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Forgiveness a choice of one who is wronged, like writing off a debt

Adam Catzavelos has apologised for the racist remarks he has been convicted for, which he made while on holiday in Greece. /ALON SKUY
Adam Catzavelos has apologised for the racist remarks he has been convicted for, which he made while on holiday in Greece. /ALON SKUY

This week I was asked to share my reflections on the subject of forgiveness. As I was preparing my talking points, I pondered on some of the misconceptions about forgiveness.

We've all had to contend with the subject of forgiveness on a personal level. Whether it is deciding to forgive a person who has offended us or being the one who has committed the offence.

I have been on a personal journey of healing that has involved trying to grapple with the concept of forgiveness.

Let's first clear up what forgiveness isn't. Forgiveness is not condoning an evil committed against you. It is not justifying an offence, crime and abuse. It is not about saying that what happened is okay.

It is also not giving permission for the abuse or hurt to continue. Forgiveness is also not an emotion.

So, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is a choice.

It is an action. Forgiveness is like writing off a debt. It does not mean that the debtor - the perpetrator or offender - is no longer liable to pay but that you will not use up your time and energy pursuing them to pay.

You leave their judgment and condemnation to the criminal justice system or to God, and you continue with your life.

It is a personal choice because it does not require an apology from the perpetrator, a resolution of the problem or reconciliation with the offending party to catalyse it.

As human beings we make mistakes, we put our foot in it and we hurt other people. We are also in turn hurt by others.

Human beings commit the deepest offences, some of which can be categorised as heinous crimes and even violations of human rights.

There are many victims of crime and abuse, of carnage on our roads and negligence in our healthcare system and policing failures.

For many families the loss experienced decades ago is still fresh because of a lack of closure - especially those affected by murder and disappearances of their loved ones during our dark and violent colonial and apartheid past.

Then there's the hurt that is inflicted in the course of workplace relations, in marriages, among acquaintances and close friends and in interactions between siblings and other family members.

And at times we also have to deal with self-inflicted harm and loss, the result of our own wrong decisions in pursuit of affirmation or success, for example.

I think one of the biggest myths about forgiveness is that it should necessarily result in reconciliation or that to forgive is to be willing to unconditionally reconcile with a perpetrator of an offence or wrong against you.

When I consider the road to democracy that unfolded in the 1990s and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that is a focal point of that journey to a new SA, it is my contention that it was more about forgiveness than it was about reconciliation.

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. It takes one to forgive but it takes two to reconcile.

If the perpetrator lacks the insight or is defiant to acknowledge the harm and commit not to doing it again, can you reasonably and justifiably continue to give that person access to yourself?

Reconciliation must be on terms that promote the wellbeing of all parties to the relationship and must provide room for offenders, where possible, to demonstrate their commitment to the new terms by making amends.

The sorry case of convicted racist Adam Catzavelos illuminates this point.

A lot of people joined late former president Nelson Mandela in making the choice to forgive. But to fully reconcile as a nation requires those who caused harm to acknowledge it and commit to new terms.

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