Monday, 25 July 2005 00:00

Speech delivered by Fr. Michael Lapsley, SSM, Director of the Institute for Healing of Memories, at the 7th World Convention of the International Conference of Principals in Cape Town - 11 July 2005 on the theme of Ubuntu read full speech

Speech delivered by Fr. Michael Lapsley, SSM, Director of the Institute for
Healing of Memories, at the 7th World Convention of the International
Conference of Principals in Cape Town - 11 July 2005 on the theme of Ubuntu

Distinguished delegates

Sisters and brothers, I am greatly honoured to have this opportunity to
speak at this 7th world convention of the international conference of

Perhaps you will forgive me for a start if I confess that I am going to give
a Power Pointless presentation.

In the spirit of ubuntu, I too welcome you home to the mother continent of
the human family and to the mother city of South Africa.

I would like to dedicate what I am to say today to the mothers of Africa.

I would like to share with you my own understanding of Ubuntu . When I try
and explain what Ubuntu is, I like to speak of ³human beingness² or the
generosity of the human spirit, of belonging, of community, of

However more than definitions I would like this morning to tell you stories,
the stories of others and my own story to try and convey what ubuntu is.

Because without ubuntu, the human community cannot and will not survive.

I was born not born here is South Africa.  I was born in  Aotearoa New
Zealand  So I came here to South Africa 32 years ago.

My first experience in South Africa was of apartheid and not of ubuntu.

It was 1973; it was at the height of apartheid.  I sometimes feel that when
I arrived in SA I stopped being a human being and became a white man.
Indeed it was my skin colour that defined every aspect of my life from the
entrance to the post office I could use, from whether I could sit in the
restaurant or buy food through the window outside, the toilets I could use,
who I could marry, where I could live and even what part of the sea that I
could swim in.

It is difficult sitting here in the hall today for any of us to really
imagine what apartheid was like.  The apartheid regime was not characterised
by ubuntu but rather was it was an option for death carried out in the name
of the gospel of life.

Under apartheid every black person suffered and every white person benefited
from it.  

Apartheid affected every aspect of human life. Of course like all struggles
before, there was some among the oppressed who were co-opted to assist in
the oppression of there fellow human beings.  Just as there were some white
people who made common cause with oppressed black people - realising that
their own freedom could not be separated from the freedom of black people.

I was expelled from SA in 1976 shortly after the Soweto uprising, the point
which school children became the major victims of apartheid and also went
into the forefront of the struggle for freedom.
When I was expelled from South Africa I went to live in Lesotho.  Now I know
you are all educators and I am sure none of you are geographically
challenge, so therefore you will know that Lesotho is a small African
country completely surrounded by South Africa.  I became a student at the
national University of Lesotho.  There was at that time one other white
student, the daughter of a professor.  I felt when I left South Africa that
apartheid had robbed me of my humanity  it had turned me into an oppressor.

My fellow African students through their display of ubuntu  began my
process of rehumanisation.

Even during our long and bitter and costly liberation struggle there were
extraordinary examples of Ubuntu.  I always remember an article in fact not
an article, a poem in the magazine of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto
We Sizwe. A young black freedom fighter wrote this poem about the sadness he
felt for young white conscripts dying to defend apartheid.

You will expect a soldier to be writing about his hatred for the enemy not
of his understanding of the enemy¹s common humanity and the tragedy of the
loss of life.

In a spirit of Ubuntu, the liberation movement put before the country a
vision of a common society.
This was encapsulated in the opening words of the Freedom Charter: ³ South
Africa belongs to all who live in it² and in the clause:  in terms of what
we longed for - ³There shall be Peace and Friendship².

And so Ubuntu was demonstrated not so much in what the freedom fighters
fought against but rather in what we fought for.   As Nelson Mandela
asserted in his famous speech from the dock.
³I have fought against white domination.  I have fought against black
domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in
which all persons can live together with equality.  This is an ideal which I
hope to live to achieve but if  necessary it is  an ideal for which I am
prepared to die².

27 years later he continued... ³as I was saying...².

When Nelson Mandela became our first democratically elected president he
said to us all at this inauguration  ³Never, never and never again shall it
be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by
another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.²

When democracy finally triumphed in South Africa we were faced with two
giant questions  how do we build a new society  meeting the basic needs of
our people.   And the other question  how do we deal with the past  with
what we had done to one another.   What would be the bridge between the old
order and the new order.     Again we turned to the values of ubuntu.   As
the postlude to our interim constitution stated...

³This 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
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

As South Africans we will live together for ever.  We needed to act in a way
that would bring peace and not war to our children and grandchildren.

One of the tools we used to deal with our past  was our Truth and
Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Tutu (whom I see you will
meet at the end of this conference).   Our Truth Commission or TRC as we
called it provided a platform for hearing stories of those who themselves or
their loved ones had suffered most grievously.

Indeed more than 23 000 people came forward to tell their stories, but I
want to highlight just 2 stories that in a particular way encapsulate ubuntu
as it happens they both involve white women. One woman called Beth Savage,
a women who had suffered grievously as a result of an attack by a group from
the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. Even when she spoke to the Truth
commission she was still scarred permanently as a consequence of what she
had experienced. Very extraordinarily she said to the commission that she
had gained through the experience and the journey she travelled.  She said
she longed to meet the person who had thrown the grenade that injured her,
because she said that she wanted to meet that person in the spirit of
forgiveness so that she could ask him to forgive her for anything she had
done in her life that led him to act the way he had.

The other is the story of Amy Biehl, a young white American student who was
killed by a crowd, of very angry young black people.  Her parents came to
South Africa and they came to the amnesty hearing where the young men
responsible for her death were seeking amnesty. They said as parents, yes of
cause they dearly loved their daughter who they continued to miss terribly
but they supported that these young men get amnesty.  They went further.
They started an organisation The Amy Biehl Foundation and today they employ
a couple of the young men responsible for the death of their daughter.

But let me return briefly to my own story

In April of 1990, three months after Nelson Mandela was released from
prison, on the eve of our first negotiations, I received in the post 2
religious magazines.  They were posted to my home in Zimbabwe where I was
living at the time.   When I opened the magazines they exploded and so I
lost both my hands an eye, my eardrums were shattered and many other
injuries and yet I felt the presence of God with me.

I had become a focus of evil. In the response of people around the world, I
received messages of prayer, love, support and encouragement from people of
faith, from people of goodwill all over the world.

A focus of all that is beautiful and kind and generous and compassionate in
the human family.  I know what ubuntu is because I received it to a greater
degree than many human beings have.

But it was through disability that I came to understand ubuntu in a deeper
way as a person with major disability there are things that I cannot now
do I need other people for me to be fully human, which is of cause at the
heart of ubuntu. ³ A person is a person through  other people.²  ³I am
because we are²

Today, I am involved in an Institute for Healing of Memories.  I travel the
world listening to the pain of the human family. Just as the peoples of the
world walked besides me on my journey to healing and wholeness so I too try
to practice ubuntu by creating safe spaces where hurting people can share
what is inside  them so they too can walk away from victimhood, not simply
being survivors but becoming victors.

But what of you the citizens of the world gathered here today.  What does
ubuntu mean to you?

I believe that one of the greatest examples of ubuntu were the largest
demonstrations the world had ever seen in the run up to that horrible war in
Iraq. The human family said in greater numbers than it had ever done that we
can live together, war is not the way.  Unfortunately, Bush, Blair and
Howard took no notice.

But again very recently in the  Live 8 concert we saw people all across the
world saying more clearly than ever before that the countries of the north
cannot be secure whilst the people in the south live in degrading poverty.
To a greater degree than ever before, poverty is become more central in the
agenda of the human family.

We saw that in the Live 8 concert

Ubuntu is beginning to flourish.

Now again this horrible terrorist attack on London.   But again we saw
ubuntu in the response of ordinary Londoners in their care and compassion
for each other and the way the emergency services people worked together.

But you are not simply here today as members of the international community,
you are here as principals, as leaders of schools for formators, of a new
generation.  As I reflected on want I wanted to say to you today it is that
you may indeed, in your own lives be role models to the young people that
you care.  But not only role models yourselves but you put before the young
people role models for them.  I would hope that your schools can be safe
places, places where young people can flourish and reach their human
potential;  places where young people get inspired, places where young
people are listened to and not just spoken at, that your schools may be
places where children who are not the brightest or not the best at sport
feel valued.  Places where children who are different, different because of
their disability, different because of their sexual orientation, different
because of their racial background feel valued for themselves.

In a world where the fundamentalists whether Jewish, Muslim, Christians,
Hindu, Buddhist use religion for violent ends, I hope that the school
becomes a place where young people not only learn how to tolerate other
great religious traditions but how to reverence them, how to learn from
them, how to receive the riches of culture and of religion.

When you see me what do you see?

Of course a person who has no hands, a person who has in some ways been
broken by violence and terrorism, but I hope that you are able to see much
more.  I hope that in some tiny way that I could also be a sign to you that
rather than the values of hatred and war that I embodied in a small way, the
values of gentleness, of kindness of compassion, of ubuntu and that they are
the strongest values of all.

And so I end where I began with my dedication to the mothers of Africa.  The
mothers who cared and loved and prayed for their children who became migrant
labourers.  The mothers who waited so long for their children to return, the
mothers who themselves fought for freedom and today for the mothers and
grandmothers some of themselves dying of AIDS, many of them caring for their
children and grandchildren.  But the mothers above all are signs themselves
of ubuntu.

I thank you.