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The Big Read: Talking is part of healing

14 March 2014
The Big Read: Talking is part of healing

Berlin is a far way from Brakpan or Bloemfontein and yet here, in a dead-quiet room, filled mainly with Germans, a man stands without hands to explain the long shadow of the past still haunting our two countries, and others.

"If you look at which states voted for and against Barack Obama," he says, "it's like the division of America at the time of the Civil War."

The message is clear: the transformation of post-conflict societies takes years, even decades, and is only possible when we start to talk about it.

Father Michael Lapsley is, physically and figuratively, one of the many walking wounded from our tragic past. I do not know how many South African schoolchildren even know about this man who has claws jutting from where his serving hands once were. They should learn about him because this amazing South African is a walking curriculum who could yet save us from bitterness, hatred and hopelessness. Here, in the South African Embassy in Berlin, he is launching the German edition of his autobiography, Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer.

Nelson Mandela called him "a compelling metaphor". Responding to his speech at the book launch, I proposed three reasons for this special description of the man.

One, he is a foreigner who came to us from his birthplace in New Zealand, via his training as a priest in Australia, to settle in this country. He could have claimed foreigner status and washed his hands in innocence during the heat of the apartheid struggles of those days. But he did not, throwing himself into the cause of the oppressed.

Two, he is a white man. Like so many white foreigners who came here, he could have milked the system and lived comfortably off the privileges he would never have enjoyed in his homeland. Lapsley chose, in a sense, to be black.

Three, he is a priest, and like so many, even today, in mainstream churches, he could have proclaimed a narrower gospel focused "on things above" and not made those vital connections between church and community.

"When my community engages in xenophobia," I tell Lapsley as we stand in front of the reserved German audience, "I tell them about you, the foreigner who embraced us.

"When angry black students tell me all whites are racists, I remind them about you. When I still hear church elders remove themselves from responsibility for the daily struggles of the poor to focus on the Second Coming, I talk about you."

A compelling metaphor, indeed.

As I watch two old friends and comrades in conversation in front of the audience - the Reverend Makhenkesi Stofile, our ambassador in Germany, and Lapsley, our roving ambassador - I cannot but admire that generation of men and women who suffered for their faith.

Stofile was mercilessly tortured by men who, without conscience, filled Sunday pews in the Dutch Reformed churches. The Germans, who generally have great difficulty talking about their Nazi past, are clearly struggling with - and yet I sense admiring - the beautiful lesson on display: that South Africans, however difficult, talk about the past in order to heal and forgive.

Not only did the white government expel Lapsley from his adopted country, they sent a letter bomb wrapped inside two Christian magazines to blow off the arms and irreparably damage the eye of this meddling priest.

The cruelty of the act is almost unbelievable - it was delivered after Mandela was released from prison.

The old German woman, an ophthalmologist, who lovingly took out his eye after the murderous blast in Zimbabwe, is in the audience. He thanks her in a moving gesture I will never forget. Herein lies a powerful lesson about solidarity connecting two countries with their own respective ghosts.

Lapsley holds in his hands a simple way out of our dilemmas; he calls it restorative justice. He does not know who made and sent the bomb, but he is clear who is responsible - FW de Klerk. Should somebody come forward and ask for forgiveness, he would grant it but ask that person what they do and where they work as a commitment of perpetrators willing to pay back to those hurt and in need of healing this side of apartheid.

Rather than this unholy obsession about a man without legs in a Pretoria courtroom, we could do much better to introduce this man without hands into every South African classroom. There is much more to learn.

Author: Jonathan Jansen


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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