If they can forgive each other, can we?

My wife and I are just back from nearly two weeks in South Africa, during which time we made many friends, spent Shabbos and Shavuos in one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, and viewed wondrous scenery around Cape Town.

But for me the most fascinating part of the trip was observing the interactions between blacks and whites in South Africa today, and reminding myself that less than 30 years ago blacks and whites could not sit on the same bench or drink from the same water fountain. The notorious Pass Laws severely restricted where blacks could travel and effectively separated families. The ruling Afrikaans government provided, under the Bantu Education Act, only the most rudimentary education to blacks to ensure that they could not compete with whites for skilled jobs.

Today, blacks and whites mingle naturally. In the smiling greetings of a group of young black children in their school uniforms at the entrance to the Cape Town aquarium, I detect no indication that they view white people as enemies or oppressors. Nor do I detect the slightest indication that they doubt in any way their equal human dignity. (These observations of an outside visitor, on a short visit, almost certainly lack important nuance.)

Much credit for South Africa's ability to move past its bitter racial past undoubtedly belongs to Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president. Mandela understood the power of symbolic gestures, and the primary signal he sent to South Africa's white citizens was: We seek to build a society based on the equal dignity of all human beings, and not with the intent of taking revenge.

Immediately after taking office, he attended a soccer game where the new national anthem was played. Then he ordered the band to play the old Afrikaaner anthem. And when South Africa upset the New Zealand All Blacks to capture the world rugby crown, the loudest applause from the crowd was for Mandela wearing the jersey of South Africa's Afrikaaner captain.

All this is not to say that South Africa's future is rosy. The rand is at 15 to the dollar. Less than half of those between 25 and 64 are working. Beggars hover at every traffic light, and large groups of those seeking work are a common sight. A shanty town of tin huts remains a painful eyesore on the drive from Cape Town airport even after a quarter century of majority rule. And one can see even worse driving to a rural lion park.

It will take the country a long time to recover from the ten years of Jacob Zuma's presidency, in which he and his cronies looted the country and destroyed what had been Africa's best infrastructure. But when Zuma was brought down, it was ultimately the work of his own party, the African National Congress, and much of the opposition to his rule came from black businessmen, journalists, and judges.

THE AFRICAN CONTINENT is the scene of novel work in reconciliation between former enemies. Partly, that is a matter of necessity. South Africa's future after 43 years of apartheid rule depended, and still depends, on retaining trust between the deposed former rulers and those whom they oppressed.

Similarly, Rwanda, today one of Africa's safest and least corrupt countries, would have been doomed to endless tribal warfare had a way not been found to move forward from the horrific 1994 genocide of Tutsi tribesmen at the hands of their Hutu neighbors. Over 800,000 Tutsis (and some moderate Hutus) were chopped to death with machetes by Hutus over a period of three months as the world looked on and did nothing.

In South Africa, over 2,000 citizens, both perpetrators and victims, testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many of those hearings were broadcast nationwide. In Rwanda, 100,000 genocidaires confessed to their crimes and submitted themselves to ad hoc tribunals of their neighbors. The government has created reconciliation villages, in which victims live together with those who, in many cases, left them widowed and childless. About 3,000 people live in those villages.

At the entrance to the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre, there is a photo exhibit of about 12 panels from the Rwandan reconciliation work. Each panel contains a photo of a participant in the massacre of Tutsis, and his own recitation of his crimes and remorse. Most of them had served years in jail for their actions.

The other photo in each panel is (with one exception) of a woman who lost her husband and children at the hands of one of those perpetrators but who had nonetheless granted forgiveness to that person. In many cases, the perpetrator and victim have grown close, with the former being the one to perform tasks on the latter's behalf that would formerly have been done by male family members.

The reconciliation process described in the photos is the diametric opposite of the settling of accounts between the Allied victors and Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg. At Nuremburg, retributive justice was meted out to the Nazi perpetrators, with the hope also of deterring other would-be participants in genocide.

Yet the Nuremburg process strikes the Western mind — at least this Western mind — as far more natural. In The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal relates how, when he was in a forced labor unit in a German military hospital, a nurse summoned him to the bedside of a mortally wounded German soldier. The soldier sought from Wiesenthal absolution for his role in the machine-gunning by SS soldiers of 300 desperate Jews as they tried to escape a burning building. Wiesenthal left the room without responding. He had no authority to grant forgiveness in the name of the Jewish People. And I'm sure each of us would react in the same way.

Even in my fantasy life, the outer limits of my capacity to forgive extend only to the point of urging a judge not to throw the book at, for instance, a young drunk driver responsible for the death of a loved one. But even then I cannot imagine maintaining an ongoing relationship with that person.

I wonder if there is something in traditional African culture that allows for reconciliation.

In those panels at the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre, there are two amazing transformations. The most obvious is that of the victims, who describe themselves as not wishing to be consumed by hate and recognizing its futility to bring back their slaughtered loved ones.

But there is also the evident sincerity of the perpetrators, who are overcome with remorse and consumed by the magnitude of their crimes. I have not read any such confessions, as far as I can recall, from Nazi SS participants in the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units, or sadistic concentration camp guards.

Sincere regret expressed directly to the victims of one's actions is difficult, even for far less heinous crimes. Theodore Dalrymple writes in the current City Journal of a tipsy Cambridge law student who responded to a homeless man who solicited a handout by burning a 20 pound note in front of him. "He took pleasure in the pain he knew [his action] would cause, in the extra humiliation inflicted upon a man already in a humiliating position," writes Dalrymple.

Two months later, the young man issued an apology to his fellow Cambridge students, who were the victims of guilt by association when a clip of his behavior went viral. But he apparently could not bring himself to seek forgiveness from the victim himself or to view his act as anything more malevolent than could be cured by greater awareness of the dangers of drinking and a course in social inclusion. The homeless man, for his part, was more generous, allowing that he had suffered worse, including being kicked and spat upon.

I AM UNSETTLED by the panels of the Rwandan reconciliation, and torn between viewing the forgiveness of the victims as both superhuman and somehow inhuman. And I'm frustrated by my inability to derive any non-trite lesson from the panels beyond the need to confront honestly the pain and harm we inflict on others, on the one hand, and, on the other, to let go of our trivial, or even not so trivial, grievances and hurts.