Remembering Robben Island: Journey into Forgiveness


317856_5278I wrote this piece on Journey into Forgiveness two years ago. In the light of the recent Amahoro conference in South Africa, I am re-posting a slightly edited version here:

South Africa is where my Story was born.

I grew up in an all-white school with a rich heritage, but in those years I never had any friends of other races. Black and white never connected.

Then, in 1994, South Africa experienced its first democratic elections and Nelson Mandela became president. Overnight South Africa emerged as the Rainbow Nation, a place of hope, holding out the possibility that people could live together in freedom and democracy. We became the “new” South Africa, but not without its challenges.

About four years ago my Canadian husband and I visited Robben Island, the place where Nelson Mandela spent many years of his life in prison. A former political prisoner walked us through the stone building that day and shared his story. I was overcome with emotion.

The very earth was heavy with the burden of Injustice and I felt it in every step. The load was too heavy to bear. At the end of the day, as we walked away to catch the ferry back to the mainland, I sobbed: “Look what my people have done!”

My husband held my hand as we walked. My body shook with the tears, ripping away at years of injustice, guilt and shame.

“I’m so sorry,” I cried. To God, to the earth, to the people of the land. “I’m so sorry.”

And the broken whisper: “Forgive us, Lord. Forgive us.”

Desmond Tutu writes that there is “No Future without Forgiveness.” My heart knew this. There is so much to forgive—not only across racial and economic barriers, but also within myself.

Back home in Canada, while writing about the Robben Island experience, I was suddenly confronted with the question: Idelette, can you forgive your forefathers?


My heart immediately responded: “No! They don’t deserve it.”

But, the Voice of Grace reminded me that even the perpetrators of injustice deserve forgiveness and grace.

I breathed and I cried and finally I said, “OK, God. OK. I forgive them.”

Years of Ugly fell off as the tears streamed down my face. I also remembered how years before God had said to me, “Leaders mess up, but My purposes will prevail.”

I thought we were done there, but then the imploring continued: Do you forgive yourself? You, daughter of Apartheid?

Again I had to breathe deeply. And say, “Yes. I forgive you, Idelette.”

I was reminded of our boat ride back from Robben Island. I sat next to a woman who had journeyed there from the South African east coast. As we talked and shared some of our stories, Afrikaner and African hearts connected. We were both mothers.

Sitting on that same boat, skin against skin, with our lives rubbing shoulders, we became a beautiful picture of the South Africa I had always–but so many years unknowingly–ached for.

  • Danica Goward

    Ah! The subject of forgiveness for the perpetrators of injustice. It’s something my heart struggles with often, and I am proud of you for tackling the subject in your heart and in your blog.

    I remember vividly this struggle in my own heart while I was living at the Dream Centre in LA. it was a place of refuge for the abused and the abuser alike. In fact, most people played both roles; first the role of the abused and then the role of the abuser. They were all rescued, forgiven, and offered a second chance.

    I often struggle with the issue to this day. I read books of horrific injustices and I feel the rage rekindling in my belly. To forgive feels wrong on a human level; it feels like it demeans the pain, or perhaps it makes me feel like I am consenting to comprehend how someone could do something so evil.

    But forgiveness is not on a human level. And when I feel this fight in me I am reminded that I am trying to react to these injustices with mere mortal force. My stance is one of self-righteousness and judgement towards the perpetrators, and that is a faulty, shaky pedestal to stand on.

    When I step away from my own eyes and see through His, then I can begin to find His compassion. Not only for the perpetrators on trial in my heart, but for myself and the rest of humanity.