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Creating a Space for Encounter and Remembrance: The Healing of Memories Process by - Undine Kayser (Part 2)

24 October 2011
Creating a Space for Encounter and Remembrance: The Healing of Memories Process by - Undine Kayser (Part 2)

Long-term Engagement - Changing Practice

Those participants who described the workshop as having an impact that was in some way sustainable beyond the weekend have often attended more than one workshop or have become HOM facilitators. It was particularly the facilitators who spoke positively of a long-term process of personal transformation that the HOM process has initiated for them. While the majority of the respondents who attended only one workshop described the experience as a valuable memory that impacts on their thoughts and reflection, facilitators spoke of the influence on their behaviour and the sense of understanding their daily experiences at a different level:

Other things happen outside of the workshop that have a bearing on being South African, and white and black and all that. I experience my healing every day, at home, on the train and at work here. I am confronted all the time with situations that remind me of who we are and where we come from. And without judging everybody else I feel that there are a lot of people who still have to start somewhere. I am confronted with that and I am glad that I have this to hold on to - to know that it is actually, unfortunately that way because of apartheid. It is not that people have decided to be like that. (R.M., 1999)

Facilitators also spoke of their learning how to create lasting and meaningful relationships within the mixed facilitator team and how the engagement with the HOM process enabled them to intervene successfully in conflict situations, especially in the workplace.

I do not know how I would have been able to work at X. also. Because of how racial differences are pronounced here and how, you know, institutionally we do not look after people in that way, say giving them information or taking them through training or just conscientising them or things like that. So each person actually goes into racial groups, cliques, and what is worse into tribal cliques. I mean I do not have that. I do not see myself as having to belong to a clique, African clique or any kind of clique and here it is a huge deal. Even when somebody is being recruited for a high position, the first thing people will ask is 'What race?'


I am doing on a part time basis employment equity training, and you know, employment equity is about equity and bringing black people on board. I am faced with a large number of white males who feel threatened and are afraid and are fearful and are thinking of going to Perth, places like that all the time. And they are very hostile. I think for me it is not about the Employment Equity Act only, but it is also about being South African. And I think, a number of times I have actually moved out of the Act itself and engaged as a South African. And it has verified for them, I think, because they are looking at this African person who is coming to gloat, I think they think that because things are beneficial [for us now] [...] My healing comes [and] presents itself, a situation presents itself to me a lot and I am happy that I have something [she speaks about the skills and experiences from HOM] to hold on to. [...] And then at the end it is so wonderful because they always ask for my phone number (laughs). (R.M., 1999)

Creating a Space? Challenges and Potential of the HOM process

HOM workshops provide a unique space of telling and listening, of witnessing one another across historical boundaries in South Africa. At the same time it is bound to be a problematic space, which is reflected in participants' responses. By facilitating encounters between South Africans and creating multiple opportunities to speak about each other's life-experiences, the workshops offer a space to see, feel, touch and experience one an-'other' without ignoring the barriers that the apartheid experience has created. Ideally, this encounter creates an awareness and respect for apartheid's very real consequences. The many participants who have spoken about the experience of 'touching a white person for the first time', 'sleeping next to a white person', 'being hugged by a black person for the first time' affirmed that part of the power of HOM lies in the simple fact that it enables people to literally, physically, spend time together in the same space. This is still an unusual experience for many in a city like Cape Town where the majority of inhabitants continue to live and work in settings that do not easily allow for the crossing of the physical boundaries created by apartheid. In my reading of HOM, part of the potential for change that it offers workshop participants evolves around the idea of deconstructing racial boundaries and stereotypes through a form of testimonial dialogue.

Testimonial Dialogue

In creating a space for speaking memories to each other the HOM offers what could be called an opportunity for 'testimonial dialogue'. The sharing of experiences marks an act of witnessing each other as people and as South Africans consciously taking on the legacy of apartheid. In this sense the small groups at the workshop can offer a different kind of testimonial space to the public platform that the TRC had instituted, a semi-public space marked by intimacy, anonymity, temporal limitation and confidentiality. The approach that all South African stories can enter into this telling-space is important in this regard. While who comes to the workshop and whose experiences are told is a self-selecting process, it makes room for dialogue about the past rather than placing testimony as a lone voice, speaking of 'victims' isolated in their pain. It is a space that seeks to open the possibility for an exploration of the past rather than close it. In this testimonial dialogue it is initially the stories that begin to correspond with one another negotiating great differences through the common frame of one system that generated them. At the same time participants discover often unexpected commonalties in each other's stories and relate to one another through empathy and listening. This process often allows a conversation to develop that may otherwise have been prevented by psychological barriers.

It is interesting to note that in the course of the HOM discourse between 1995 and 2000 the importance of the concept of 'truth' has diminished. Whereas in the earlier documentation there is emphasis on the need to 'tell each other the truth" (HOM Facilitator's Guidebook) and participants bring up the theme of truth, the term rarely appears at workshops after the TRC report was handed over. Rather HOM and participants place emphasis on a more integrative approach of listening to one another, and of coming to terms with the continuities of the past in the present.

Enacting Conflict

The aim of a safe space is crucial to enable the particular kind of testimony that is spoken at the workshops. Yet HOM workshops are in a sense also 'unsafe' spaces because of the immediate confrontation with each other's accounts of the apartheid years. There is little room for distance in this personal act of witnessing one another. Many of the interviewees spoke to the fact that workshops are unsettling and that the formal framework of the workshop programme was needed to deal with the fears and discomfort that are also part of the encounters. I would argue that this unsettling facet of encountering diversity, the notion of a space that may challenge comfort zones and passivity, is crucial to the dynamics of a collective healing process such as the one that HOM is aiming for. The storytelling in HOM, for instance, operates differently to processes that are offered by self-help groups for survivors because the set-up may challenge people as much as it can console.

In this regard one could read the HOM process as a possibility for a (non-violent) enactment of the conflicts and questions that emerge from an individual and mutual confrontation with the past. The majority of South Africans experience conflict as inherently negative, partly because in everyday life it is often enacted in violent ways and therefore not experienced as a productive force. The "normal" South African way of dealing with conflict involves avoidance and denial of the continuities of the past in the present, all of which operate as a basic underlying condition for modes of communication. The tensions that emerge from these continuous realities, as much as from the remembered hurts and traumata that affect South Africans, are visible in the displaced ways in which anger is played out at different levels of society, for example in domestic violence, violent gang cultures, the brutality of criminal acts and others. Could memory work such as the HOM process then serve to enable a more 'healthy' enactment of conflict rather than prevent or contain it? Common approaches in conflict resolution and peace work often emphasise that they are future-oriented and may not include or marginalize the impact of the past and the role that memories play in daily interactions. I suggest that interventions focusing on community peace building and conflict resolution could enter into fruitful collaborations with processes such as HOM. In this sense the dialogue about the past forms one element in the forming and transforming of relationships that are part of social healing.

Creating Comm-unity?

The Healing of Memories process can be read as an attempt at creating the possibility for a different enactment of community between South Africans in the sense of a 'common-unity'. Former participants who spoke of the experience in terms of 'being initiated into a new kind of South African-ness' emphasised that part of the process of transition to democracy should be that South Africans see themselves as creating a new nation. Yet there is a need among many to be affirmed as 'having a place' in this new nation. For those who were only allowed to vote for the first time in 1994 it is an affirmation of belonging and ownership as much as it may be viewed as continued 'permission' to belong for those who had to begin sharing the vote with the oppressed majority. This sense of belonging is crucial to people's confident and positive enactment of citizenship on different levels, such as for example, civil responsibility towards each other.

Thoughts for the Future

Making a Difference

No former participant has claimed that the workshop had no impact at all on his or her life. Even though many of the new qualities of interaction encountered at the workshop do not seem easy to sustain in the day-to-day reality of people's lives, the workshop experience plays a role for most participants. There is a desire to 'make a difference' in their families, communities and in society, albeit in a small way. Many asked if a process like HOM could not assist in facilitating a more active engagement in processes of change on a wider scope.

Opening the Wounds and Follow-up

The remembering through storytelling can be a very intensive process that leads people to reconnect with the hurts and traumas they have experienced in the past. A participant describes it as 'taking you apart and then you have to go back home and piece yourself together.' For a number of participants who were very traumatised the suffering continues as they have experienced little change in their lives. Economic problems are most pressing. The HOM workshop has been a good experience for them, but they expressed the need for continued support, especially shortly after the weekend. The follow-up meeting four weeks after the workshop is meant to be for networking and reconnecting with the other participants, yet in practice most participants never see each other again after the workshops. Many of the interviewees mentioned that they would have benefited more from the process had there been a more sustained form of follow-up to the workshops in order to implement the new elements that the experience has offered to their lives. They also mentioned the need for the HOM process to go hand-in-hand with other empowerment and capacity building interventions.

Creating Networks

Questions were also raised regarding whether HOM could provide a platform for dialogue around issues that were raised at the workshop. This could be very useful if it serves, at the same time, networking purposes through which former HOM participants can get in contact with other organisations and services. Such a continuous engagement could incorporate people who work in fields like conflict resolution, trauma work, empowerment groups and others. These fields are often viewed separately as either 'dealing with the past' or 'focusing on the present'. They could dialogue in interesting ways since past and present co-exist and interact visibly in grassroots interventions.

Support System for Facilitators

The experiences of those working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's survivor narratives over a long period of time have shown that the impact of listening and attending to human pain is profound, both positive and negative. The responses I received from long-term facilitators of Healing of Memories confirmed this. Facilitators described how they grappled with 'the stories' they heard upon returning to their daily lives after a workshop. It is important for the sustainability of such a project to ensure a good support system and debriefing mechanisms for facilitators within the project.

Participant Target Groups

There has been some discussion in the project of widening the range of workshops that are offered within the Healing of Memories process, for example to include a workshop for younger people who have not experienced apartheid in its immediacy. One could also assess the potential the process has in fields like education and in the workplace where people depend on establishing long-term relationships with each other despite historical differences and power imbalances.

These workshops would be likely to have a different emphasis, for example in the context of improving work environments. They may be used to complement the 'diversity workshops' that have become part of corporate practice in the 'new' South Africa. However, it is more risky to 'open up' in a situation where people have 'histories' with each other and continue to be confronted with them in their daily lives. The question of follow-up processes may be even more crucial in this regard.

Important considerations centre on the implications of the segregation of spaces in the larger Cape Town area. The question where HOM workshops and follow-ups are held and whether they could be moved closer or operate in disadvantaged communities has been asked repeatedly.

Documentation of People's Stories

Following the process of Healing of Memories I have listened to a rich reservoir of stories about the apartheid years. In offering people who come to the workshops to later record and capture their stories (after the weekend), one could add significant volume to the body of narratives that has been created so far. This could go as far as the beginning of a small archive on the experiences apartheid generated in the Western Cape. In that HOM does not concentrate on a particular group of people, a unique opportunity offers itself to gain insight into the broad spectrum of apartheid experiences and thus contribute to an understanding of the past and analysis of the apartheid system.

Conclusions but no Closure

The research on HOM has shown one facet of the South African way of dealing with the past. This report could only begin to explore the depth of understanding that such a process can offer with regard to people's experiences, thoughts, emotions and beliefs during the apartheid years and in post-apartheid 'new' South Africa. Further writings on Healing of Memories can contribute to the investigation of the complex interplay of motivations that drove people to their choices, actions and reactions within a system that used a wide spectrum of political, cultural, psychological, economic, religious and other forces to establish and maintain its power balances. In addition to the healing impact that can lie in the practice of telling and being listened to, I see the potential of an initiative that focuses on a once-off weekend experience in the idea of an encounter, driven by the wish to understand and realise each other as human beings, the wish that South Africans - connected to an inextinguishable past - can begin to see themselves and each other as individuals with a significant spectrum of choice in their daily lives. In creating a space for dialogue about personal memory and past and present experience lies the potential to create awareness, respect and a sense of responsibility towards each other. This may often be an unsettling and difficult process, full of setbacks and disillusionment, but it is, nonetheless, a hopeful process that can lead to the beginning of a personal dialogue set against the pervasive physical and mental legacies of a racist system.



Healing of Memories (1997) Facilitators' Guidebook

Kayser, Undine (1996-2000) Field Notes

Trauma Centre Chaplaincy (1996) Annual Report

Institute for Healing of Memories (1999) Annual Report

Healing of Memories (1998) promotional leaflet

Video Documentaries

Kayser, Undine (1998) Down Memory Lane. A Day of Remembering District Six (VHS, 40 min.) available from CSVR

Healing of Memories (1996) Insert in: Fokus. Produced by Sylvia Vollenhofer. Screened on December 2, 1996, SABC


Participants (in person interviews by author; tape-recorded)

A. H. (1999, November 5)

C. K. (1999, July 19)

J.G. (2000, May, notes)

L.L. (1999, May 24)

M.M. (1999, November 10) 

N. S. (2000, January 26)

L.B. (1999, July 23)

Focus Group (1999, May 12)

Facilitators (in person interviews by author; tape recorded)

D.H. (1999, July 20)

B.B. (1999, February 15)

B.M (1999, July 26)

R.M. (1999, July 9)

Lapsley, Michael (1999, July 13; and 1999, July 27) Director, Institute for Healing of Memories


1 The meeting was held under the auspices of the Western Cape Province Council of Churches (WCPCC), the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) and other organisations.

2 For a separate report on the RR campaign see: Kayser (2000) What do we tell our children? The work of the Centre for Ubuntu in Cape Town, CSVR. The reports are part of a forthcoming series of organisational case studies and analysis of post-TRC interventions.

3 The Trauma Centre at the time conducted a number of programmes to meet the needs of survivors of violence in the Western Cape, among them were the 'Torture and Captivity Project', 'Refugees and Asylum Seekers', 'Education and Training', 'Advocacy', 'Truth Commission Evaluation and Education', 'Urban and Rural Violence' and 'Returned Exiles'.

4 This becomes evident in the documentation of communication between the Commission and the initiative and was also affirmed in interviews with former TRC staff.

5 In collaboration with the South African Council of Churches (SACC)

6 IHOM funding proposal 1999-2001

7 My personal motivation for the study grew out of attending a Healing of Memories workshop in 1997. At the time I was engaged in a study that compared German and South African strategies of remembering a past of atrocity. The first Healing of Memories weekend I took part in set me on a path of seeing my own, my family's and my country's past in relation to the South African experience. This led to a fruitful exploration of the links between personal, communal, and official national histories, their role as narratives or stories and the many ways in which they are enacted in practice. The report should be read against this background.

8 Note that the interventions may not see themselves as doing 'reconciliation' work, but can be read within a framework of 'reconciliation-related' interventions. Father Lapsley emphasised that HOM does not make use of the term 'reconciliation' in its programme anymore.

9 In this regard it is important to note that the Healing of Memories participants present a self-selected sample of South Africans who are motivated by a range of reasons to 'deal with' the past. They may represent a minority.

10 Available from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johannesburg.

11 A different workshop model for younger South Africans between 15 and 18 years is being developed by the IHOM.

12 The 'Spear of the Nation', former military wing of the ANC

13 These themes are a selection of the ones that have come up most frequently at the workshops.

14 In some workshops the symbol is introduced as a 'peace symbol'.

15 It is often a sad or lamenting song such as 'Senze'nina' [What have we done?].

16 Note that the HOM workshops and this concept were developed in 1995, before the TRC came into existence.

17 The focus of the TRC had to be narrower due to its mandate that defined gross human rights violation as "the killing, abduction, torture or severe ill-treatment of any person [...]" (TRC Report, Vol. 1, 1999, p.60).

18 Participants who have attended more than one workshop are the exception. The only participants who have regularly attended a number of workshops are the facilitators. In their interview responses it becomes clear that a long-term engagement with the process has a significantly different impact to the once-off attendance of a workshop (see Impacts).

19 Participants may attend a second workshop if requested, but further attendance is discouraged.

20 Initially there were several survivor groups for whom the HOM has offered two or more workshops.

21 The term catharsis is not meant to necessarily imply closure here.

22 Chaplaincy Report 1996

23 In some cases in 1998 participants had misunderstood the HOM process as responsible for paying reparations, which created conflict at some workshops.

24 This puts em phasis on the importance for networking and collaboration with other interventions. See: 'thoughts for the future'

25 Some Healing of Memories facilitators apply this metaphor to the workshop when explaining the process of healing, others do not use it. A number of my interviewees commented negatively on the Truth Commission in this regard, saying that it 'opened wounds and left them unattended'.

26 This relates to many HOM participants mentioning that they found the reactions of perpetrators who testified to the TRC, their unwillingness to acknowledge and apologise, very disturbing and painful. HOM participants also spoke critically about the unwillingness of many white South Africans to engage with the past and to take responsibility for being beneficiaries of the apartheid system.

27 In post-apartheid South Africa race remains a crucial marker to locate people's voices. At the same time projects like the Healing of Memories are working towards a deconstruction of apartheid's essentialism in employing racial categories. Reading the Healing of Memories as a process that aims to question and put to test the boundaries of these categories, I have made the methodological decision not to re-impose racial categories on my respondents' voices as a necessity, but rather to let the voices speak in their own context and the context of their experiences with Healing of Memories. This is not meant to deny the present impact of the former classifications or as a dislocation of people's voices. Rather it aims to let them speak from the point of complexity, ambivalence, self-questioning and transformation.

28 It is important to note that the framework of the 'telling space' prompts a particular version of participants' life-stories. When HOM refers to 'the story' it is not to negate the multiplicity of people's life experiences and the many ways in which they can be told but concentrates on what people present as 'their story' on the respective weekend, to the respective participants in the small group. Facilitators and participants who have attended several workshops speak about their experiences of telling and re-telling whereby 'the story' changes in aspect and detail.

29 All names have been changed.

30 The significance that participants assign to the political context varies, but it is relevant to read this evaluation of HOM and participants' responses in the context of the Western Cape as the only province in South Africa under the governance of the Democratic Alliance (DA), a combination of the Democratic Party (DP) and the New National Party (NNP). Both parties' constituencies represent mainly white and coloured middle-class voters.

31 City planners during the apartheid era applied an effective concept of building 'natural' boundaries into the structure of the apartheid city. Highways and railway lines still mark the segregation of areas today, especially in Cape Town where the railway lines were used to divide so-called 'white' from 'non-white' areas.

32 In many white affluent communities a fault line seems to exist around 'buying in' or 'buying out' of the new South Africa, taking part in the new society or considering emigration. In disadvantaged communities new economic divides appear with the development of a rising middle class, and the persisting and widening divides between townships and suburbs.

About Us

The Institute for the Healing of Memories seeks to contribute to the healing journey of individuals, communities and nations. Our work is grounded in the belief that we are all in need of healing, because of what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us.

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