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Redeeming the past: book launch

7 September 2012

Last night Val and I braved the rain and the traffic to travel to Johannesburg for the launch of Fr Michael Lapsley’s book Redeeming the past. It took us three hours to cover the 85 kilometres, but it was worth it.

Michael Lapsley was a New Zealander who went to Australia at the age of 17 to train to be an Anglican priest. He joined the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM), an Anglican monastic order, and when he was professed as a member of the order they sent him to South Africa, for further study.

When he arrived in South Africa in 1973 the SSM had fairly recently opened a house in Durban, where they were collectively chaplains to a group of higher-education institutions in Durban, the main ones being the University of Natal, which was all white, except for the medical school, which was all black, and the University College of Durban-Westville, which was intended for Indians. Fr Michael Lapsley was both a student and a chaplain. And that was when we met him, when he came to speak to our parish youth group in March 1974, and a few months later he preached at our wedding, but that’s another story.

One of his discoveries on coming to South Africa was that he ceased to be a human being and became a white man. The most important thing about him became the colour of his skin. He spoke out against this, and was in a better position to observe this than many South Africans, as a chaplain to three segregated educational institutions.

He was deported to Lesotho, where he joined the African National Congress (ANC), the largest of the exiled opposition groups, and later moved to Zimbabwe. In 1990, some months after the National Party government had unbanned the ANC and other opposition groups, Fr Michael Lapsley was injured by a parcel bomb sent by agents of the apartheid regime. He lost both his hands and the sight in one eye.

When he had recovered from his injuries his bishop, who had prayed for him in hospital, apparently not believing in the power of his own prayers, said that he could not serve as a priest with no hands. Desmond Tutu, then the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, said “I have a blind priest and a deaf priest, why not one with no hands? Come.” So he moved to Cape Town, where he opened an Institute for Healing of Memories.

All South Africans suffered under apartheid, which dehumanised everybody in one way or another. It dehumanised those who had sent him the bomb — they had sent him the bomb because they were damaged human beings. Unlike some people, though, he did not advocate that we forget the past, and try to pretend that it did not exist. But rather that we should understand the past, redeem the past, and heal our memories, replacing anger and bitterness with forgiveness.

Trying to forget the past, and pretending that it did not happen, can be disastrous. It was attempts to forget the past that allowed the anger and bitterness to build up that led to the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession that raged through the 1990s. I have tried to recall the apartheid past in the Tales from Dystopia series on this blog.

Fr Michael Lapsley says that we need to disinfect the past, not obliterate it. We need to attend to our damage so we don’t pass on the poison to the next generation. 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 — and that is what this book is all about.

The launch was chaired by J.J. Tabane,  and Stephen Karakashian, the co-author of the book, explained how it was written. He as acted partly as a prompt, and partly as a scribe and an amanuensis.

J.J. Tabane then introduced the main speaker, the Minister of Planning, and former Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel. What we need is a Minister of Implementation, JJ quipped.

After the main introduction, there was a kind of symposium, with the two authors, a governmet minister and a former government minister, and the Chaplain-General of the Defence Force, and J.J. Tabane asking them awkward questions. And in the symposium they spoke of the need for a conversation about redeeming the past, and the present, and the future.

Stephen Karakashian, Fr Michael Lapsley, Trevor Manuel, Tito Mboweni, and the Chaplain-General of the Defence Force

Tito Mboweni said that South Africa had lost its vision of non-racicalism (reported more fully here). He also noted that language had tended to obscure the ideals on which our democratic South Africa had been founded. People spoke of “service delivery” as if the government was simply a great provider.

He told the story of a young man who told his father he wanted to get married. “Where will you live?” asked his father. “Here at home, of course,” replied the son. “Oh no,” said the father. “First you build a house to live in, then you get married.”

But today’s young man would get married first, and then get his wife to toyi-toyi to demand an RDP house.

I think he was being a bit unfair on the original vision of the RDP. I have a copy of it, produced by the ANC before the 1994 general election. It was not all about “service delivery”. It was about concerted acti0n by government, business and civil society to rebuild South Africa. There was even a Minister of Implementation, Jay Naidoo. The problem was that the post of Minister of Implementation was abolished within a year, and all that was left of the “RDP” was a term for a jerry-built house, with enormous profits accruing to corrupt builders and corrupt government officials  — but that too must be part of the conversation.

The whole thing took place in the shadow of the Marikana Massacre, which made it seem somehow more urgent.

Fr Michael Lapsley described Marikana as a kairos moment, a moment of make or break. We can either pause to re-evaluate where we are doing, or we can go on into a future in which we will have learnt nothing from the past, and slide back into what we were just beginning to emerge from. He quoted Chief Albert Luthuli as saying that people who see themselves primarily as victims tend to become victimisers, and a similar saying from Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educationist, that the oppressed tend to internalise the image of the oppressor, and so see only oppressrrs as truly human. So we need to redeem the past to rebuild a better future.

I found the whole thing tremendously encouraging. In a way, I felt that I was back in those hopeful days of 1993, when the ANC, unhampered by the cares of office, was encouraging debate and discussion of a future in which anything was possible.

Now, if one reads the press, there is no vision, no hope, no policy. The image they give of politicians is people motivated purely by greed for wealth and power, whose sole concern is to get ahead of their rivals. So it was good to see that there were still some people, like Trevor Manuel and Tito Mboweni, who retained those ideals. And as long as there are still people around who are saying such things, there is hope. There is also sadness, because twenty years ago people were saying those things in a slightly different way, as ideals to be achieved. Twenty years have passed, and they have not been achieved. They look different after 20 years of failure, symbolised by Markikana. But the ideals have not been abandoned, so there is still hope.

There were speakers from the floor, too, mostly young people. And what they said also gave me hope. The media image may be true, but it is not the full picture.

There was quite a lot of discussion on the need for education, with comments about teachers planning to go on strike on 4th January, but not noticing until June that textbooks hadn’t been delivered. And while the teachers planned to go on strike, they were sending their own children to private schools.

Trevor Manuel said that surely someone, teachers, parents, pupils themselves, should have noticed in the first week after schools opened, that the textbooks were absent. After all, part of the ritual that children and parents go through at the beginning of every school year was covering text books and exercise books. It was no use just pointing out that the government should have noticed these things — everyone should have noticed, and made a fuss about it. And that is part of the mentality that has been inculcated by the use of terms like “service delivery”.

As we were going home Val pointed out that that was not quite fair. In rural areas, people are not used to text books. In rural schools, many children come from homes where adults do not read, and where there are no books. Urban parents may cover text books and exercise books for their children, but perhaps rural parents have never done that.

So perhaps the conversation last night was a bit middle-class. But it doesn’t matter too much, at least not at the beginning, because the conversation has to start somewhere, as long as it doesn’t stay middle-class. But there is another danger, because the Marikana miners are having their own conversation, and that is anything but middle-class. There is a great danger that these two conversations may never meet.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 September 2012 6:53 am

    Very interesting and relevant conversation. Marikana as a Kairos moment. That made my eyes well up with tears. I had not thought of it like that, but, of course, it is a kairos moment indeed.

  2. 9 September 2012 8:13 am

    A kairos moment, and a wake up call. Some people have realised that we have wasted 20 years Pallo Jordan: ANC in crisis, but others may not. The Marikana strikers represent a class that was dubbed the “third force” in the 1990s, and were exploited by the white right who wanted to delay or avoid the coming of democracy. Now they are being exploited by the likes of Julius Malema. It is vital that these conversations meet, but will they?


  1. Redeeming the past: a journey from freedom fighter to healer « Khanya
  2. Conflict, violence, and non-violence « Khanya

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