Nelson Mandela’s visit to the South African team before the opening game of the 1995 Rugby World Cup can be viewed as politics of grace in motion. His further appearance at the finals, participating in the pre-game rituals, adorned in the No.6 rugby jersey of the Springbok captain was a stroke of genius.
Cynics observed these acts as manipulation of symbols, a crass mobilising of mass emotions for the sake of political points – and of course, there may be some of that in this move.
Three things, however, undermine the cynic’s suspicion. The first is the project to which these actions are directed – the reconstruction and reconciliation of one of the most divided, alienated, and violent societies, in which ethnic and cultival difference continue to threaten the fragile sense of nationhood, which is emerging.
The second is the man himself – Mandela has shown such a consistent integrity that few, if any, accuse him of hypocrisy.
Third is the consistency of this “politics of reconciliation,” when it is politically unpopular. The rugby incident is just one of many instances of a pattern of reconciling grace that has been salvific for the country. They include the invitation to the wives of the former state presidents to tea with senior women of the ANC, and the quite remarkable visit Mandela paid to Betsy Verwoerd in the White enclave of Oranje.
Such a practice in its very recklessness and profligate abundance is not always received in the manner intended. Indeed, two very real dangers have emerged for the politics of reconciliation.
The first is the problem of resentment among those who feel such grace is underserved, unnecessarily extravagant and is given without the necessary “quid pro quo” being assured upfront.
Politically, those who have been victims of the systems of apartheid look with some understandable suspicion verging on disdain on the attempts made by the President to reconcile the former oppressor.
They seem to verge on an appeasement that undermines the legitimate anger and demands for retribution felt by many victims of apartheid. An analogy with the justified anger of the faithful brother of the Prodigal son towards his father’s excessive grace towards his profligate brother is apt.
This danger is a valid one and is fuelled by the second danger, which has to do with the reception of this grace; the miraculous grace that has been offered to white South Africans is too often misused in such a way that the suspicions of the elder brother in the biblical story of the Prodigal son are confirmed.
Instead of accepting the miracle of grace with humility, repentance and a desire for conversion, too often this grace is treated as a right, as a natural product of a democracy. One wonders whether this grace was given too easily, whether it has become “cheap grace”, demanding neither repentance nor the conversion of attitude and life that it seeks perhaps.
While retribution would have been satisfying for many and would have clearly been more just, its consequences would have been horrific – not only for whites (who would have deserved all they got but for the prospects of salvation for the whole nation).
It is grace (reconciliation) that offers a way out of the implacable inevitability of a justice understood as an exacting of vengeance in retribution but does so by recasting justice in the form of a restitution that arises out of a response to forgiveness.