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PUBLIC LECTURE : New School for Social Research, 4th May 1998

12 September 2010
PUBLIC LECTURE : New School for Social Research, 4th May 1998

New School for Social Research, New York - Public Lecture
4th May 1998

"Confronting the past and creating the future, the road to truth, healing and forgiveness."
Fr. Michael Lapsley, SSM

Introduction by Elzbieta Matynia of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science of the New School for Social Research, New York.

The special occasion today is a lecture by our Visiting Professor in Democracy, Fr. Michael Lapsley, the latest visiting professor from the very impressive list of visiting professors. I would like to say that its incredibly special for us to have him around our office. You will know what I have in mind when you listen to his lecture. He's a New Zealander by birth who has dedicated his work and life to the people of South Africa. His anti-apartheid activities and his membership in the ANC forced him, put him at odds, not only with the regime apartheid but also with his own Church. He was forced to leave South Africa, first to Lesotho and then to Zimbabwe. When he was in Zimbabwe he received a letter which he opened. It was a letter bomb. It happened almost exactly eight years' ago in April 1990, and only days before the negotiations had begun that eventually led to the collapse of the apartheid regime.

I am not going to comment or discuss his biography. There is a very engagingly written book that you may like to buy and read. That book is called Priest and Partisan, and would be available after the lecture.

Fr. Lapsley is, of course, back in South Africa now for several years already. He's one of the two founding staff members of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, established to support and to follow up on the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is with us in the Graduate Faculty for eight weeks, the spring semester, and he co-teaches with Professor Jose Casanova a course on 'Memory and Justice - Truth and Reconciliation in democratic transitions'. Today as you know he will be talking about "Confronting the past and creating the future, the road to truth, healing and forgiveness."

It's the first time anybody has called me Professor so I wasn't sure whether I should respond or not at that point. Thank you also for explaining that I was here for the spring term having enjoyed all four season in the last two weeks that I have been in New York. It was very kind of you to explain which season that we are actually in.

I must say I would want to begin and also acknowledge the presence of Her Excellency, Sheila Sisulu, the Consul General of South Africa, and her spouse with us tonight with other people from the South African Consulate, and members of the academic community of the New School who are here, and also members of the wider community in New York who are with us this evening.

I would like to begin by thanking and appreciating the New School for inviting to be here and giving me the honour of being a visiting professor here. I feel that it is a personal honour, but I think it is also an honour shared by the people of South Africa, that the New School would want to offer a visiting professorship to someone who would come and speak and teach and discuss and argue about what is happening in South Africa, and particularly the ways in which we are trying to confront the truth of our past and the way in which we are trying to heal our wounds. It is appropriate because I think what we are doing in South Africa is of importance to the whole human family. As I speak you'll forgive me if I move backwards and forwards between the nation and myself and my own journey, in offering this lecture.

I would like to dedicate this lecture to the mothers of the people of South Africa and to my own mother. I think especially because I am conscious that so often the sacrifice, the pain, the suffering of our mothers in the struggle that we have undergone is the least recognised, and yet perhaps of the greatest significance. It is also appropriate to give this lecture in the week following the visit of President Clinton, the first American president to visit South Africa. I am also conscious that it is the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of Martin Luther King,Jr and I think that is the context, for me, of some of these events, in which I speak tonight.

I want to begin by quoting to you from what is known as the interim constitution of South Africa

"This constitution provides a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society, characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence, the development of opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex. The pursuit of national unity, the well being of all South African citizens and peace, requires reconciliation between the people of South Africa and the reconstruction of society. The adoption of this constitution lays a secure foundation for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles and violent conflicts, and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge. These can now be addressed on the basis (and I think these are perhaps the most remarkable words of that constitution) that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation."

(The Zulu speakers who are present will correct me, but I think that for me that word ubuntu, an African word and a Zulu word, somehow sums up the generosity of the African spirit. I sometimes thought the best translation is 'human beingness. There is a generosity of spirit in that word.) So the need for ubuntu, a generosity of spirit, but not for victimisation.

And it goes on, "In order to effect such reconciliation and reconstruction, amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions and offenses associated with political objectives committed in the course of the conflicts of the past. With this constitution and these commitments, we the people of South Africa, open a new chapter in the history of our country."

Those were the final words of the South African interim constitution of 1993, and it was on this final clause that the Truth Commission for Truth and Reconciliation was based.

What were the tasks of the Truth Commission? According to the promotion of national unity and reconciliation act of 1995, they were seven-fold. Now, remember the first democratic government, the government of national unity, came to power in 1994. President Nelson Mandela was inaugurated on the 10th May 1994, and just over a year later, this Truth Commission Act was passed by parliament. It gave the Truth Commission tasks:

One, to provide for the investigation and establishment of as complete a picture as possible, of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights, committed from 1960 until the agreed cut-off date, which became eventually, the subject of some debate, the date of 10th May 1994 when President Mandela was inaugurated. So to provide as complete a picture of what happened both inside South Africa and outside.

Two, the fate or whereabouts of the victims of such violations.
Three, the granting of amnesty to persons who made full disclosure, that is, of all acts associated with the political objective committed in the course of the conflicts of the past.
Four, affording victims an opportunity to relate the violations they suffered.
Five, the taking of measures aimed at the granting of reparation to, and the rehabilitation and the restoration of the human and civil dignity of victims.
Six, reporting to the nation about such violations and victims.
Seven, the making of recommendations aimed at the prevention of the commission of gross violations of human rights in the future. That is what we decided to do as a country.

What were the alternatives that we had? Could we, for example, have had Nuremberg in South Africa? A few, very few, thought we could, a very few thought we should. But probably it was never a real option in that Nuremberg was victors' justice, and we had a negotiated settlement. There had been no surrender. So Nuremberg, no. But there was, of course, the option of forgetting, or should I say, the option of attempting to forget, the option that so many countries have taken, to say, "We'll pretend it hasn't happened." The last white president in fact, in the days leading up to the new government, preached a gospel of "forgive and forget". He used to say it in such a holy way that I thought it was a verse from the Bible, but I haven't been able to find that particular verse. Or course, he forgot to tell us what it was that he wanted us to forgive, and he didn't seem to remember very much himself. So the option to forget - always a temptation. Never successful.

Perhaps a more likely option would have been a less powerful, less funded, lower profile commission. There have been commissions that have met behind closed doors in other parts of the world. This Truth Commission which was started in July 1995 (we are now in the last round) in July 31st this year will present its full report. It will say, "Here is the picture that you asked for. Here is what we have been able to unearth of the motives, of the causes of these gross violations of human rights. Here are our recommendations. Here are twenty-thousand submissions made by those who considered that their human rights had been grossly violated, by which was meant only murder, attempted murder, torture, severe maltreatment."

Some of you who have followed our history closely will know that more three million people were forcibly removed from their homes as part of the apartheid nightmare. None of those stories will appear. So it is, in one sense, but the tip of the iceberg.

Of great significance will be the recommendations on reparation that will be made. The Commission will say to the President and to our parliament, "This is what we propose in terms of reparation to victims", and already they have indicated that they are making proposals about individual, community and group forms of reparation. They are making proposals that those who are declared victims will receive a sum of something like R17,000 a year for six years.

Maybe its worth commenting on that word, 'victims'. I think many of us cringe slightly when we hear the word, because many of us consider ourselves to be either survivors of apartheid or more importantly, victors over apartheid, but somehow the lawyers couldn't quite get it into their heads. They tried. In fact some of us have said that it is appropriate to use the word 'victims' when speaking of the relatives of someone has died, but not an appropriate word for those of us who are the survivors and victors.

In the long term the Commission will in many ways be judged by the reparations, by what happens to those who suffered the most grievously at the hands of apartheid, and those who in some way sacrificed the most. The temptation, of course, is always again to celebrate the gains that you have made as a society and to forget those who sacrificed the most. But significantly already in our latest budget, 50 million rands has been set aside, for interim reparations before parliament has even decided on the policy for reparation. So already there has been a signal from the government that they want to take very seriously a commitment to reparations. I think it was the one point that President Clinton forgot to mention on his visit as to how much the United States would love to offer towards that process of reparation. There is still time for him.

As I have said, we have had twenty-thousand submissions to the Truth Commission, people telling their stories of what was done to them. We've had seven thousand applications for amnesty. Its interesting to do the arithmetic. I'm in no danger of being a professor of mathematics, but if you subtract seven from twenty it does suggest that there is a large number of people who haven't seized the opportunity to ask for amnesty. They were offered amnesty in the most extraordinary generous act by a country. "We will offer you amnesty and all we want from you is the truth, the truth in all its fullness, and we are prepared to let go and to move on." Of course, not all those who have asked for amnesty will get it because they need to prove that what they did had a political objective, they need to prove proportionality and they need to tell the whole truth.

Living in South Africa for the last eighteen months has been an extraordinary experience because there is a sense in which the Truth Commission has been like a gigantic mirror put in front of the country. Night after night on television, day after day on the radio, day after day in newspapers, we have witnessed and heard the pain, the pain of what we have done to one another as a people.

We have heard stories of immense degradation. All stories are stories of pain, and yet some, however, haunt us more than others, particularly stories of people who killed other people, burnt their bodies and had parties while the bodies were burning. We have also looked into the mirror of immense evil, or our ability as part of the human family to do the most terrible things, to forget what it means to be fully human.

At the same time, we have looked into the strength and beauty of people, the power of the human spirit, the ability of people to endure, to go on going on, to go on believing in their God-given dignity. But also the Commission has been part of laying the foundations of a moral order, a moral order which formally had never existed in modern day South Africa. Because society had been built in South Africa under apartheid, stretching back centuries in its foundations, a society in which we had called good evil, and evil good, a society in which if your profession was that of a torturer, if you were effective, you would be promoted. At the end of your life you would be given a golden handshake. Those who were tortured were so often told, "Scream for all you like, there is nobody listening. Don't worry, we won't leave marks. No one will believe you."

For the first time in our history the tortured and the torturers are there in the light of day, standing before the country, and both are being believed. Yes, you did this to other people. It is true. Yes, you suffered this and yes, it was evil. One of the extraordinary things about the Commission, and a sign in a sense that it was not simply victors' justice, was that in the face of the Commission, whether you were tortured by the apartheid regime, or whether your human rights were violated by the liberation movement, your story is given equal dignity, and the moral objection to torture is made. This is a very important point. The old regime has tried to project a moral equivalence saying on the one hand; "We the apartheid state were fighting - some of us were good, some of were bad - we did some good things, we did some bad things; on the other hand, the liberation movement led by the ANC, they did some good things, they did some bad things, so we are all equally good and equally bad together." Just like saying, that fascism and nazism were equally as bad as those who fought against it. That is not the consensus of the human family. The human family says, "Apartheid and fascism were evil, but in the pursuit of fighting evil that does not mean that everything you do is automatically good." And so, apartheid was a crime against humanity. It was noble and good to fight against it, but in fighting against it, those who were part of the liberation movement we too did things that were morally unacceptable. In the Truth Commission, the moral order in our country beginning to be established.

There are stories, that I have said, that stand out for the whole country, and yet there also stories that stand out for us as individuals. One of the stories that stood out for me was a story of what happened to a group of young people in Mamelodi, a township outside Pretoria, where a black security policeman pretended to be a soldier of the liberation movement and told a group of young boys, 17, 18 19 years old, "I will help you to go and train to fight against apartheid." The boys were taken, drugged, shot. The vehicle they were in was then dynamited and blown to pieces. This happened in about 1985. For ten years, their mothers waited to know what had happened to their children. They didn't know, their children from their point of view, had simply disappeared. Then one day in around 1995, they read in the newspaper from that security policeman what had happened to their children. Those who did it have asked for amnesty.

I have worked closely with those mothers. We have been together in a 'Healing of Memories' workshop. Twice in fact. Once was just before I came here to the United States, and the mothers were saying to me, "We know what happened, we know who did it, but we don't know where the bodies were buried. We need to know, we have unfinished business. We cannot move on in our lives." Strangely I decided a few days' ago to tell their story. In this wonderful world of technology I opened my e-mail this morning and there was an e-mail from the Truth Commission to say that this last Friday, these mothers were taken to where their children were buried, and they were going to perform traditional ceremonies at the site. They will never forget, but they can begin to move on. The moral order can be restored because these children can be buried with dignity. Their spirits can rest. Their mothers now know the truth in all its horror.

As someone who had myself been victimised by apartheid, and in my reflections about what has happened to me, I have been conscious that often the road to healing and wholeness is much more difficult for the perpetrator than it is for the victim, or should I say for those of us who have survived. I want to read to you from a letter that was sent first in fact to an Afrikaans radio station in South Africa and was then translated and broadcast also in English in August of last year, and I think for me it illustrates in a small measure the way in which no one in South Africa has beem exempt from being messed up by apartheid. It is simply called the story of Helena, the wife of a security policeman and she wrote:

"My story beings in my late teenage years as a farm girl in the Bethlehem district of the Eastern Free State. As an eighteen year old, I met a young man in his twenties. He was working in a top security structure. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. We even spoke about marriage, even if was an Englishman, he was popular with all the Boete Afrikaners, and all my girl friends envied me. Then one day he said he was going on a 'trip'. "We won't see each other again, maybe never ever again." I was torn to pieces, so was he.

"And extremely short marriage to someone else failed, all because I married to forget.

"More than a year ago, I met my first love again through a good friend. I was to learn for the first time that he had been operating overseas and that he was going to ask for amnesty.

"I can't explain the pain and bitterness in me when saw what was left of that beautiful big, strong person. He had only one desire - that the truth must come out. Amnesty didn't matter. It was only a means to the truth, need to clean up. He was gruesomely plucked out of our lives at the beginning of the year. Was that the price he had to pay for what he believed in?

"After my unsuccessful marriage, I met another policeman, not quite my first love, but an exceptional person, very special. Once again, a bubbly charming personality, humorous and grumpy, everything in its place and time. Then he says that he and three of our friends had been promoted; We're moving to a special unit. Now, now, my darling, we are real policemen now." We were ecstatic, we even celebrated. He and his friends would visit regularly. They even stayed over for long periods.

"Suddenly at strange times, they would become restless, abruptly mutter the feared word, 'trip' and drive off. I, as a loved one, knew no other life than that of worry, sleeplessness, anxiety about his safety and where they could be. You simply have to be satisfied with 'what you don't know can't hurt you'. And all that we, as loved ones knew, was that what we saw with our own eyes.

"He became very quiet, withdrawn. Sometimes he would just press his face into his hands and shake uncontrollably. I realised he was drinking too much. Instead of resting at night, he would wander from window to window. He tried to hide his wild consuming fear but I saw it. In the early hours of the morning between two and four a.m. I'd jolt awake from his rushed breathing, rolls this way, that side of the bed, his face ice cold in a sweltering night, sopping wet with sweat. Eyes bewildered, but dull like the dead, and the shakes. The terrible convulsions and blood curdling shrieks of fear and pain from the bottom of his soul. Sometimes he sits motionless, just staring in front to him.

"I never understood, I never knew, never realised what was being shoved down his throat during 'the trips'. I just went through hell, praying, pleading, "God, what's happening? What's wrong with him? Could he have changed so much? Is he going mad? I can't handle the man any more but I can't get out. He is going to haunt me for the rest of my life. If I leave him, Why God?"

"Today, I know the answers to all my questions and heartache. I know where everything began, the background, the role of 'those at the top', the 'cliques', and 'our men' who simply had to carry out their orders, like 'vultures'. And today, they will wash their hands in innocence and resist the realities of the Truth Commission.

"Yes, I stand by my murderer who let me and the old white South Africa, sleep peacefully warmly while 'those at the top' were again targeting the next 'permanent removal from society' for the vultures. I finally understand what the struggle was really about. I would have done the same had I been denied everything, if my life, that of my children, of my parents was strangled with legislation. If I had to watch how white people became dissatisfied with the best and still wanted better and got it.

"I envy and respect the people of the struggle. At least THEIR leaders had the guts to stand by their vultures to recognise their sacrifices. What do we have? Our leaders are too holy and innocent and faceless. I understand if Mr de Klerk says he DIDN'T know, but dammit, there must be a clique, there must be someone out there who is still alive and who can give a face to the 'orders from above', for all the operations. Damn it!

"What else can this abnormal life be other than a cold human rights violation? Spiritual murder is more inhuman than a messy physical murder. At least a murder victim rests. I wish I had the power to make these poor wasted people whole again, I wish I could wipe out the old South Africa, out of everyone's past. I end with a few lines.

"They can give me amnesty a thousand times. Even if God and everyone else forgives me a thousand times - I have to live with this hell. The problem is in my head, my conscience. There's only one way to be free of it. Blow my own brains out. Because THAT's where my hell is."

"P.S. Thank you for your time. Thank you for listening to the story of a loved one out of the old South Africa. For sharing her pain."

Another of the stories that haunted us,

We were all messed up by apartheid. But another little story that didn't receive much publicity but perhaps is one with which we ourselves might be able to identify with. Its a woman speaking,

"I am 47 years old. I am a middle-aged, middle class South African housewife, an elder in my congregation, a wife, a mother, a nursing sister. However, I do not come before you as a representative of any of these groups. I cannot speak for middle-aged white housewives, nor for the medical community, nor for my denomination, nor for my congregation, nor, indeed, for my family. I am here in my personal capacity, as Lesley, stripped of my titles and my relationships.

"I grew up with all the advantages and opportunities afforded me because I was white. I was oblivious of the fact that there were so many people around me who were not as privileged as I was, not because I was unfeeling, but because I was unaware. I became more aware by the time I reached high school and can remember heated discussions in classrooms because of the inequalities I was gradually beginning to notice. In hindsight, I realise the gross distortions I was taught, but it is only looking back that I can see that our education system prepared me for accepting the totally unacceptable. In learning things without questioning, in obeying authority without challenge I came to accept as normal the totally and grossly abnormal…..

"The TRC hearing on gross human rights violations have devastated me. I have watched them on television and read about them in the press and in magazines and they have made me weep with anger and horror. There is a strong feeling of denial, not because I don't believe what has been said, but because I don't want to believe that such cruelty and systematic destruction has occurred so near to me. There is a sense of complicity, a terrible feeling of failure. I remember a quotation I read many years ago. It disturbed me then, it haunts me now: "It is sufficient for evil to prosper that good men do nothing."…..

"When I read of the reparation that people who have made submissions are requesting, it compounds the deep shame I am feeling. A tombstone, a bursary for a child's education, a proper burial for a loved one, such simple requests, no vengeance, no desire to get even. It somehow makes it harder to face. Given the same circumstances, I'm not sure I would be so willing to forgive…….

"I have realised that sins of omission are still sins. I cannot change our past and it would be so much easier to blame apartheid for all of it. The truth is, I made my own choices. I know of so many people who chose differently I have read the letter submitted to the TRC by Dr. Beyers Naude. So many people have said, "Of all people, why would he need to make a submission?" I have been greatly humbled by it. I am no Beyers Naude, but I am grateful to him for his example of humility and courage. He helped me to find my way here.

"The choices I made in the past to avoid what I perceived, in my fear and cowardice, as having consequences too dangerous to deal with, have resulted in consequences worse than ever I feared. Poverty has moved into my street, crime has moved in next door, unemployment is knocking at my gate. The results of systematic human right violations have left us all with a legacy of mistrust, suspicion and anger. I will not run away from what is happening. I acknowledge my part in the creation of our present. I pray that together we will secure our future……

"Finally, I need to say one last thing. While making submission today has been painful, for me the hardest part is here at the end. It is so hopelessly inadequate to make right what has happened, so puny in the face of such suffering, and I am overwhelmed at my temerity in even offering it, but it is all I have to give. I'm sorry."

If you had lived in South Africa. What would you have done? What would have been done to you? What would you have not done? There is one last submission that blew my mind. On the last day that it was possible to ask for amnesty. They said they would keep the TRC offices open until midnight. Just before midnight, a small group of young people, all black, in their twenties, came with an application for amnesty. They asked for amnesty 'for apathy'. And they say in part, "For millions of South Africans, the anti-apartheid struggle consisted of maneuvering around regulations designed to control their day-to-day activities, to stunt the actualisation of their professional aspirations. Rather than change the system themselves they relied on others to force the changes they hoped would take place. For most ordinary people in South Africa, and elsewhere in the world, apathy is a defence against oppression. It affords comfort zones where tyranny is tolerated for the sake of personal and professional survival, and the maintaining of the desired standard of living."

Let me just conclude this particular section by reading their amnesty application. "In applying for amnesty for apathy the persons here recognise the following:

  1. That we as individuals can and should be held accountable by history for our lack of necessary action in times of crisis.
  2. That none of us did all of what we could have done to make a difference in the anti-apartheid struggle.
  3. That in exercising apathy rather than commitment, we allowed others to sacrifice their lives for the sake of our freedom and an increase in our standard of living.
  4. That apathy is a real and powerful phenomenon and perhaps the most destructive one in society.
  5. That society takes a leap forward when individuals hold themselves accountable for their lack of action commensurate with change that needs to be made.

One of the young men who asked for amnesty is in fact a Zimbabwean whose own mother had been shot by Rhodesian troops when he was an infant during the struggle for Zimbabwe. Yet he came to confess that he had not done enough to end apartheid. He wasn't even in his country but from a neighbouring country, but he felt that sense of solidarity.

One of the questions that is debated so much in South Africa, is around the whole issue of "Did you know? Did you not know?" The Consul General and I have had our own interpretations around this very issue: "Did you know?" In the best South Africa tradition we came to our compromise formula which was "You could know if you wanted to know", but often it was easier not to know because the cost of knowing was very great.

The stories that I have shared with you, the amnesty for apathy, the forty-seven year old white mother, the wife of security policeman, I am simply holding these out as examples of the way in which we are all messed up but also all share in a degree of complicity with apartheid, but not to the same degree. It's the same issue that the German society confronted and wrestled with at the end of the Second World War Many of us have been helped by the existentialist philosopher, Karl Jaspers' writing in about 1947, where he speaks of four different kinds of guilt; of criminal guilt, political guilt, moral guilt and metaphysical guilt. The point is not that all guilt is equally the same, it's not to say that the one who takes the life of another does not carry responsibility. That we did establish at Nuremberg. It is not enough to say simply, "I obeyed orders". There is a kind of complicity (complicity for doing nothing means you carry some responsibility).

Jaspers also talks about a metaphysical guilt which is the guilt that we share as part of the human family, and perhaps in a way the world-wide anti-apartheid movement understood that. Why was it that the whole human family became involved in the struggle against apartheid? East, west, north, south, rich, poor, the whole rainbow somehow all of us knew that what was happening in South Africa involved our humanity and that we needed to do something about it, not just for their sake, but for our sake, for the sake of our own humanity.

I've been part of a liberation movement for too long to leave with a message of guilt. If you share some responsibility you need sorrow and sadness but also a commitment to building something different, a commitment to be part of the process of healing a country, of building a more human society, a kinder, gentler society.

I personally gave evidence to the Truth Commission a few months after it began., I had had the good fortune,the privilege of telling my story many times before, but telling my story to the Truth Commission had a significance all of its own. It relates to that point about the moral order, that here the legitimate representatives of the new State listened to my story with reverence and respect. Somehow I felt that my own story was joined with the millions of stories, the giant story of our nation permanently, indelibly, forever. When I gave evidence to the Commission I said to them that I was not sure whether I wanted to meet those who had sent me a letter bomb because I didn't know if I could cope with meeting some people who didn't care. And I said that if someone was to come to me and say, "Well, I sent you that letter bomb. I typed your name on the envelope, prepared the bomb. Will you forgive me?" I would ask "By the way, what do you do for a living now?" If the person was to say, "I'm a paramedic", I would love to say to that person, "Yes, I forgive you". I would sooner that person spent the next thirty years as a paramedic rather than locked up in a prison, because I believe in restorative justice, not retributive justice. Unfortunately, I'm sad to say, restorative justice is a term that one doesn't hear too loudly in the United States.

I have emphasised the way in which everyone in South Africa has been messed up by apartheid. While fifteen thousand submissions have been made, the question arises, "What happens to the rest of the stories of the nation?" I see several South Africans in the audience and wonder whether any of them gave evidence. They have stories to tell. As a country all of us need to find the space to tell our stories. I believe as a country we proceed on two pillars. One pillar of our country is meeting the basic needs of our people, water, electricity, health care, education, and we will spend decades seeking to do that. That's one pillar of our new society. The other pillar is dealing with the past, dealing with the psychological, the emotional, the spiritual affects of what we have done to each other, the affect of what has been done to us and the affect of what we have done to others, the affect of what we have failed to do.

I run a project which is called a "Healing of memories" project where we provide opportunities for people to travel the journey of the heart of the apartheid years, and that journey is important again for us as a country. While opting for truth and not for revenge, for ubuntu and not for victimisation, what we are seeking to do is to break the chain of history, the chain that in so many countries means that the oppressed in one generation become the oppressors in the next. It's true whether you talk about Afrikaners in South Africa who survived the concentration camps invented by the British at the beginning of the century, or relationships between Jewish people and Palestinians in Israel. The oppressed and those who think of themselves as victims eventually become the victimisers of others and justify their victimising because they see themselves as victims.

The journey that I was enabled to take after my own bombing was a journey from being a victim, to a survivor, to a victor. For fifteen years I travelled the world in the cause of the struggle against apartheid, saying to the peoples of the world, "Apartheid is a choice or an option for death carried out in the name of the gospel of life, and therefore it's an issue of faith to say 'No' to it." When I was bombed I became a focus of evil. I think it's an evil thing to send letter bombs to other human beings. In the response of people all over the world, I became a focus of all that is beautiful in the human family, our ability to be tender, loving, generous, kind, compassionate. That was the context that enabled me to walk the journey from victim, to survivor, to victor because I realised that if I spent my life filled with hatred, bitterness, anger and self pity and desire for revenge, then they would have failed to kill the body and they would have killed the soul. I would be their permanent prisoner.

The work I do today in South Africa is to seek to walk beside other South Africans to see if we can free ourselves. I do this whether they have seen themselves primarily as the oppressor or primarily as the oppressed. Whether they have been victims or victimisers, or, as is so often the case, primarily one, but also a little bit of the other. What we are trying to do in South Africa is important for the whole of humanity, not least for the United States. Is it Abu Jamal who speaks of the prisons in the United States as the fastest growing providers of housing here? It is also where you execute more and more and more people. I'm proud that we have abolished the death penalty in South Africa; not to say that if we had a referendum tomorrow we wouldn't bring it back. Because we too have the values of death in our society, the values of the old order. We have set up in its foundations a moral order which isn't about building more and more prisons and killing more and more people, but about providing for the basic needs of the people.

It is interesting what the Commission has done to me personally. I look back on what I used to say before the Commission began, "I think people who send letter bombs should be locked up." That's what I used to say. Now I say that I would much sooner that they became paramedics for the rest of their lives. So the old order brought out in me almost a desire for revenge, certainly for retributive justice. The Commission has challenged me to be more generous, to be more forgiving. It is challenging what is the most decent and humane in me, and putting down that other part. Look deeply into the mirror which is South Africa and see yourselves, and the choices that you too have as individuals, as communities, as a nation.

I have decided to opt for revenge, and my revenge will be very sweet; it will be to be part of building a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa, and that will be the sweetest revenge of all.

If I can end by saying something I have sometimes said before and some of you may have heard before. I have often asked the question, "Why did I survive this letter bomb?" So many other people I went with to the graveyard. I buried and spoke at their funerals. "Why did I survive?" I think some of us needed to survive to help us not to forget what we did to each other. And more importantly to be a sign that in the long term, the forces of life, of God, of gentleness, of kindness, of generosity are stronger than the forces of evil and hatred and death.

I thank you.

In your Healing of Memories workshops, do you specifically work with the emotion and expression of emotions, or do you include elements of therapy that bring in the way the human body itself has been so devastated. Do you use other models that work with the body, or is it just at an emotional release level?

We run workshops over three days in which up to twenty five people explore in small groups the stories of what they have done, what was done to them and what they failed to do. We get people to draw their stories and that is an important way of getting it out and looking at it. I am also Chaplain to a Trauma Centre and we certainly believe very deeply in therapies of the body. We have, for example, a massage therapist on our staff. Working as I do in a multi-disciplinary team, I don't think any one therapy or discipline has all the answers to the road towards healing. I have seen different forms of therapy work for different people and also at different stages in their lives.

We also get people to use their hands and work with clay, to celebrate a liturgy which they create out of their own stories. In that process often crying is important and giving people permission. We were talking in another context a few days ago and saying that as South Africans we had a slogan, "Don't mourn, mobilise." It may have been good politics, but bad psychology. The result of that is that as a nation we still have a great deal of grieving to do, and sometimes when somebody dies now there are outpouring of grief. In one sense you can say, "How can grief be disproportionate? Why is that person falling to pieces to that degree?" There is a grief for that person, and that person, and that person and also for all other kinds of loss and the cost that we have paid in the struggle.

I appreciate what you said about the difference between torturing ones body and torturing ones soul. The people who have survived concentration camps and prisoner of war camps repeatedly say that most people have the greatest chance of survival who had highest level of self-esteem. In this regard, could you say a little about your own journey?

In a sense that relates partly to why I do the work that I do, because I gave you the example of how the extraordinary love and support that I received when I was bombed was the context in which I was made the journey from victim to victor. If no one had cared, if no one had listened, if no one had loved, I doubt that I could have become a victor. I think that often people hold onto their victimness because no one has listened deeply enough to their story and heard their pain. Like the workshops we do, they are not quick fixes. They are one step on the very long road towards healing. Sometimes again, people tell their story once and everybody says that they can now move on, but in fact the story has to be heard again and again. We have to be treated with great gentleness over a long period. The issue of being loved is important and personally, I think the most terrible, terrible, terrible thing apartheid did, was the spiritual damage done to people. Racism where people begin to believe in their own inferiority or superiority is dehumansing. The context of love and support and gentleness and reverence is all important on the road towards healing.

It's also true that in the process of being part of the struggle I found I had to reconstruct my understanding of Christianity entirely. My understanding essentially fell apart in the face of the killing of schoolchildren in 1976 by people who read the bible every day and went to church on Sundays. The one thing that I came to understand and was central to our struggle was sacrifice and self-sacrifice, that the only way we were going to free as a people was by sacrifice. There was a sense in which when they got you, that you were annoyed that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but somehow you thought, "Well, okay, that's part of the struggle." I suppose I had faced the possibility personally of dying in the struggle. What I had not faced was the possibility of major permanent disability. Dying is easy. That happens. But major permanent disability is another story altogether, and that was another kind of journey.

Again, its interesting the transformation. I know that I can be a much better priest with no hands than I ever was with two hands, but I am not recommending you all to remove your hands!

The path that you describe and the initial grounding of it gives great hope. What is the starting point? Is the miracle that of having Nelson Mandela or where were its origins in the society?

You know the ANC was founded in 1912? Its own roots go back to wars of resistance that go back centuries, and also to the people who were preached the gospel and believed it. It is not accidental that the first three presidents of the ANC were ministers of religion, who despite the racism they experienced, believed in their God-given dignity. That wonderful quote of Chief Luthuli that apartheid insults God for daring to create a human being, for daring to create in his own image a black human being. The extraordinary thing about South Africa has been a liberation movement based profoundly on morality with a clarity that went on being defined, not only about what it was fighting against, but what it was fighting for. The ANC could say in 1955, (not just the ANC) at the Congress of the People, "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white." Wow. I think the extraordinary thing about South Africa is that you have a population who says, "We want a human rights culture for everybody, not just for black people." That is extraordinary. Not only that, when the ANC had its conference in December 1997, a ninety-five percent African membership voted for a leadership that was reflective of the rainbow, saying "We'll put into our leadership people from every background as our leaders." Here is a depth of non-racism and a moral vision.

We are very fortunate to have had as our president, Oliver Tambo. I am always thankful that when he wanted to become a priest, the Anglican Church would not have him. I am so grateful! Because the nation got him - a moral giant. At a distance one of the problems is in the kind of Hollywood view of history. It is that history is made by half a dozen individuals. Yes, there is a miracle in South Africa, but that miracle came out of the sacrifice of millions of people decade after decade after decade. We mustn't think in terms of Hollywood quick fixes, but actually a moral tradition that was there within the liberation movement. Mandela is as much a product of the ANC as a leader of the ANC. At the same time we have laid the basis of a human rights culture but I am not wanting to romanticise it. The struggle between good and evil, the old order and the new order will go on for decades, and we have our share of gangsters like everybody else, but we have a moral leadership and a moral commitment in what we are trying to strive for. It is from this historical context that one needs to see what emerged in 1994.

(The question was indistinct.)

What I want to say is that forgiveness is not glib or cheap or easy. It's painful, costly. It's difficult and it is also personal. It is a choice. Because somebody gets amnesty it doesn't mean any forgiveness has taken place. The person has just got amnesty. It is a legal concept. Now that's important to understand in that we had a choice in South Africa between amnesty and an escalating civil war. Amnesty is a bitter pill to swallow by its very character because people are getting off totally with what they have done, and yet. And yet they have to stand up in front of the entire country and admit so that their children and their grandchildren and their aunts and uncles know that their loved one committed gross human rights violations. That will stand. One shouldn't underestimate the moral significance of that. Okay, they won't go to jail, they can go away, have a laugh and drink in the pub, but there is another reality about a moral order that is there.

What is important in the process of forgiveness is the issue of reparation and restitution. For example, if somebody said they were sorry for what they had done to me and I told them that I have to employ somebody for the rest of my life, and asked, "Now you have got all those ill-gotten gains. Wouldn't you like to contribute by paying for my assistant?" That wouldn't be retribution or revenge. That would be a form of restorative justice.

In terms of our negotiated settlement we still have a very long way to go in terms of restorative justice. You have alluded to various parts of the tips of the iceberg. This is why this course lasts for six weeks, and even then we are just scratching the surface. Maybe one of the nice things about the world-wide web is that you can look at the Truth Commission there and you begin to get an overall picture there. Thousands of the submissions are there. And what you also referred to which is important is that different sectors of South African society have come forward. The media and the churches have come. The judiciary should have come but didn't come. One could go on with different sectors of our society who have come under the spotlight. That relates to my point about the forms of guilt, that there is not just criminal guilt. There is also political and moral guilt. Let's be clear. Up until the last five minutes the United States supported the apartheid state. Therefore there is moral responsibility in this country (the United States), not to go on a guilt trip, but to be part of rebuilding South Africa, to be part of the process of reparations too. It's your story as much as it is our story.

To what extent is amnesty supported by other bodies like the Minister of Justice?

The Ministry of Justice is part of the government so it is in total accord as a ministry. People have had more than a year in which they could seek amnesty. If they chose not to seek it and their crime was a capital offense, they can be prosecuted any time they are found out for the next hundred years. They had an opportunity, but that opportunity has gone. Seven thousand people have asked for it. We'll see how many actually get it. There was an agreement about the Truth Commission within the government of national unity, but as particularly the apartheid regime has come under the spotlight, they have been quite quick to say, "No, we've been treated quite badly. It's not fair." Whoever comes under the spotlight tends to dance and not be quite so happy about what is in fact happening.

For the country the experience of the Truth Commission is a bit like a roller-coaster ride. If you did a quick survey in South Africa on some weeks people would say, "The Truth Commission is the best thing since sliced bread." But then some other revelations come out and people say, when the sheer enormity of what has happened and the scale of degradation has come out, "No, no, we can't allow this to go unpunished."

Yet, again, part of the real miracle of South Africa is that you don't have revenge killing happening all over the country, you don't have it. You have people getting on with their lives and putting their energy into building something different.

Also, the Truth Commission is contested ground, and we are speaking about this Commission which hasn't yet ended. We are talking about a work in progress. My view would be that people will keep judging the Truth Commission in the future depending on how much South African society transforms itself. The less it transforms itself, the more people will say that it has been a waste of money. The more it transforms itself, they'll say that it played its part in the healing of the nation.

I think that what would have been immeasurably worse would have been if we had used the Nuremberg option which would have guaranteed that the circle of hatred and revenge would have continued for another five hundred years. If we had taken the option to forget, we would have been haunted by the past forever, so I think we took the most difficult and the best option to wrestle with the past and begin to see if we can lay it to rest.

Could you tell us some more about the confrontation of perpetrators and victims at hearings and in what way has this process contributed towards the restoration of the moral order?

People ask what do the victims think about the TRC and what do the perpetrators think about it. There is a kaleidoscope of opinion and response, including those perpetrators who have come to the TRC with total cynicism. One of the most horrendous cases where this young boy had been poisoned while in detention. After he came out and he was about to sue the Minister of Police for being tortured and being poisoned, he was then kidnapped and killed. At an amnesty hearing at the Truth Commission the perpetrator said, "This is what we did. This is how we killed him." The family broke down and cried, not surprisingly. In response one of the lawyers for the perpetrators said, "How can these people fucking well cry fifteen years later?" There is that kind of reality. And yet there are cases where people have got amnesty and they have committed themselves to working with those communities to help to heal the wounds. You get that whole kaleidoscope of human response. Even the ones who can be obscenely dismissive are still standing in front of the Commission which has all the status in the country and in the world, and which says, "What you did was evil." Their children and grandchildren have to come to terms with that. That is also part of the establishment of a moral order. Let no one do what happened to the Jewish people and say, "Five million people didn't die." In South Africa we will not allow that because what happened in darkness has been put into the light. 

Were there any attempts of revenge during the Truth Commission hearings?

I have heard of a couple, of one or two. This is what we have wrestle with. We haven't taken the revenge option. There are differences in response to amnesty between survivors and the relatives of victims. Among relatives themselves there are often differences. I would say that I would love the perpetrator of my bombing to continue to be a paramedic for the next thirty years. If it was my mother and I was dead, there might be a different response. Other people have come to hearings, amnesty hearings, opposing amnesty, and in the process of the hearing, come to support amnesty with a generosity that is breath-taking. Also it gives us hope for creating a different kind of society.

In the work that I do, many of the things that happen to relatives and victims is that they begin to see that if they keep that hatred and bitterness and anger inside, forget about what it does to the perpetrator, what does it do to them? They are prisoners of that. Its also like the example I gave earlier where the mothers who didn't know where their children were buried, until they knew that they couldn't being to say, "Okay, we'll let this thing go." Now they know. On Friday they had these ceremonies and now they can begin to walk away, but that is not to say that the wounds will not be there. We are a wounded nation. The question is whether the wounds are healing wounds. The Truth Commission is an attempt to commit us all to the process of healing those wounds, not of removing them. We won't remove them. Some of us show our wounds dramatically, but many more millions have them inside.

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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  • Institute for Healing of Memories
    5 Eastry Road, Claremont,
    Cape Town, 7708, South Africa

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