South Africa & The Fragility of Justice

South African President Nelson Mandela talks with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican on June 18, 1998. Mandela thanked the pope for the Catholic Church’s help with education and health care for black South Africans during apartheid. Pope John Paul II visited South Africa in September 1995.

Today I have the privilege of hearing from two Catholic men who were present at some of the challenges of our time; the first is Neil P. van Heerden from South Africa. Mr. van Heerden joined the Foreign Service in 1961 and served in Tokyo, Tapei, Tehran, Washington (Political Counsellor) and intermittently at Head Office in Pretoria where he held various posts including Head of Policy and Planning and Head of the Africa Division. In 1980 he was appointed Ambassador to Germany. He served as Director General of Foreign Affairs 1987 – 1992. He was the leader of the South African delegation in negotiations for Namibian independence and the Angolan peace initiative, 1987 – 1990. In 1992 he was appointed Ambassador the European Union in Brussels. He led the South African delegation in negotiations with the European Union for a trade and development Agreement, 1994 – 1996. In 1996 he retired from the Foreign Service and accepted the appointment of Executive Director of the South Africa Foundation in Johannesburg. Mr. van Heerden is a convert to the Catholic faith.

On 2 February 1990, three months after the fall of the Berlin wall, then State President FW de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from prison and announced the measures that would lead to majority rule and “change the political landscape forever.” The process of change led to 69% of the white population endorsing the referendum on the reforms which would empower the black majority.

Mr. van Heerden said that justice required such a change as did the awareness that the alternative “was too ghastly to contemplate.” but as we seen in the recent movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela was a key person in the event. van Heerden quoted from Mandela’s Memoirs: “I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there was mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin . . .; people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate they can learn to love.”

Pope John Paul II said in Redemptor hominis that the human heart “beats and pulsates” with what is most deeply human: “the search for truth, the insatiable need for the good, hunger for freedom, nostalgia for the beautiful, and the voice of conscience.” So we may despair of human beings. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice . . .  they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the peacemakers  . .  they shall be called the children of God.

Mr. van Heerden said that the churches formed an important part of civil society throughout and after the transition to democracy. He said that an important literary prize was awarded for a book on the life of a Catholic priest Dennis Hurley who distinguished himself as an anti-apartheid activist.

There was a need for  a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” There needed to be admission of guilt and expression of remorse.

There were many “shining moments of tolerance” in the midst of the great challenges. These moments he said were like “layers of human engagement which helped but did not provide rhe complete explanation as to why we avoided the apocalypse.”

Mr van Heerden continued: “Thinking back to my childhood in the remote countryside where I grew up in the Karoo, I know with some certainty that there was a bond between people which transcended all divisions, which connected us and went beyond just tolerating each other — it was more like the weft and weave of a cloth. In my view this bond cannot be underestimated in searching for answers to what has been described as the miracle of the Rainbow Nation.”

Deo gratias.

The people of South Africa deserve our admiration and prayers.

Thank you Mr. van Heerden for your journey and reflections..

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