Desmond Tutu was begging for an apology. Not from a leader of South Africa’s former racist white government, but from a fellow titan of the anti-apartheid struggle.
“I beg you, I beg you, I beg you, please,” Tutu implored Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at a 1997 hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he chaired during its mission to expose the abuses of apartheid. The subject before the panel was Madikizela-Mandela's links to a gang known as the Mandela United Football Club, whose vigilantism and involvement in murder, kidnapping and assaults appalled the local community and other senior leaders of the resistance to white rule.
“You are a great person, and you don’t know how your greatness would be enhanced if you were to say: ‘Sorry, things went wrong. Forgive me.’''
“I beg you,” Tutu said one more time, looking straight at the woman he had earlier described as an “incredible inspiration” to those who resisted white domination.
The anguished encounter still rankles some Black South Africans who think Tutu mistreated Madikizela-Mandela. She later called it a stunt, lashing out at the former Cape Town archbishop and Nobel laureate in a documentary that aired shortly before her 2018 death.
It’s a reminder that even Tutu — eulogized globally this week after his death on Dec. 26 as the conscience of South Africa and often the world — struggled to navigate the anger and recrimination ripping through a wounded nation.
It also speaks to perhaps the most unsettled part of Tutu’s stellar legacy, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It solicited searing testimonials of violence from both victims and perpetrators as a way to heal the country after apartheid ended in 1994, holding out the possibility of amnesty for those who confessed to human rights violations and showed remorse.
But its work was never fully completed. Many felt there was minimal accountability and the promised healing never materialized.
"South Africa's younger generation, the post-'94 generation, has criticized Tutu's work on the commission, saying he was a sell-out and not tough enough. But that is not fair," said William Gumede, who was on the commission staff and is now chairman of Democracy Works Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes democracy in southern Africa.
The commission was a part of a "negotiated compromise," and Tutu was not responsible for its “limited remit,” Gumede said. In fact, he said, successive African National Congress governments did not adequately carry out its recommendations and have failed to effectively tackle the country's entrenched problems, including gaping inequality.
The commission epitomized Tutu’s unrelenting vision that truth, wherever it lies, delivers freedom. That saying sorry, forgiving without forgetting and choosing reconciliation over retribution are the hard, best way forward. He hoped the abusers and the abused could give something of themselves by this process, and in doing so, get something in return.
Yet the commission left people on both sides of the conflict dissatisfied, Tutu acknowledged in the panel’s 1998 report to President Nelson Mandela, Madikizela-Mandela’s ex-husband. The couple divorced in 1996 after nearly 40 years of marriage, most of which Mandela spent in apartheid prisons.
“There were those who believed that we should follow the post-World War II example of putting those guilty of gross violations of human rights on trial as the allies did at Nuremberg,” Tutu wrote. “In South Africa, where we had a military stalemate, that was clearly an impossible option.”
Forgetting the past wasn’t viable either, he wrote. Tutu referred to Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden,” in which a woman seeks a confession from her rapist in order to restore “her dignity and her identity.”
The commission saw its work only as a starting point on the long road to Tutu's vaunted “rainbow nation.” It suggested some cases be referred for prosecution, but the effort fizzled. A reparations initiative fell flat.
Then there was Madikizela-Mandela, who was harassed, jailed and banished to a remote area by white-led security forces. Often a figure of scandal and controversy, she was considered by supporters to be a real revolutionary — the “mother of the nation” — who wouldn't, in their view, “sell out” to a reconciliation policy that let most of apartheid's enforcers avoid punishment.
Over nine days of grueling hearings in 1997, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission questioned Madikizela-Mandela, then a member of parliament, about the gang. She offered a general apology — “I am saying it is true, things went horribly wrong” — but denied specific allegations against her. The commission later found her “politically and morally accountable” for human rights violations.
In the documentary “Winnie,” by filmmaker Pascale Lamche, Madikizela-Mandela said that she had been “seething with rage” at the hearings.
“To this day, I ask God to forgive me for not forgiving him,'' she said, referring to Tutu. “I wasn’t going to say sorry as if I had been responsible for apartheid. I mean, how dare ... really?”
Two historical figures, allied in the same struggle but seemingly adversaries after it.
“In the 1980s, Winnie and Tutu were the two biggest leaders of the anti-apartheid movement,” Gumede said. “It was a violent time and Winnie was in the thick of the campaign to make the townships ungovernable. And that was through violence. Tutu, on the other hand, was always a man of non-violence.”
Associated Press writer Andrew Meldrum contributed from Cape Town, South Africa. Torchia reported from South Africa for the AP from 2013 to 2019. He is currently based in Mexico City.