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Presentation at the Civil Society and Justice in Zimbabwe - Symposium in Johannesburg

Presentation at the Civil Society and Justice in Zimbabwe - Symposium in Johannesburg

Presentation by Fr Michael Lapsley, SSM

Director - Institute for Healing of Memories at the Civil Society and Justice in Zimbabwe Symposium Johannesburg , South Africa 11 to 13 August  2003

I wish to thank the organizers both Zimbabwean and South African for the privilege and responsibility of speaking at this Symposium.

I want to begin by honouring all those who have suffered and died in the cause of justice for all in Zimbabwe from the 19th century up until today. I would also like to acknowledge the depth of pain, suffering, starvation, and the deprivation of basic human rights, which the majority of Zimbabwe ans are enduring today.   Furthermore, I wish to express the highest respect to human rights activists in both our countries who live heroic lives and pay the cost of their commitment.

The organizers have asked me to describe my own experiences and understanding of gross human rights violations - highlighting the ways in which survivors have found ways of addressing their experiences, to show what is possible even in the context of dreadful oppression as part of "The Victims' Perspectives". Like a number of people here, my own life's journey has been intertwined with both the people of Zimbabwe and the people of South Africa , just as our two countries will indeed remain intertwined forever.

I would like to share with you some of my own story and reflect upon it.

I want to begin with the years I spent in Zimbabwe which were from 1983 until 1992.

In around 1987 the government of Zimbabwe informed me that I was on a South African government hit list - that I could be the target of the South African death squads.   From then on I lived with armed guards for several years.

I reflected on what I was living for if in fact a government may wish to kill me for it.   I had long concluded that there was no road to freedom except via the route of self-sacrifice.   Thus, I had a conceptual framework that helped me make sense of the possibility of death but certainly not of permanent major disability.

Three months after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, at the end of April, 1990, I received a letter bomb hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines which had been posted from South Africa to Harare .

In the bomb blast, I lost both hands, one eye, had shattered eardrums and various other injuries.   Nevertheless, I experienced the presence of God with me in the bombing.   For the first 3 months, I was as helpless as a newborn baby.   I received excellent medical treatment first in Zimbabwe and then in Australia .

I was the recipient of the prayers and love and support of countless Zimbabweans and South Africans together with many other people around the world.

My story was acknowledged, reverenced and recognized and it was given a moral content.

God enabled me to make my bombing redemptive - to bring the life out of the death, the good out of the evil.

I was able to walk a journey from being a victim to survivor to victor. If we have something done to us, we are victims.  If we physically survive, we are survivors.   Sadly, many never travel any further and remain prisoners of moments in history, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.  To become a victor is to move from being an object of history to become a subject once more.In 1992, I returned to live in South Africa after an absence of 16 years.    I was very struck by the innumerable ways the people of South Africa had been damaged by the journey we had travelled,   by what we had done, by what had been done to us, by what we failed to do.  We all had a story to tell about the apartheid years - no matter the colour of our skin or what side, we had placed ourselves in the conflict.

Unlike what happened to me, for countless South Africans, no one has acknowledged, reverenced and listened to their story.

For five years, I was chaplain to what was then called The Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture.   It taught me some important lessons.   Yes, we were all damaged by our past but we were not all pathological - we did not all need long-term therapy.

Undoubtedly, there are a small minority who do need long term expert intervention on their road to healing.

However although not in need of expert intervention there are very many people who still have unfinished business from the past.

As part of the chaplaincy project of the Trauma Centre together with the Religious response to the Truth and Reconciliation, we developed a healing of memories model as a parallel process to the Truth Commission.

Essentially, each Healing of Memories workshop is an individual and collective journey of exploring the effects of South Africa 's past and especially the apartheid years.  The emphasis is on dealing with these issues at an emotional, psychological and spiritual level, rather than an intellectual one.

The workshops provide a unique opportunity to experience and relate our individual journey, while sharing with others in theirs in small groups.  There is also some reflection on the common themes that come up in such a journey - such as anger, hope, hatred, joy, isolation, endurance - and a discovery of the depths of common humanity we share.  The workshop reaches its climax in the creation of a liturgy/celebration (including readings, poetry, dance, song, prayers, etc.) which provides a sense of completion to the workshop.

These workshops as just one step, although often an important one, in the journey towards healing and wholeness. The workshops are an attempt to assist victims to be victors, and help all of us on the road to new life.

When we have experienced something life threatening it will either cause us to diminish or to grow, but certainly not to remain the same.   Chief Lutuli once said that those who think of themselves as victims eventually become the victimizers of others.   People often give themselves permission to do terrible things to others because of what has been done to them.  In many conflicts, both sides see themselves as the victims.

This can be true of the journey of individuals, communities and nations. How do we break the cycle that turns victims into victimizers?   A fundamental part has to do with the social, political and economic context.   However, of equal importance is the psychological, emotional and spiritual.  Only when we have the space to look at the poison within us, and have the opportunity to begin to let it go, can we move away from victim hood.  People often stay with their victim hood because it is all they have.

One of the characteristics of societies in transition is that after some kind of negotiated settlement political violence comes to an end.   At the same time, family, sexual, domestic and criminal violence rapidly increases.   Whilst not enough research has been done on the connection, between political violence and what happens inside the bedroom I have no doubt there is a profound relationship.

A great number of people came to the Trauma Centre in those first years not because of their psychological, emotional and spiritual needs but rather because of their physical needs for work, for food, for shelter.

What we had to offer was often not what people were asking for.

Nearly 10 years after the coming of democracy to South Africa , many who sacrificed the most to free South Africa have not yet tasted much of its fruit including the former combatants of the liberation movements and their families.

Last year the Institute for Healing of Memories started its Ndabikum Project. Ndabikum means - "It's my business" or "It's up to me”. The challenge that Ndabikum has made to ex-combatant clients is that they should take responsibility for making a change in their own lives.

The aim of Ndabikum is that the participants in their programme should be committed to striving to become independent by restoring in them a sense of self-worth and ability to act in the world. Ndabikum helps excombatants by providing a holistic, integrated programme combining personal support and skills training with the intention of alleviating the effects of long-term unemployment and displacement. Ex-combatants are given an opportunity in Healing of Memories workshops to explore in a safe space how the South African past has affected them psychologically, emotionally and spiritually.

The programme has evolved by combining experience of two approaches to working with displaced and traumatised people. On the one hand, providing trauma counselling and emotional support has limited benefit when people are struggling to survive. On the other hand, providing skills training alone is not enough to equip people to support themselves financially when they have emotional problems.

An evaluation was held after the first six months. The combination of personal support and skills training was found to be effective in meeting the needs of programme participants and the aims of Ndabikum.

One of the good and bad things about our Truth Commission was that people tended to be described as victims or perpetrators.   At one level it was good because it acknowledged the suffering of individuals no matter what side they were on or what role they had played.  This also helped the nation in recreating the moral order.   It established that torture was wrong whether carried out by freedom fighters or by racists.

For many who were freedom fighters it was extremely problematic to be described as "perpetrators" or "victims".    For some people this was the reason why they did not give evidence to the Truth Commission.

From its formation the TRC set out to be a "victim friendly" exercise but also to treat alleged perpetrators with dignity and respect. Throughout its life until today, the Truth Commission was contested ground.

Many opponents of the Truth Commission argued that the amnesty process involved the denial of justice to people who had suffered gross human rights violations.   This was particularly because those granted amnesty could not be criminally or civilly prosecuted.   Those of us who supported the TRC process agreed with the constitutional court's assertion that the provision of reparations would mean that the Truth Commission would become a remarkable example of   restorative justice.

In November of 1998, the TRC made public its recommendations for Final Reparations.  In April of this year, President Mbeki committed the government to implementing Final Reparations with an individual component reduced to a third of what the TRC had recommended.   There was no mention of any permanent structure to deal with the long term needs of those designated as victims. Despite assertions to the contrary, without the rolling out of final reparations as recommended by the TRC, the TRC process has so far given far more to perpetrators than to victims.

At the height of the TRC, many of us were "popular" victims.  As the years have passed and the needs of most victims have not been addressed victims become increasingly unpopular.

Nevertheless, the TRC with all its shortcomings has played an important part in helping the nation face the truth of its past and laid a foundation for the journey towards reconciliation. During the last couple of years, the Institute for Healing of Memories has begun to do some work in Zimbabwe .   I have long felt that in Zimbabwe there has been inadequate facing and wrestling with the past as a nation.   The poison of hurt that has happened over generations continues to infect the present.    The present has been infected by the past.   It is obvious that for most Zimbabwe ans all their energy is taken up with surviving.   However, it is important that some people are already dreaming about the day of reconstruction as well as dealing with the past themselves.

I have heard it argued that the needs of war veterans were not addressed adequately and systematically after independence in Zimbabwe in 1980. This was a time bomb, which eventually exploded and could also be exploited for political ends.

When Zimbabwe finds a political solution to the present situation, will it also create mechanisms to acknowledge the past or will it be buried rather than healed, yet again.  Will this generation of victims go on to become victimizers either in the political arena or in the bedrooms of the nation?

In the period before South Africa set up its truth commission, we sought to learn from the Latin American experience.  Pepe Zalaquet from Chile advised us not to undertake what we could not fulfil.   I hope in this respect that Zimbabwe will succeed where we have so far failed as South Africa ns.

Last time I was in Zimbabwe a few months ago, the number of people who argued that 2003 would be the year of reckoning, struck me. There was a sense that the crisis would come to a head during this year.

As South Africans, we were often told that the night was the darkest in the hours before the dawn.    I pray that a new dawn will break in Zimbabwe very soon.

I thank you.

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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    Cape Town, 7708, South Africa

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