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CBC RADIO INTERVIEWS : Fr. Michael Lapsley et al on the HoM workshops

CBC RADIO INTERVIEWS : Fr. Michael Lapsley et al on the HoM workshops


"Dear Ninja, You will probably be surprised to receive a letter from me. I've never written to you. In fact, we've never had a decent conversation, but I need to talk to you about an incident, which for a chilling moment brought our lives abruptly together. I doubt whether you still remember it, but for me it proved to be turning point in my life."

That moment was back in September 1989. Johann Magerman has come a long way to unleash this memory that was boiling away inside him for the last six and a half years.

"What I remember was this policeman beating one of the schoolchildren with a sjambok. The sjambok is like a whip, but its made of leather, like a flexible stick. If you hit with it, it causes severe pain and in some cases, permanent lacerations on your skin. The pointed area curls around your body, so you have a double lashing."

The sjamboks, the tear gas, arrests and detentions were part of a continuous cycle of terror and humiliation for black and mixed race South Africans who were condemned at birth by virtue of their skin colour to be third class citizens in every aspect of life.

Barry Bekebeke still wrestles with the psychological fall out from apartheid's insidious order. As a teenager, he was arrested and imprisoned with a group of student activists known as the 'Upington Twenty-six' who were charged with the death of a policeman in 1985. His final school years were constantly interrupted by court proceedings and daily appearances at the police station. Now a social worker, he's committed to helping South Africans heal from their memories of a traumatised society.

"There is so much that happened in the apartheid years. Police would just pick you up and do all kind of things to you, beating you up and threatening you, your family, and there's no way that you can run to a psychologist or to a social worker. At the time all professionals, especially in my area, were white, so there is a perception that they won't really understand what happened to you. Even if though, you will try to tell the doctor that treats you, 'This is what happened really', he'll just dismiss you as a liar."

At the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture, no one's stories are dismissed, including Johann Magerman's story of the policeman and his sjambok.

"With this thing, this policeman was beating this child, and I shouted and asked him to stop and he turned around and took out his gun and aimed it at me. It was like something out of a movie, I suppose, because there was no way that he could have missed me."

It was only when bystanders shouted at the policeman to come to his senses that he withdrew his gun and walked away. Others were less lucky that day in 1989. It was reported that six people died at the hands of policemen in the Cape Town area alone. It was the third year of the state of emergency. The government, in search of a new mandate, held municipal elections that were widely protested. Clashes with police broke out all over the country, but it wasn't always clear cut protest by the black majority against white authority. The policeman who aimed his gun at Johann Magerman was of mixed race descent, just like Johann himself. The apartheid system was so effective, it often pitted people of the same race against each other.

At workshops held by the Trauma Centre, here and around the country, people are given the space to work through the experiences of betrayal and humiliation they suffered in the past. No one ever said it would easy to call up the worst memories of their lives, but with the guidance of Fr. Michael Lapsley, an Anglican chaplain, people have a chance to make peace with the past and with each other.

"I think one of the tasks of a facilitator in a workshop is containment, to keep it as a safe space, but also to be there providing support, and in our context, the whole group provides that kind of caring and support."

Fr. Michael Lapsley welcomes anyone ready to make the transition from victim to victor, from passivity to active participation in rebuilding the new South Africa. The idea to hold workshops called 'Healing of the Memories' started as a Religious Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Desmond Tutu. The sessions are private, no recording is allowed. As chief facilitator, Fr. Michael Lapsley, sets a stunning example of reclaiming ones own life after trauma. In 1990, while still in exile as an anti-apartheid activist, he lost one eye and both hands after receiving a letter bomb hidden in two religious magazines. It should have been a time of celebration. Barely two month's earlier, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. The bomb intended to kill Fr. Michael Lapsley ultimately became a vehicle for helping to heal others. Before that could happen, he lay in a hospital, fighting for his life.

"I experienced the deepest emotions of grief, for what I've lost, particularly my hands, and at times great frustration. But in a deep sense I know I have grown greatly through what I've experienced, and that, in a sense, has been the journey if you like from being a freedom fighter to being a healer, and that is what has given me a profound commitment to be part of the process of healing South Africa."

But the workshops involve healing for more than physical trauma, beyond the countless stories of torture, beatings and killings of parents, friends and children, lies the psychic trauma of a whole society that endured over forty years' of dehumanising segregation, and barely averted civil war. What the South African author Rian Malan called the agony of polarisation, isn't easy for outsiders to grasp. Apartheid still boggles the minds of those of lived through it, regardless of their skin colour. It amounted into a nation divided into perpetrators and sufferers, haves and have nots, where race laws determined everything from where you could live to whether you could vote, visit a doctor or go to school.

Dick Herbert, a former school teacher, taught in an area where race laws forced people to vacate their own homes where families had lived for generations. Above all, he remembers the alienation as he tried to fight the system from within.

"Apartheid removed the soul of the people and scattered it throughout this country. People didn't know people any more. Your own friends began to look on you with suspicion, 'Are you my friend, are you not my friend? Are you part of the system, are you with the system? What are you?'"

(Barry) "I think the confusion is really what stands out for me, because nobody really wanted to answer my questions. Why are some people rich and some people poor and why are some black and some white, and why all this division along racial lines, why are we living so apart?"

(Johann) "You see images on the television screen of people of other colour skins and race groups but you never interact with them. And of course I, like so many other South Africans, had a stereotype that all people, say from the white race would look the same, and people from an Indian background look the same, and of course, the blacks look the same. So we first identified them as group not as human beings."

(Michael) "The whole of the second day of our workshops is spent with people telling their stories and inevitably as people do this they are also reliving what it is that they have experienced, very much coming back to it, and working through it so that they may begin to let it go."

(Johann) "Dear Ninja, After that incident, I hated you, not only because you wanted to kill me, but more for what you represented. We were both from the same community, we were both regarded as Coloured, and yet you chose to align yourself with an institution that was morally bankrupt, made up of people who took pleasure in the death of their fellow South Africans. God knows, but if it wasn't for those people who are around us calling for sanity on your behalf, I would have died, you would have killed me."

(Dick) "As a teacher, I've had to teach in a system of apartheid and it was extremely frustrating and hurtful to try and teach people who have been dehumanised. For example, the history in this country: the history was always a one-sided aspect, white was right and black was bad. (And Coloured?) A Coloured was a person that was in a never, never land."

At the workshops, the truth is also told with crayons. People are asked to draw their life stories on paper and then explain them to each other in small groups. Dick Herbert's drawings have no colours, only spare black lines.

"It's not a very pretty picture. You don't see the body of a person, you see the face - stark, gaunt. It's haggard. It's difficult to see any character in it at all. It's just a mask. The openness of the mouth depicts the anguish, the cry for help." (Is that barbed-wire?) "Barbed-wire. People being hemmed in. The jails that the people were kept in. Robben Island, where our President was for so many years, the prisons where people were tortured."

(Michael) "When we ask people to draw, often they look very shocked and will frequently say, 'Well, you know, we didn't have crayons and drawing and that kind of thing when we were children, because it is a part of what we were deprived of.' But I have not yet found anyone who has not been able to draw, and I illustrate the point myself and say 'Look, I have no hands. I can draw. I do believe that you can.' Its difficult for people to beat that one."

(Barry) "I laughed at the thought, but I knew it was a kind of a laughter that says, 'Barry, you must now focus. You must get real. I mean this is an opportunity to start dealing with your emotions inside. I never drew anything in my life. I can't use crayons and I just sat down. I had the questions in front of me, and all memories just flooded back and without really looking, I reached out for black and red. That's when it surges out. At the end of the day I was quite amazed. There was my life story in crayon, on paper, on newsprint. It just felt so tremendous. It helped me tremendously."

(Dick) "The very fact that I knew that I had the confidence of people listening to me for the first time. Nobody listened to me before. So I can talk with confidence and people are going to respect my space, whereas in the past that had never happened. No one respected my space, no one respected me. But now I can trust you listening to me for the first time without you contradicting my story. I feel encouraged by it, and I feel I can be healed by it. Because now I don't have to keep it within me any more."

This is a very privileged space you are talking about. When you go back out the door, is life as kind as the people who are respecting you in this privileged space?

(Dick) "I know that when I go out of that small group I can do that with a little more confidence. I will not be afraid to speak to anybody else."

So far not that many white South Africans have come to the workshops, but when they have, it's the first time Barry Bekebeke's heard a white point of view about the apartheid years. As Fr. Michael's assistant he wants to reach out to whites more and regrets that they appear elusive.

"And to me it remains a mystery. I mean, people were in South Africa at the time, but they really didn't know what was happening in our townships. I have sympathy with the fact that people were fed the wrong kind of information. The government had the ropes to every institution. Communications had to be doctored to suit the needs of the white community at the time. Sometimes I just really want to laugh when people say, 'But Barry, is it really what happened to you? How come?' And I can't become angry at this point because its total ignorance that someone wouldn't know that this really happened in South Africa, and that year in and year out they voted for the same government. So I can understand that. I can work through that. And its only when I grow as a person myself, learning to forgive."

In addition to dramatisation, ritual and celebration, participants are given lumps of clay on the third and final day of the workshop, to create a peace symbol, any shape that sums up the kind of future they want to mould for themselves and their country. It was a liberating exercise for Dick Herbert.

"The first one I did was in the shape of a pyramid because I felt that to offer to the world a triangle tapering to the apex as myself, and you and God was a good triangle to have. And when you bring the three points together, there is only one way to go, and that is up, to the future."

(Michael) "You hear very, very few voices in South Africa asking for revenge, but what is most painful is that amnesty, by its very nature, involves a compromise around justice. You are to some degree, suspending justice for the sake of something else, a kind of national reconciliation. And that is an extremely bitter pill to swallow."

It's even more frustrating for those who suffered apartheid crimes that the majority of the perpetrators have yet to apologise to the nation. To Johann Magerman the idea of granting amnesty to those willing to confess their acts is a trade-off that does little to help the healing process.

"I mean, its extremely difficult because it is not an abstract thing. These people are really alive and well. They walk the streets. They sit in offices of power and in governance. They are directors and they are, you name it." (They are living very comfortable lives) They are living very, very comfortable lives."

The person who sent Fr. Michael Lapsley the letter bomb is a case in point. Fr. Michael may never find out who typed his name on the envelope that was meant to kill him, but he points out the necessary distinction between retributive justice which usually involves punishment and restorative justice, which is about restoring some equilibrium, making it up to those who have suffered.

"If somebody came to me and said, 'I was responsible for sending you the letter bomb and I am now working as an ambulance driver, I will spend the rest of my life as an ambulance driver, because I want to make it up to you, yes, but more importantly to our society' then for me that is a concept of restorative justice. I think that would be a much useful thing than putting that person in prison and throwing away the key."

"One of the problems we have as a society is that we are not getting a response from the perpetrators to any degree, and I think one of the things that confronts the nation is, how we find our road towards healing even if they aren't coming forward. Because if we are angry and bitter and filled with hatred, then in a sense we remain victims for ever, and we remain the prisoners of those who did these things to us. So we have to find our way towards healing for our own sake."

Johann Magerman is no longer a victim. He found his way to healing by sending his letter to Ninja, the policeman who nearly shot him back in 1989.

"After that incident I hated you because you never attempted to ask for my forgiveness or render an apology. It was not until I saw a video of an Anglican priest who was bombed and survived the attack, that I wanted to relieve myself of this burden that was eating inside me. I am not bitter any more, yet I believe that in order for true and meaningful reconciliation to take place, I need to say publicly 'I forgive you.' We belong to the same community. We both love the people very much. Let us come together in spite of our differences to build our community and our nation. I hope that you will respond favourably to my letter. Yours sincerely, Johann Magerman."

And you are still waiting?

"I'm still waiting, but we'll see."

'Healing of the Memories' workshops are scheduled to continue for the next year and a half.

For Sunday Morning, I am Alexa Dvorson in Cape Town.

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