Forgive and forget: The politics of apologising

Like so many people, I have either had to apologise for causing harm or had to receive an apology for harm perpetrated against me. I remember how I felt as a child when either my parents or my teacher told me to say I was sorry. Sometimes I was sorry and knew that apologising was the right thing to do; other times the apology was coerced out of me and that made me insolent.

Ethics and our lack thereof is a theme that dominates our political discourse. We particularly struggle with the ethics of accountability. No one says they are sorry or that they were wrong. How often do we hear “I’m sorry, but…”? If we are fortunate enough to witness an apology, whether in our homes, schools, workplaces or our politics, it is usually followed by some sort of statement explaining it away.

In our history, an apology was one of the available opportunities to repair deeply damaged relations. Leon Wessels, the former minister of local government, was one of the few apartheid politicians to apologise for apartheid explicitly, formally and comprehensively. He recounts that he was angry at some of his colleagues who had elected not to show up at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In making his apology, Wessels expressed that it was not good enough to say: “Well, I was not involved. I did not know.”

Contrary to Wessels, former president FW de Klerk was not so unequivocal in his apology and to this day does not seem to fully own the criminality of apartheid and his own personal complicity. Writer Antjie Krog had this to say: “When FW de Klerk and his hostile delegation left the venue of the TRC, something irretrievably slipped through our collective fingers. This is De Klerk, always formulating with legal consequences in mind … He asks for forgiveness in a way that does not legally implicate him. So he needn’t apply for amnesty!”

So how do we accept an overly qualified apology? A sincere apology has a number of features if it is to be worthy of consideration. Some of these features are: a deep understanding and acknowledgement of the pain and damage the person has caused to the other; an expression of regret for their actions; and an indication of the future actions they will take to repair the harm caused. Even if all these elements are met, it’s still at the discretion of the harmed whether to forgive or not.

In one of my favourite books, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes about forgiveness in an insightful way. She says there are four stages of forgiveness. The first stage is to forgo, which means taking a break from thinking about the offender and the offence for a while. The idea is not to overlook what happened but to do other things that strengthen and heal you before dealing with the issue. The second stage is to forebear, which means having the patience to bear up against and to channel the emotion. It means to refrain from unnecessary punishing of the other to strengthen your own integrity. The third stage is to forget, which means refusing to dwell on it. It doesn’t mean pretending the harm didn’t happen, but rather ensuring that the offence doesn’t occupy the foreground of your life forever.

The last stage is actually forgiving, which Estés says is a conscious decision to cease to harbour resentment, and giving up one’s resolve to retaliate. The harmed is the one who decides when to forgive and what debt no longer needs to be paid further.

Estés states that forgiveness is a culmination of all the forgoing, forbearing and forgetting. Forgiveness doesn’t mean surrender or giving up one’s own protection. Forgiveness cannot be expected or coerced from others. Some of us do not forgive; we remain enraged by the past because there is a missing sincere apology accompanied by actions to repair the harm. Until then, forgiveness is not an option but, in the meantime, we also do not have to be paralysed by our history. 

  • Lwando Xaso is an attorney and a writer exploring the interaction between race, gender, history and popular culture.

OPINION: Lwando Xaso