News Updates

NEW SCHOOL INTERVIEW: Interview with Fr. Michael Lapsley

NEW SCHOOL INTERVIEW: Interview with Fr. Michael Lapsley


In April I had a pleasure of interviewing Father Michael Lapsley, who was a G-Tech Visiting Professor in Democracy at the Graduate Faculty in the spring semester of 1998. I was very intrigued by a person who in his early childhood stated "I would like to be either a priest or a clown". Father Lapsley explained to me by saying, "humour has always played an important role in my life. I think it is healthy to laugh about oneself. To see the funny side of things can be very healthy. It is also very interesting that in many societies humor is often a vehicle by which the truth can be told. Often a clown figure tells people something that they do not want to hear.

Magdalena Iwanska-Hirsch: Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi spoke of non-violence as a measure that should be adopted in global struggle for peace and liberation in the twentieth century. You came to South Africa as a committed pacifist. Yet, your views on violence versus non-violence have been challenged by the reality of institutionalized apartheid. Can you comment on how this experience shaped your thinking to this day?

Father Michael Lapsley: I think that non-violence is morally the superior way. It is a preferred option whenever possible. In the history of Church, St. Thomas Aquinas developed the theory of a just war, and then in the twentieth century it began to be a theory of a just revolution. But what is interesting about the theory is that it was not an attempt to bless a war, but it was an attempt to say, "if there is war, there still needs to be a form of morality". And there still needs to be a checklist that you must exhaust in order to say that the war is just or justified. The issue of non-violence becomes the most problematic when the oppressor in no way recognizes the humanity of the oppressed. In other words, if you look at the non-violent resistance of Jewish people in the Second World War, one will see that in no way did such measures prevent them from going to the gas chambers. So in the face of that kind of fascism is it really desirable that people should not resist violence? For me similarly, in South Africa the state itself was fundamentally violent, the state used structural, institutional and naked forms of violence to keep the power. I came to the conclusion that it was morally legitimate, and justifiable under such circumstances to resist violence. The interesting thing about the South African experience is that the majority of people spent fifty years traveling on a non-violent road before they opted for arms. But in the face of their non-violent road, the regime ever increased its violence. 

The regime's violence was called "law and order", whereas the people's violence was called "violence and terrorism". I think we need to underline the use of language which often mystifies what is actually happening in relation to violence. At the same time, I think it is important to emphasize that violence should never be romanticized. The option for the armed struggle is costly for our humanity. In the South African context the refusal of a regime to negotiate a just settlement, made eventually an armed option inevitable. So I think that the resort to arms must always be the last option not the first one.

Iwanska-Hirsch: Your opposition to apartheid antagonized your relationship with the South African government, which refused to grant you a citizenship in 1976. But six years later, it was the Church hierarchy that strongly advised you to stay in New Zealand and keep out of Lesotho where you lived at that time. What did it mean to you?

Lapsley: I think that in the context of a massacre in Lesotho by the South African Army in which forty two people were shot dead, I was believed by the Church authorities to have been a target. They further believed that if I returned to Lesotho, the army would come back and strike against more innocent civilians. I think their fear was understandable and real, but I think their analysis in which they have turned me into a problem rather than the apartheid regime, was wrong. It is like saying in Nazi Germany "the problem is we have Jewish people" not "the problem is that we have Nazis and Hitler".

Iwanska-Hirsch: So it was blaming the victims for being the victims rather than blaming the oppressors for their deeds?

Lapsley: Yes. Exactly.

Iwanska-Hirsch: I was also interested in the role played by the church in South Africa. You see, in Poland the Roman Catholic Church played an extremely important role in defeating communism. It not only supported the members of the Solidarity movement regardless of their spiritual belief....

Lapsley: ...Supported and acted politically?

Iwanska-Hirsch: Yes. In this way the Catholic Church was itself a site of a political struggle. Now, in South Africa the church was not only accused of taking no action, but also of cooperating with the apartheid regime. Can you comment on the dynamics of the mutual relationship between the church and racist government?

Lapsley: The first thing to say is that the vast majority of South Africa's people would describe themselves as Christian. But there is a kaleidoscope of churches. There are churches like, for example, the Dutch Reform Church which supported the National Party of the apartheid regime. It also provided the theological justification for apartheid. On the other side of the spectrum are churches which consistently said that apartheid was wrong and evil. But if you looked closer up, one would notice that the churches themselves were sites or contexts of struggle. The struggle went on within the churches and not simply by the churches. 

In 1985 the Kairos Document came out. It analyzed three kinds of theology in South Africa, which were to be found across the board in the churches. One was state theology, which was theology that blessed the state and everything it did. Then there is a church theology, which speaks about reconciliation more than justice. It would often equate the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed, and condemned all kinds of violence as if they had the same moral content. It would speak often against apartheid, but it would not act against apartheid. The third form of theology is a prophetic theology, and it was really a theology of liberation, a theology of justice, a theology that judged practice more than teaching. It looked into the actions of the church more than the words of the church. That is the theology, which engaged and participated in the struggle for liberation. It sought to give hope to the poor, it was not neutral, and such theology was partisan. So all these three theologies were playing themselves out, sometimes within one church, and sometimes at the level of the individual. But during the 1980's the churches, which made up the South African Council of Churches together with the Roman Catholic Church became increasingly active in their opposition to apartheid as the 80's proceeded. By the same token, countless numbers of individual Christians were participants in the liberation movement, while many individual Christians were participants in apartheid regime.

Iwanska-Hirsch: Once you have said that "To be white in South Africa and to preach non-violence is profoundly hypocritical". Can you comment on your experience of grappling with your "whiteness" in the struggle against apartheid?

Lapsley: Let me put it this way. I think what happened to me, the fact that I lost both hands and an eye, means that people know that I have sacrificed. And that gives me a profound point of entry into perhaps especially Black community. It is solidarity in suffering and sacrifice. Forget about the words. Think just about the reality that one shares in suffering and sacrifice. At the same time, I still have a white skin. It enables me to take the reality of being white to the white people as something I share with them. So in fact, I think it gives me deep entry to all communities. But throughout all these years of living for so many years in independent Africa (as it was in Lesotho and Zimbabwe), I also found a deep level of acceptance as an individual human being by African people. And extraordinarily, I even made lifetime friends with Black people before I was expelled from South Africa in 1976. So while objectively we were "oppressed" and "the oppressor" somehow there was a level of transcendence which did in fact take place. This wisdom is applied at the Trauma Center where we deal with victims and victimizers, and the reality that people who are victims can become victimizers in another part of their lives.

Iwanska-Hirsch: What is then your spiritual message of reconciliation to these people and how do you get it across at the Trauma Center?

Lapsley: Well, the fact that I am going on with my life is a message of its own. It is the strongest message of all. But at the Trauma Center we invite people to participate in Healing Memories Workshops where they are enabled to look at what has happened to them, and what has been done to them by others, what they did to others as well. In this way they are given an opportunity to put on the table their deepest feelings. These may be feelings of bitterness, hatred and revenge, but by spelling them out they can start the healing process and move towards being free people. 

Iwanska-Hirsch: Speaking of the process of healing and forgiveness, you emphasized many times that forgiveness requires not only communication and honesty, but also ability to receive the healing and letting go of any feelings of guilt and self-condemnation. It is a very interactive process. What do you find the most challenging part of working as a healer?

Lapsley: I think that the most costly part of this process is the effect on you of carrying the pain of others. I have to find ways of lifting up this burden. At times the scale of pain is so great that it is easy to be overwhelmed. Sometimes what happens is that the people are prisoners of hatred, which consumes them so much that finding ways to help them out can be very challenging.

Iwanska-Hirsch: What are the most important issues for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission today?

Lapsley: The fundamental option to talk has been correct. It provides hope for us as a country. I think we should have provided within the system much more ability for the individual perpetrator to be involved in the process of restorative justice. I think we should try to find mechanisms to keep going in this direction. In a formal sense, the commission will present its report to the president in July1998, which will include the policy recommendations and the different forms of reparation that should take place. But it will be up to the government and parliament to decide which recommendations to implement.

Iwanska-Hirsch: What kinds of reparations are considered?

Lapsley: Different administrative measures, specific forms of financial compensation for those who were formally recognized as victims by the Commission, there is proposal of payments to be made every year for certain period of time with minimum and maximum figures. For example, it is proposed that in rural areas those, who are deprived of services, would get more money than those living in urban areas with easier access to public services would.

Iwanska-Hirsch: Could you go back to the revolutionary moment and enlarge upon the circumstances that fostered the political change?

Lapsley: External factors like the pressures of international community and internal factors like the growing liberation movement increased the pressure on the regime. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, which raised people's hopes for freedom. Yet there was a lot of confusion since the government did not admit it was morally wrong. You have to remember I was bombed two days before the talks began. There was a lot of destabilization. It was in this context that De Klerk's government decided to negotiate. Moreover, it did not admit that the policies of the past were unjust and they began to say that they were a mistake. That period of negotiation was also characterized by an immense amount of political violence. The evidence continues to come out and proves that forces within the old regime politically orchestrated violence. The apartheid negotiated in daytime and killed at night. It attempted to destabilize the whole region of southern Africa by igniting conflict in the neighboring states. The Western media and white media in South Africa suggested that it was Black-on-Black violence. It was described as tribal conflict. But all the evidence in fact showed that such violence was orchestrated and manipulated by the apartheid state.

Iwanska-Hirsch: African phrase ubuntu is used to capture the sense of human belonging and togetherness. It is the essence of African communalism and felt responsibility for the well being of others. In the transitional period and the emergence of a new democratic state do you observe any interesting changes in people's identities, and their loyalties?

Lapsley: One would need to do some research to answer this question. But on one hand the regime sought to divide all people of color along ethnic and tribal lines. So the history of the liberation struggle is the history of struggle to find unity and in particular, a broader entity as South Africans. It does not mean that people necessarily forget their ethnic, tribal or language group identity, but they have a commitment to a broader South African identity. This is a period of reconciliation and the building national identity.

Iwanska-Hirsch: At times, world history proves to be a collective hallucination, but even worse it can be haunted by a collective amnesia. How much denial was there among the white community regarding the atrocities that were committed in the name of personal and national safety?

Lapsley: The Truth Commission was in a sense the complete opposite of amnesia. We need the truth not amnesia. At the same time, there has been a collective process of remembering by the nation of all wrongdoing that has been done to people. The Truth Commission's principal objective is to give the most complete picture of the gross violations of human rights in South Africa. In order to restore victims' human and civil dignity, we need to let them tell their stories, recommend how they can be assisted, and finally consider giving amnesty to those "perpetrators" who carried out the gross human right violations for political reasons.

Iwanska-Hirsch: Regarding that economic power is a political power, what is being done to promote economic and educational advancement of Black community in South Africa?

Lapsley: 1994 was a time of the transfer of political, not economic power. Big business remains largely in white hands. But as a part of negotiations, agreements were made to guarantee the jobs of civil servants. The new government inherited the old civil service, the old police and army. And while it has been in the process of integration, the power structures remain largely in the hands of old regime. 

Iwanska-Hirsch: Now when you are in the United States, how would you comment on the role of academia in South Africa and its role in promoting civil society? How beyond the obvious can universities be a part of transition and building our society based on consensus and peaceful coexistence?

Lapsley: I think every sector of South African society has a role to play in the process of transformation. Again, the existence of the Truth Commission challenges every sector of society to examine very carefully what role it did play in the past. And it is a challenge to the academic community like to all others. The academic community needs to analyze the priorities of South African society carefully, and its ways of contributing to the building of civil society. It needs to envision how to equip people to be able to develop their full human potential, and finally how to meet the strategic needs of the country. Universities need to recruit the staff, which will provide the intellectual environment supportive of a transition towards democracy.

Iwanska-Hirsch: What are those strategic needs? With whom should universities build coalitions?

Lapsley: Academic community is in ferment. The issue of transformation is a key one for the academia. Like all other segments of society, university life has been characterized by white domination. There is a huge problem around the issue of payment for tuition fees. Universities are running into financial crisis related to inability of Black students to pay, and more loan bursaries are desperately needed. The issue of access is a critical question in South Africa today. In this way, the transformation of most universities is yet another arena, where the old order and new order are competing with each other.

M.I-H: How are universities funded in South Africa?

Lapsley: Although there is a private sector of education, we do not have private universities the way you do in the United States. The government principally funds universities, yet they have autonomy from the state. The largest part of the budget in South Africa goes into education today. In the past, there was a huge disparity between the amount that was spent per capita on white and black education. There were also about fifteen separate departments of education formed along racial lines. You can imagine the difficulty of combining those fifteen departments of education into one. It is not an easy process. But more importantly, there is a beginning of an adoption of a new curriculum as well.

Iwanska-Hirsch: It leads me to another question. What can be done by the institution like the New School for Social Research to support educational advancement in South Africa?

Lapsley: I think institutions like New School could speak to different South African role players about the system of education and its transformation, whether the ministry of education or specific education institutions. There is already a South Africa Partnership Programme at the New School, but I think it should be strengthened because the process of transformation in South Africa is a long term and vast process. I hope that partnership will be sustained and further developed. This partnership is not only important for South Africa, but it could also bring new ideas and new life into the New School. 

Iwanska-Hirsch: I could not agree more on this. Rebuilding of civil society and consolidation of democracy in South Africa are surely everybody's business, and they deserve attention of international community, including the willingness of the New School to extend its educational assistance. Thank you very much.

April 15th, 1998
Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science
New School for Social Research,

New York, USA

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