Unburdening: Reflection on the Life Esidimeni Experience

I had the privilege of sitting in at the Life Esidimeni Arbitration Hearings on Monday 22 January 2018. It is indeed a special privilege to be allowed to be in the presence of people in the midst of their pain. The pain was palpable.  The hearts of the nation must be with those who suffer the most and we have seen visible expression of compassion and care everywhere.

When the decisions and their subsequent actions to move patients from Life Esidimeni to unfit NGOs ended in such immense tragedy – an estimated 143 patients losing their lives and a possible 62 still unaccounted for –  how do their families even begin to find closure? There is no doubt that this has hurt and angered our nation, and there must be accountability and justice for the those affected. Amos 5:24 says, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

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The most vulnerable are precious in the eyes of God. The book of Proverbs 22:22-23, offers these words: “Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord will plead their cause and despoil of life those who despoil them.” We carry with us the burden of our actions as well as the pain of society affected by our actions. We need unburdening in one form or another. I would like to reflect on one such channel of unburdening – forgiveness.

As we navigate our way through these testimonies and wounded memories, let us hold fast to the power of forgiveness – forgiving ourselves for what we think we could have done for the comfort of our departed loved ones, and forgiving those who had a part that led to this tragedy either by decisions or actions or inaction.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu writes that he stood outside the church in Rwanda, which is a disturbing and moving monument of the 1994 genocide. He saw the corpses some with pangas and daggers in the skulls, and smelt the stench. He says that he tried to pray, but instead broke down and wept. This is the same Archbishop who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa and witnessed the incredible pain relived during the hearings. It is out of those experiences and many others that he wrote the book titled, No Future Without Forgiveness.

As we live through the memories of what had happened, let us keep in mind what Justice Albie Sachs termed; “forensic and factual truth –verifiable and documentable – and is social truth, the truth of experience that is established through interaction, discussion and debate.” Justice Mahomed mentioned “truth of wounded memories” – which has a healing and has a therapeutic effect. As we navigate our way through these testimonies and wounded memories, let us hold fast to the power of forgiveness – forgiving ourselves for what we think we could have done for the comfort of our departed loved ones, and forgiving those who had a part that led to this tragedy either by decisions or actions or inaction. This does not exclude ensuring justice for all and taking responsibility. We cannot deny the past. For now we stand at a place of tears and pain. Life cannot be the same after this tragedy, but forgiveness can open the way towards a new reality of being better persons in how we treat each other with dignity and caring for the vulnerable.

Forgiveness contributes towards the ability to stand again and opens the way towards healing and restoration. This is not to be confused for condoning, excusing or even forgetting. The term – “finding closure” – is a difficult one at times like these, but forgiveness opens the road towards wellness and freedom. It is necessary in order to relieve ourselves of a burden of pain, anxiety and distress. The closure people may be seeking resides not only in justice, but more fundamentally in forgiveness. Even those who may feel like they did visit their loved ones at Esidimeni as much as they could, or could have done more to save them, need the space to forgive themselves in order to gain the freedom to walk into the future, and place the memory of their loved ones in a peaceful location of their minds and emotions. May God of life help us in times like these to experience and offer that forgiveness and newness of life.

Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa is President of the South African Council of Churches