42 pages 1 hour read

Desmond Tutu

No Future Without Forgiveness

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


Originally published in 1999, No Future Without Forgiveness is the memoir of Desmond Mpilo Tutu. Tutu won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984 for his efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. He served as Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Cape Town and later chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which President Mandela established to help address the atrocities of apartheid.

Although Tutu’s memoir focuses on his work with the TRC between 1995 and 1998, it also details historical events and his own experiences as a Black South African from 1960 through 1994, which was the period under the TRC’s investigation. The book became an international best seller, and human rights courses often include it as assigned reading.


Tutu opens by describing the significance of South Africa’s first democratic election on April 27, 1994, a transformative moment in the nation’s history. Tutu chose to drive to a Johannesburg “ghetto township” to cast his vote. Black South African people, long oppressed and denied a vote, felt pride and exhilaration in the act of voting. The moment was liberating for the country’s white people too, as they felt the shame of apartheid lift. South Africa was in the world’s spotlight that day. Despite fears of violence, the election was peaceful, and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected—and first Black—president.

Tutu explains how this day came when it did. The end of the Cold War prevented South African leaders from equating resistance to apartheid with communism. As a result, the persistent pressure from those highlighting apartheid’s injustice at home and abroad began to have more effect. South Africa felt the sting of economic sanctions as well. Emphasizing the importance of leaders, Tutu argues that the white South African president, F. W. de Klerk, and the de facto leader of the resistance, Mandela, were the right people to negotiate a peaceful end to apartheid and transition to democracy. In doing so, both received the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Once a democratic system was in place, debate ensued over how the new government should deal with the many crimes committed during the apartheid era. The Nuremberg model, which the Allies used in the aftermath of World War II, seeks retributive justice from those responsible for atrocities and places them on trial. Explaining that this model was impractical for South Africa, Tutu notes that white people did not unconditionally surrender power and that resources were insufficient to hold so many trials. He also rejects the idea of general amnesty in which past crimes are erased and forgotten. That was unacceptable to the victims. In the end, South Africa chose the TRC model: People who committed atrocities could apply for amnesty, which would be granted if they made a full and true confession. This model seeks to heal and re-integrate perpetrators into the community, relying on restorative justice. Victims could make statements, detailing their experiences and voicing their stories to let go of anger and thereby help achieve peace. Throughout his memoir, Tutu defends this model as the only one that could bring about South African unity, which was essential to the nation’s success.

However, this model was not an easy sell given apartheid’s brutality. When the National Party imposed apartheid after its election in 1948, it forcibly removed Black people from their homes and placed them on Bantustans, which were like reservations and sometimes hundreds of miles away. Apartheid confined them to these areas, and they needed passes to travel. Impoverished, they received inadequate health care and a poor education. The white minority—about 20% of the population at that time—occupied some 85-90% of the land. The National Party prohibited Black people from taking part in the national governance of South Africa and brutally squashed any resistance to apartheid policies. In 1960, at Sharpeville, apartheid officials killed 67 Black resisters when they arrived without passes to protest peacefully.

After that, the government banned the African National Congress (ANC) and other organizations opposing apartheid. Additionally, it apprehended resistance leaders and gave them long prison sentences. When the resistance continued and engaged in guerrilla warfare, the government hunted and executed them. At times, the government would make these crimes appear to be the work of vigilantes and blame the resistance for them. Many wanted revenge, but Mandela successfully built support for a model of reconciliation. Having spent 27 years in prison, enduring torture and humiliation, Mandela had the legitimacy to ask other persecuted individuals to forgive.

For practical reasons, the TRC was to confine its investigation of atrocities to the time of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 through Mandela’s election in 1994. As TRC chair, Tutu heard of unimaginable horrors. He cites several examples of such crimes to expose the dehumanization that apartheid wrought. Members of the resistance at times copied their oppressors’ depraved behavior, torturing and killing those it considered traitors and bombing innocent people. Tutu’s Christian faith leads him to strongly condemn such acts but not those who committed them—and to embrace and reform sinners. Their heinous actions juxtapose actions of extraordinary magnanimity. Tutu marvels at people of all races and backgrounds who extend forgiveness despite experiencing appalling pain and loss. That response is the way forward for Tutu. Otherwise, the cycle of violence continues. To achieve unity, reconciliation is essential. Since God’s plan is to achieve harmony or unity, Tutu says, the process of reconciling is a sacred task.

The TRC’s mission was to promote national unity. Comprising 17 members, the TRC’s composition reflected South Africa’s diversity. Given the history of tension among racial and ethnic groups, the members initially distrusted one another and had a tense working relationship but eventually cooperated with one another to complete the job. However, serving on the TRC exacted a high emotional cost. Some victims criticized the TRC for leniency toward perpetrators, while many white people accused it of bias and engaging in a witch hunt. Acknowledging the weaknesses of the TRC’s performance, Tutu laments the lack of greater white support and the slowness with which it awarded reparations to victims. Given the number of victims and South Africa’s limited resources, the reparations were not significant sums but of symbolic importance.

Despite the TRC’s imperfections, Tutu believes that it served its purpose of promoting unity. More than 20,000 victims gave statements to the TRC, and more than 7,000 perpetrators applied for amnesty. When perpetrators made full confessions, people learned the details of crimes and in some cases learned where the apartheid regime had buried their loved ones. Some victims experienced both closure and a cathartic effect from telling their stories. Although the nation has not reached unity, the TRC made progress toward it. Tutu is careful to stipulate that real change—improvement in the economic circumstances of apartheid’s victims—must come before South African can achieve national unity. Every South African must be a part of the process.