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Healing of Personal and Communal Memories

Healing of  Personal and Communal Memories

Speech by Fr Michael Lapsley,SSM, Director of the Institute for Healing of Memories  at Regina Mundi Church in Soweto at the Interfaith Celebration of 20 years of Freedom. 15 August, 2014

 Healing of  Personal and Communal Memories

 Is it well with your soul?   Is it well with the soul of this nation?   What does your mind tell you? What does your heart tell you?

 Who will ever forget what it felt like on April 27 1994 to elect our own government…..when for the first time in our history we did something together, simply as South Africans?

 I remember writing at the time that it was as if the nation was enveloped by a warm duvet.

 Do you remember at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as our President when the jets flew over and many of us ducked instinctively before we remembered that these were “our” jets?

 For a few days we were given a glimpse of a nation at peace with itself – united like never before in our history – a glimpse of what we are called to become

 In our euphoria perhaps we also became naïve believing that our representative democracy would deliver what those of us who are Christians call the Kingdom of God on earth. 

 We have had a few more glimpses since – when world cup fever took us over even if Bafana Bafana was a disaster .

Then again our world stood still for a moment when finally our beloved Madiba physically departed from us

We experienced an outpouring of national emotion – we had all lost a father and a grandfather – and so we sang, danced and cried …we felt ourselves to be one nation – all South Africans.  We were all orphans

 Now we are celebrating 20 years of our democracy.  We have had a number of elections which we all agree were free and fair.  No-one seriously suggests that we have a government that is not legitimate

 Government can rightly talk about and celebrate everything that has been achieved since 1994. 

They can point to successes in relation to many objective realities such as water and electricity to name but two among many available to millions of South Africans for the first time in their lives.  We could spend a long time listing truthfully the good things which have happened not least our constitution

 But are the people of South Africa at peace with ourselves?   Is it well with your soul? Is it well with the soul of this nation? Have our deepest wounds healed?

 When I returned from 16 years in exile back in 1992 the first  thing that struck me was that we are a damaged nation – damaged in our humanity – damaged by what we did, by what was done to us and by what we failed to do

 What about each of us here today not to mention our fellow citizens – are we at peace with everything that has happened to us in our lives.  How much have our lives been shaped and misshaped  by not only what happened to us but also to our parents and grandparents and  great grandparents and our wider families?

 Can you finish reading any newspaper in our country on any day and seriously suggest that we are not a traumatised nation – on every page we see the evidence of moral and spiritual injury. …be it the gratuitous violence ---the killing and raping of women and children  or the corruption driven by greed.

 Why are we so angry. There are many reasons including unfulfilled dreams, disillusionment and that we are the most unequal society on earth.

 Other countries which are much poorer than ours are not violent the way we are.

 Behind our anger lies our brokenness and our pain.

 Last Sunday at the University of Cape Town there was a dialogue chaired by Mama Graca Machel and the main speaker was President Michel Bachelet of Chile.

 Mama Graca spoke about a journey which has still to be travelled in relation to both gender and race not just here but across the world.  Nowhere on the planet is there complete equality.    President Bachelet went on to say that also we are not doing so well when it comes to accepting diversity including sexual diversity.

 I love our constitution but what about the reality.

 People often rightly describe how apartheid was about political oppression and economic exploitation.  Poverty  traumatises people and oppression dehumanizes people  Even worse was what it did to the souls of a people … oppressed and oppressor alike. 

 Chief Lutuli once said that those who think of themselves as victims, eventually become the victimisers of others.

 When armed political conflicts come to an end there is often an epidemic of  sexual, domestic and family violence.   People foolishly say that what happens in the bedroom has nothing to do with the nation’s past

 For so much of South Africa’s history we experienced a huge number of bad laws used to oppress and suppress us.  In such a context it was not easy to keep a moral compass.  Those who did evil were rewarded and the good were punished.

 The TRC bore witness to the moral and spiritual injury that engulfed all of us. Those of us who fought apartheid were not left untainted by our countries past.

 Maybe it is our westernness that kidded us into believing that we could heal the wounds of centuries in four or five years.

 Not surprisingly there are now many thousands of victims across the country insisting that the work of the TRC is far from complete.  They wait  for acknowledgment, redress and reparations.

 Disappointingly the majority of our white sisters and brothers remained in denial throughout the TRC process.

 Just a few days ago a leader of the Dutch Reformed Church was telling me about the scale of trauma manifesting itself in white families as a consequence of their participation in the apartheid military and police. That is without talking about the death squads and the professional torturers.

 Is it well with your soul?  Is it well with the soul of this nation.

 What is to be done.

 The first step is for all of us to admit that we are a damaged people.

 I believe that we need a new national conversation to speak about our pain.   We need a new language in which we can begin to speak about what we are still carrying deep within us that is still infecting us. We need to learn to listen to one another.

 All our faith communities have a major role to play in creating safe and sacred places where there will be talking and listening …..listening with the heart more than the head.  In my experience pain is transcendent when pain is shared there is no longer “them” and “us”. There is only us.

 The last report of the annual Reconciliation barometer indicated that a majority of South Africans of all races have greater confidence in religious institutions than in political institutions.  The constitutional court and the public protector also enjoy a high level of confidence

 The question is can those of us in religious institutions step up to the plate and offer the kind of moral and spiritual leadership that our people so deeply desire.

Whilst we speak about our pain we also need to build a moral society.   I believe that history will be very kind to Pallo Jordan not just because of his huge political contribution but especially because he resigned and apologized in the face of  his exposure for  faking his qualifications.  In so doing he contributed to recreating the moral order.  Sadly he is a rare exception in the political class.

 Some years ago I was in a small  and poor rural

community in KwaZulu Natal.  After I had shared about the work of the Institute for Healing of Memories one gogo rose to her feet.  “Father, are you working with our leaders?”  I replied that we have chosen to work in our communities.  The gogo responded.: “Well you should work with our leaders, they are much more messed up than we are.”

 As faith communities it is important for us to champion the family.  However it does not help if we push an idea of family which excludes the reality of millions of our fellow citizens.   We need to accept that many many people live in patchwork families  where there are single parents, as  well as those where children have two fathers or two mothers.  The question is how can our patchwork families with all their variety be supported to be places of care, love and nurture where our children can flourish and be secure.

 African culture has always taught us that any child is my child.  Today in South Africa there are at least 150,000 child headed households and more than two and a half million children have been orphaned by AIDS. Orphanages and childrens homes are full. Our faith traditions teach us that whilst we belong to families, tribes and nations, we belong to one human family in which we are all brothers and sisters.   Every family in South Africa should consider adopting a child and those who can should with maximum support from all sectors of South African society.

 Over the 24 years since I received  a letter bomb, I have often asked myself why did I survive.  Others who died also deserved to live.  I think it was important that some of us survived as living reminders of what we did to each other.  Much more importantly I hope that in my own small way, I can be a sign that stronger than evil and hatred are the forces of gentleness, compassion and kindness, indeed of life, of God.

 The journey of healing South Africa will take several generations.

 With God’s help and our own cooperation we can all travel that journey towards becoming a nation of wounded healers – gentler, kinder and more just.


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
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    Cape Town, 7708, South Africa

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