Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

God Must Have a Very Large Funny Bone!

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen


May 16, 2005

These were the words of South Africa's Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Arts and Reconciliation Festival held at the University of Pretoria in March. It is ten years since South Africa's peaceful transition to democracy following half a century of Apartheid—institutionalized racial separation. Ten years, too, since the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with its twofold mandate to document human rights violations under Apartheid and to facilitate the process of forgiveness and reconciliation between victims and victimizers.

There were precedents for the TRC. Between 1974 and 1994, truth commissions were set up in over a dozen formerly repressive states, from Germany to Argentina to Rwanda. But the TRC was unique in two ways. With Tutu as chair, it was led by clerics, not lawyers and judges—reflecting the religious (mainly Christian) character of South Africa. It also went beyond documentation to reconciliation, in keeping with the African tradition of ubuntu—roughly, "fellowship" or "being a person with other persons."

Despite difficulties establishing a single meaning for reconciliation, South Africans took the TRC to heart and made it a beacon of hope for other nations struggling with legacies of internal violence. By all human standards, it shouldn't have worked; nobody would have predicted twenty years ago that South Africa would become a model for racial reconciliation. That is why Archbishop Tutu observed that "God must have a very large funny bone."

But why a conference specifically on the Arts and Reconciliation? Because the organizers saw a unique role for the arts in the healing of divisions. Formal statements are clearly essential to the re-establishment of justice. But we humans are right-brained as well as left-brained creatures, and sometimes a picture—or song, or film—is worth a thousand words.

The conference—opened by Tutu and closed by his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, F.W. De Klerk—included orchestral, piano, organ and choral concerts, documentaries by African, Asian, Afrikaner and English-speaking filmmakers, art exhibits ranging from photography to ethnic crafts, drama and dance. There was also an academic track, with topics like Art and Religion and Art and Human Rights. A stimulating week, to say the least, with delegates from all parts of South Africa, the rest of the continent, Europe and America.

For me, the chance to take part fulfilled a long-held dream. My last visit to South Africa was almost 40 years ago, as a callow 23 year old on holiday during a two-year stint as a high school teacher in newly independent Zambia. It was like walking on eggs back then to converse with South African whites, English or Afrikaner. Most were highly defensive about their way of life. I did not know then that I would later study the Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and begin to understand how his theory of sphere sovereignty was misused by Calvinists in South Africa who took the idea of separate activities blessed by God (politics, economics, worship, art, scholarship, etc.) and turned it into an ideology of separate development for groups of people, quite against the biblical proclamation that God has made all nations of "one blood."

So for me it was a special blessing to return to this breathtakingly beautiful land, to meet some of the courageous anti-Apartheid theologians and to talk to colleagues who are beginning to see the connections between racial and gender reconciliation. South Africa is no utopia: it is still in many ways a spiritual wasteland, with an appalling crime rate, an AIDS epidemic, and huge pockets of poverty. But it has come a long way, and there is a spirit of hope and cooperation that was chillingly absent forty years ago. God does indeed have a very large funny bone—for which we can be everlastingly grateful.

—Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Professor of Psychology and Philosophy
    Eastern University


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”