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Gift of reconciliation

Imagine your memory of Christmas was defined by a bomb; actually, four bombs, of which two blew four people, including two children, into oblivion, wounded around 70, traumatised hundreds, further divided a little Boland town, and again left a newish country on a knife-edge. The date was December 24 1996; the town Worcester; the bombers four white Afrikaner men; the victims all black.

Today, 15 years later, and on the site of the 1996 bombing, I am witness to one of those unbelievable South African moments, a moving act of reconciliation. It starts with a young black man getting up and declaring proudly: "My name is Tshepo, and Stefaans Coetzee is my friend."

Imagine your memory of Christmas was defined by a bomb; actually, four bombs, of which two blew four people, including two children, into oblivion, wounded around 70, traumatised hundreds, further divided a little Boland town, and again left a newish country on a knife-edge.

The date was December 24 1996; the town Worcester; the bombers four white Afrikaner men; the victims all black.

When Olga Macingwane woke up in hospital that Christmas morning, she was in severe pain. She was inside Shoprite Checkers on that tragic day; her legs swelled up after the first bomb went off, and she was knocked unconscious by the second bomb. A long, long journey of physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery lay ahead - let alone the unplanned financial hardships heaped on a hardscrabble life.

Today, 15 years later, and on the site of the 1996 bombing, I am witness to one of those unbelievable South African moments, a moving act of reconciliation.

It starts with a young black man getting up and declaring proudly: "My name is Tshepo, and Stefaans Coetzee is my friend."

Not a dry eye in the house. Coetzee was the 18-year old orphanage boy from a broken home who found himself under the tutelage of nasty adult racists whose daily diet of racism led him to believe the Christian scriptures offered perfect justification for racial hatred. His only regret at the time was that the other two bombs did not go off as well.

Since then, and under the corrective guidance of fellow inmate and apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock, Coetzee comes to his senses and makes it known from Pretoria Central that he wants to say sorry, to apologise to the victims, to try to make amends for the Christmas Eve bombings.

It falls on Macingwane to meet with Coetzee in prison.

As with Tshepo's first prison visit, the broken Macingwane finds her stereotype of the angry white man blown away by a picture of youthful innocence, humility, and brokenness.

Macingwane then leaves on the record these unforgettable words that she spoke on meeting the one-time killer: "Stefaans, when I see you, I see my sister's son in you, and I cannot hate you. Come here my boy, I forgive you; I have heard what you said, and I forgive you."

I will never understand the depths of African humanity expressed in these extraordinary words. There is "the recognition of likeness", or what CS Lewis calls "nearness by resemblance". Macingwane looks past the epidermis and all it represents in this broken country to see a relation, a son.

With such understanding, hatred is not possible, but Macingwane goes further by issuing an invitation to the wretched soul before her: "Come here my boy."

She owns him, as a child of her own.

Macingwane is alert to the words of Coetzee . He did not ask to be released from prison. This was not a tactical request but a genuine remorse.

Thus follows: "I heard you. I forgive you."

Coetzee remains in prison, and his request is to move to a prison in Worcester so he can be closer to the victims and their families and continue the quest for forgiveness, reconciliation and restitution. So far, for reasons that escape me, Correctional Services would not allow this transfer.

I would ask South Africans to make the case to Correctional Services for the Pretoria to Worcester transfer, not only for Coetzee and the victims, but for the country as a whole.

Tshepo reads the letter from prison sent by Coetzee. It is a moving human story of a young man who deeply regrets his actions. It is a letter well received in the audience of victims and activists as we move outside to release pigeons into the clear Worcester air. It could well be that the remarkable story of reconciliation in Worcester could be the spark that reignites reconciliation and restitution in South Africa.

This Christmas I will again sit around a table with my closest family. We will share gifts and enjoy food. We will remember those loved ones who are no longer with us. But we will also share stories.

One of those stories will be how the people of Worcester are working to overcome hatred through the gifts of love and forgiveness.

I will tell my family, also, that for the first time since 1996, Shoprite Checkers will once again hang Christmas trimmings inside their store in Worcester.

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