Perhaps the most recognizable contemporary example of unilateral forgiveness is Nelson Mandela, who seems to harbor no resentment toward those who imprisoned him on Robben Island for 27 years. Govier (2002, p. 71) argues that
When Mandela reached out to his former enemies and did whatever he could to assure them that they would suffer no evil at his hands, he did not do this in response to acknowledgement and expressions of remorse on the part of white leaders. Nor was he responding to a community that had apologized for the wrongs of the past and indicated a commitment to deep and widespread moral transformation.
It is undoubtedly because Mandela had so much about which he could have been justifiably angry that his forgiveness has inspired so many in South Africa and around the world. The unilateral forgiveness that he offered to white South Africans was not seen by anyone as a sign of weakness or will- ingness to forget the past, but instead has gained him nearly universal admi- ration for his ‘openness, acceptance, and lack of bitterness’ (Govier 2002, p. 71). Indeed, Mandela’s decision to spend New Year’s Eve 2000 on Robben Island signified both his remembering of apartheid and his triumph over the conditions that system imposed on him and all black South Africans. Govier (2002, p. 61) rightly argues that ‘What is at issue in forgiveness is not whether suffering and wrongdoing are remembered, but how they are remembered.’
Consider the difference between Mandela’s efforts and those of former Prime Ministers F.W. de Klerk and P.W. Botha. Govier (2002, p. 69) highlights any number of impressive gestures on Mandela’s part, including that, ‘In his Inauguration Day speech on 10 May 1994, he said in Afrikaans, wat is verby is verby (what is past is past). The black liberation anthem “Nkosi Sikelel I Africa” was sung, but so too was the old Afrikaner anthem, “Die Stem”.’ In contrast, when de Klerk came before the TRC, he ‘isn’t there to look the past in the eye. He’s there to minimize the damage and to play on the sentiments of his voters…. De Klerk states repeatedly that his whole upbringing, his entire experience of politics, allowed no room for the kinds of atrocities now coming to the surface’ (Krog 2000, p. 165). Perhaps worse still is that Botha flatly refused to cooperate with the National Party submission prepared by de Klerk, citing old age and illness even in the face of repeated accommodations and then subpoenas by Tutu and the TRC (cf. Tutu 2000, pp. 244–250). He then proceeded to launch a series of public tirades against the TRC: ‘I will not appear before the Truth Commission. I don’t perform in circuses… I won’t allow myself to be threatened. The Truth Commission is tearing Afrikaners apart… I am not asking for amnesty. I never authorized murders. I will not apologize for the fight against a Marxist revolutionary onslaught’ (quoted in Krog 2000, p. 347). Then, facing a contempt of court charge, he continued in the same vein: ‘I told Mandela to his face, yes, I’ve met him three times, I’ve treated him like a gentleman in jail, I told him: “Anarchy and the forces of communism and socialism will destroy you”…. I am sick and tired of the hollow parrot-cry of “Apartheid!” I’ve said many times that the word “Apartheid” means good-neighborliness’ (quoted in Krog 2000, p. 353). In the absence of any public acknowledgement of wrongdoing by officials who created and enforced apartheid policies – and certainly given these attitudes and actions of de Klerk and Botha – the difficult work undertaken by Mandela and Tutu might very well be wasted. Govier (2002, p. 145) rightly argues that ‘in politics, unilateral forgiveness that remains unilateral will have all the force of an extended but unshaken hand’.