Thursday, 08 September 2011 08:12

Who is my neighbour

“I have travelled the journey from being a freedom fighter, to being a healer. And in some small measure, my journey reflects the journey of South Africa. There was a time to slay the monster of apartheid. But now that we have democracy, it is time to heal, to reconcile, to rebuild.”
Fr Michael Lapsley

The Institute for Healing of Memories was founded in 1998. It grew out of the Chaplaincy Project of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture, where Father Michael Lapsley was one of the founder members.

Through his own experience of living in exile, losing both hands and an eye in a letter bomb attack in 1990, and listening to the stories of the survivors whom he counselled at the Trauma Centre, Fr Michael realised the importance of giving people a space in which their experiences could be shared and acknowledged.

At the time of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-97), it was clear that only a fraction of all South Africans would have the opportunity to tell their story before the Commission.  It was felt by many that additional platforms were needed to enable all those who wished to share their experiences and be heard compassionately.  To this end, Fr Michael led the development of what were known from the start as ‘healing of memories workshops’, which ran in parallel to the Commission as an additional means of providing support to victims and survivors of apartheid violence.  The purpose of the workshops was to facilitate reconciliation between different racial groups and to heal emotional wounds, in order that individuals might contribute positively towards the reconstruction of South Africa.  The workshops were also used to give further support to those who testified before the Commission.

Over the following two years, healing of memories workshops were offered through the length and breadth of the country, and in 1998 the first workshops took place outside South Africa, in the USA, Rwanda and Sri Lanka.  The Chaplaincy Project had developed wings of its own and with the blessing of the Trauma Centre, the Institute for Healing of Memories was born in September 1998.

history_2Requests for healing of memories workshops received from a range of groups highlighted the fact that the workshops had the potential for much wider application than the initial focus on healing apartheid wounds.  In response, the healing of memories methodology was used to address woundedness in a variety of contexts, including among teenage prostitutes and survivors of domestic abuse.  Refugees have become an important focus group, with strong links formed with the major refugee organisations in the Western Cape.  Within the criminal justice system, workshops have been offered to both prison wardens and offenders.  And as the devastation wrought by HIV/ AIDS has spread, so the workshop has been used to create safe spaces in which those affected by the disease can talk about their suffering and receive support, encouragement and understanding.

At the same time, we have developed a Youth Development Programme, dedicated to enabling young people to learn about and from South Africa’s history.  The special ‘Facing the Past, Facing Ourselves’ workshops seek to motivate young people to actively participate in shaping a society where the rights and freedoms of each individual are respected and upheld.

The Institute has worked in all of South Africa’s nine provinces but its work continues to be focused on two: the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal.  We opened new offices in Durban in 2007, and in 2009 with the help of generous donors, finally bought our own home in Cape Town.  We were thrilled that in 2008 our first international office could open in New York, and we continue to enjoy close ties with like-minded organisations in many other countries.

Fr Michael has become a much loved and respected international advocate for reconciliation, forgiveness and restorative justice, and is frequently in demand overseas to run workshops and deliver talks and sermons.