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Redeeming the Past - A tribute to Madiba

10 December 2013
Redeeming the Past - A tribute to Madiba

 Father Michael Lapsley,SSM, Director of the Institute for Healing of Memories, Cape Town

"I am a product of the people of South Africa"

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if Nelson Mandela had walked out of prison and said "Its time to get them". We would have died in our millions. it is said that revenge is when you drink poison and hope that someone else will die. Instead he said:  "Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."  

The world was astonished if not gob smacked that when Nelson Mandela left prison after 27 years .there was not a trace of bitterness - no words of hatred or revenge crossed his lips.  Instead he repeated what he had said before going to prison for life - a commitment to a common society in which we would live together in peace as human beings. The presence of his prison guard in a place of great honour at his inauguration was a potent symbol of a nation in which enemies would become friends.

Those 27 years were like a crucible, a refining fire. What Nelson Mandela did from February 11 1990 till December 5 2013 was to redeem the past, to bring life out of death, good out of evil.

Was it bad that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison – yes of course it was an act of evil and should never have happened. Nevertheless the fruit which came out of those years has been a wonder to behold.

Madiba understood very early that the road to freedom lay through sacrifice, especially self-sacrifice. We now know that those closest to him at the treason trial did not want him to say the final words of his speech  “…I am prepared to die” but he insisted.

There were and are countless  Nelson Mandelas who are not characterised by hatred and bitterness.  Particularly because those in the struggle were able to make sense of their suffering.

However even as we go about our daily lives countless South Africans continue to show signs of multiple woundedness which crosses generations.

In the first democratic parliament the piece of legislation which was debated more than any other was the Act which set up the Truth and Reconciliation commission lead by the other moral icon: Desmond Tutu. Madiba understood that he was president of a wounded nation The past would have to be acknowledged and there was a need for us all to tell each other our stories and we would all need to find ways of redeeming our past.

I am a New Zealand born South African.  When I first arrived in South Africa in 1973 Nelson Mandela had already been in prison for years and was portrayed in the media as a dangerous terrorist – so dangerous that we could not read anything he had ever said and his photo could not be published. On home leave in 1975, I went to the public library to borrow “No Easy Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela. How shocked I was to find out that the dangerous terrorist was a revolutionary who was fighting not just for black people but also for white people. He understood not only black hopes but also white fears. Nelson Mandela and later Oliver Tambo were to become my lifetime heroes so that I would say: the struggle is also my life.

3 months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, my hands were blown off by a letter bomb hidden inside two religious magazines.   My years in the struggle, and the examples of Mandela, Tambo and Huddleston had  prepared me for the possibility of death although not for permanent major physical disability.  Nevertheless I could make sense of my loss even as I grieved and felt the pain.  Like Mandela how people responded to my bombing meant that my story was acknowledged, reverenced and recognized.  I was prayed for, loved and supported.

In the countless tributes crossing the world so many people have said that in their encounters with Tata Madiba, they felt acknowledged and special.

In my own small way, inspired by Mandela and so many other heroic women and men, I try to make all people I meet, feel special and of great value.

More than that, like Madiba, I  surrounded myself with a collective and we created together an Institute for Healing of Memories.  Greatly encouraged by Mandela’s leadership in creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,  we seek to create safe and sacred spaces where healing happens – because people feel acknowledged, reverenced and recognised.

A year after Nelson Mandela became President he officially opened the First Southern African Solidarity Conference with Cuba which I chaired. As much as Madiba became  a close friend of President Bill Clinton he was a firm and close friend of President Fidel Castro who had a lifelong practical commitment to our struggle.  One of the Cuban 5, who are wrongly incarcerated in US prisons  is  my close friend Gerardo Hernandez. He has a photo of Nelson Mandela beside his bed.  What a great tribute to the memory of Nelson Mandela it would be if the huge US delegation at the funeral were to return to the USA and insist that  President Obama must free the Cuban 5 forthwith.

There is never a good day to become an orphan which is part of what we have felt these last few days.   We all lost a father. So we cry and we also laugh and party for the treasure we have been given in the form of the greatest leader of our time.

How wonderful that we and people all over the world, especially our young people are listening to and reading the words of Nelson Mandela inviting us to embody and exude peace, healing and reconciliation.

I don’t believe that Nelson Mandela will rest in peace if we keep naming things after him.  I am sure he will rest peacefully if we live out our lives in the pursuit of  a gentler, kinder, more just and therefore more peaceful world inspired by his example.

Now its up to us.


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.

Contact Us

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

  • +27 21 683 6231