Chielozona Eze: Forgiveness does not ignore history but takes away vengeance

12 May 2016
Chielozona Eze
STIAS Fellow Chielozona Eze during his seminar presentation on 5 May 2016

“Can we still salvage Mandela’s legacy?” asked Chielozona Eze. “There is lots to do to make South Africa the country of true reconciliation – to move out of its current political and moral crisis.”

South Africa’s post-1994 success and the euphoria that accompanied the peaceful transition placed the country and its leaders as global icons of morality. Current socio-political developments, however, have increased scepticism about the country’s future and activists at recent demonstrations have challenged not only the legitimacy of the Truth and Reconciliation process but also Mandela’s legacy.

Prof. Eze is a poet, philosopher and literary scholar based at the Department of English at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and a STIAS fellow. He presented ideas from his current project at a STIAS seminar.

As a survivor of Civil War and military coups in his native Nigeria, Eze has dedicated his intellectual energy to understanding the African continent and sees his project at STIAS as part of a long personal journey. “The social and political reach of the ideas of Tutu and Mandela provided alternatives to what I knew of the African political and moral landscape,” he said. “It presented the potential of what has been described as ‘global citizenship or cosmopolitanism from the South’.”

“I couldn’t have come to South Africa at a more appropriate time when many of these ideas are under threat.”

In his seminar, Eze aimed to interpret memory and forgiveness within the context of current demands for change and fairness in society. He examined the role memory and forgiveness play in the search for a common humanity in South Africa in the face of massive poverty and deprivation, He also examined how we can deploy memory without turning history into an ideological tool.

In particular Eze is interested in the vision of the free borns and how they negotiate their future in the face of political and economic injustice.

“Most are still born into poverty in the midst of plenty,” he said. “For many, whiteness is seen as the cause of the despicable conditions in which the majority of black people exist. They are therefore questioning forgiveness and reconciliation, seeing Mandela and others as having sold them out, and resurrecting black consciousness and pan Africanism.”

Eze understands the source of and place for their anger “The pain of the excluded black student is as alive as anything in the past,” he said. However, he believes that “the worse thing to do is to resort to anger that consumes the subject,” that deflects attention from responsibility.

“We can’t rely on raw instincts if we want to respect individual rights and dignity,” he continued. “Ressentiment is the revenge of the powerless.”

“Anger is negative when it devolves into rhetoric that won’t bring people together,” he continued. “Forgiveness and reconciliation take away the useless (non-cathartic) anger.”

In examining some of the messages and rhetoric of recent demonstrations such as #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, and #ArtsMustBurn he noted that: “Fixation with whiteness is a problem. Unfairness is the issue, not whiteness”.

“The real perpetrator now is unfairness in wealth distribution,” he continued. “The problem is the neo-liberal craze that encourages greed. But this is a harder enemy to identify. White is easy to identify. Also we all aspire to join the rich so it’s hard to separate yourself from that group.”

The free borns are challenged by the reality that “It’s not as simple as an identifiable evil perpetrator and a morally good victim. Young white people are not responsible.”

Referring to Tutu’s vision of Ubuntu, memory and forgiveness which underscored the TRC and also Walter Benjamin’s plea that memory must serve the present, Eze asserted that “Without forgiveness and love the black struggle will replicate the horrors it seeks to replace”.

“Ubuntu, memory plus forgiveness plus fairness equals common humanity,” he said.

“Forgiveness is about gaining power to practice freedom. The releasing of self from rancour,” he said. “Forgiveness is the refusal to instrumentalise history.”

“Memory and forgiveness admit the necessity of the perpetrator and victim working together to ensure fairness for all,” he continued. “Forgiveness subjects memory to the service of humanity.”

Responding to some of the questions, Eze acknowledged that “the problem is that many white people declined the invitation to be forgiven. The huge denial and refusal by the majority of whites to apologise is a missing piece,” he said. “However, the invitation to be forgiven is still out there, and should never be withdrawn. Forgiveness is, indeed, a sign of strength rather than of weakness.”

Eze believes that we should avoid negative rhetoric and articulate the issues clearly but also ask the relevant questions and assume collective responsibility for uplifting everyone. “How can we live in affluence when our neighbour lives in penury? How can you live comfortably when millions suffer? Freedom and democracy includes the responsibility to care for others. We have a moral obligation to do something. We have the right to tell the government to do something – especially when that government doesn’t seem to care.”

“Freedom implies responsibility and shouldn’t infringe on the freedom of others.”

“Forgiveness and reconciliation pave the way for a constructive search for fairness. It’s an invitation to leave the quagmire of the past and enter the future together.”

“We need to map out the moral framework of a new society that is not dependent on particular individuals and groups. A good moral space – to make South Africa a place of human flourishing.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photo: Christoff Pauw

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