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Difficult Forgiveness? Engaging Paul Ricoeur on Public Forgiveness within the Context of Social Change in South Africa1

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In the context of public discourse in South Africa, this article engages Paul Ricoeur’s influential and thought-provoking work on forgiveness, also as it intersects with the work of Jacques Derrida. The article argues that Ricoeur’s discussion of ‘difficult forgiveness’ provides important conceptual clarification in the search for responsible discourse on forgiveness, and offers some brief remarks regarding the promise and pitfalls of using the notion of ‘difficult forgiveness’ in post-conflict situations marked by historical injustice, such as South Africa. It is argued that Ricoeur’s discussion of forgiveness helpfully demonstrates the complexities involved in forgiving in a way that resists cheap forgiveness, and that his nuanced attempt to make room for the spirit of forgiveness to touch institutions enriches the discourse on public forgiveness and its role in the humanization of polarized societies. Given the eschatological tone of Ricoeur’s discussion of forgiveness, the article also points towards the need for future-orientated memory to deal with historical injustices.

Affiliations: 1: Stellenbosch UniversitySouth


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