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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 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 principals.

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 "human beingness" or the generosity of the human spirit, of belonging, of community, of relationships.

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... as I was saying....

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.

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...

This 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 victimisation."

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 are

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.

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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