire to settle scores.

Yet, I met people during my stay in South Africa who are doing just that. Some of them are famous, like President Mandela, who took me on a tour of the tiny prison cell he occupied for many years on Robben Island. If ever a person had grounds for bitterness, it is he. But as he showed me the cell block and described the unjust conditions he endured, he also explained that imprisonment provided him time for reflection and learning. For him, Robben Island is not just a symbol of infamy; it is a testament to the triumph of the human heart and the human spirit's capacity for progress.

Others working for reconciliation in South Africa are less well known than President Mandela but equally critical to building a new democracy. At a ceremony I attended with Archbishop Tutu honoring those who had died, I saw the faces of women who listened in silence as the names of their sons, brothers, uncles and fathers were read aloud. I saw the tears in their eyes as a tree was planted in remembrance of their families' sacrifices. But I also saw the bravery in their hearts as they sought to help their country conquer decades of hate.

These women weren't denying the past or forgetting the bloody markers on the road to freedom. Nor were they choosing to erase painful memories of a child or relative who died.

They simply were turning their rage to more positive ends. They were sending a message that it is time to acknowledge history, no matter how tragic, and to arm children with the knowledge they need to build a peaceful, free and democratic South Africa.

As I watched them, I could only think of the progress that could be made if the same spirit of forgiveness echoed around the world-in the streets of Belfast, the killing fields of Burundi and the countryside of Bosnia.

We all have a stake in supporting South Africa's work of nation building. What happens in South Africa has implications for all of us around the globe who love freedom and democracy. Not only are the South African people seeking their own destinies and creating a new nation, they are helping to shape the course of human history.

Most of all, South Africans are teaching the world the lesson of this Holy Week, when we celebrate the passage from loss and despair to hope and redemption. I hope the lesson of Good Friday and Easter lasts us all through the year and beyond as old hatreds yield to the promise of new and peaceful beginnings.

Reprinted with the permission of Creators Syndicate, Inc.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's Trip to Africa