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Redeeming the past: a journey from freedom fighter to healer

12 September 2012

Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to HealerRedeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer by Michael Lapsley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reviewing a book is always a subjective exercise, but even more so when you know the author. I first met Michael Lapsley in 1974, when he came with another member of the Society of the Sacred Mission to speak to our youth group in an Anglican parish in Durban North. He had only recently arrived in South Africa from New Zealand.

Our paths have crossed at fairly long intervals since then, partly because he was deported from South Africa and for long periods I did not have a passport, so when he was deported I did not expect that I would ever see him again. In 1977 I had a passport for a brief period, and we went to Swaziland on holiday, and he happened to be there too, also on holiday. But when he returned to South Africa he was in Cape Town and we were in Gauteng.

Nevertheless, we lived through the same period of South African history and so even though our paths crossed rarely, they were sometimes parallel. So there were several parts of the book where I felt as though I was reading something that I could have written. I cannot discuss all the thoughts that the book provoked in me in a single review, so I’ll probably write a couple of blog posts about some aspects of it later. For now I’ll concentrate on the core of the book, which is the healing of memories.

The book begins with the bomb that maimed Michael Lapsley in April 1990, which became the defining moment of his life, and changed the course of his life to a new ministry of healing of memories. And that is where our paths diverged, because I never experienced anything like that.

About 2/3 of the book is taken up with the healing of memories, and it made me think about it more, which no doubt is what was intended.

I had heard of the notion of the “healing of memories” before. When I was at college in Durham there was a book on Clinical theology by Frank Lake, which dealt with the topic, and became very popular. We had a fundi on the subject, Michael Hare-Duke, come to the college and tell us about it. It included the idea that the memories that needed to be healed went back to one’s birth and beyond. It all seemed somewhat remote to me.

At about the same time there was a Roman Catholic priest, Francis MacNutt, who became involved in the charismatic renewal, and taught about the healing of memories. But I never read his book and it still seemed remote from me.

And now Michael Lapsley comes with this book and tells how we have all been wounded by apartheid and the struggle against it, and especially by what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us.

And that made me think a bit more about it. It was a lot closer to home than Frank Lake or Francis MacNutt. I can think of many things I have done that I wish I had not done, usually because they have hurt other people. Perhaps those are memories that need to be healed, but most of them have little to do with apartheid or the struggle against it; they are more the result of my own captivity to the passions: anger, pride, lust, greed, impatience, the need for self-justification etc. I find it harder to think of things I have failed to do, because those are things that do not exist and have never existed. In what circumstances would it have made a difference if I had done something different? I’m not sure; it becomes speculative.

What has been done to me?

Well no one has ever sent me a parcel bomb, or if they did, it must have gone astray in the post.

I did once have a phone call from a guy who said, “Hayes, you bloody commie, I’m going to slit your throat.” I said “Thank you,” brightly and cheerily, and he hung up.

I’ve been banned, I’ve been deported from Namibia, and I’ve been sacked from a few jobs, and had my passport confiscated or applications for a passport refused, I’ve been forced to leave my home more than once. But none of those caused direct physical injury, like Michael’s parcel bomb, or like many of the people described in the book as having been tortured, assassinated etc. So in all those things I haven’t had the kind of resentment about ill-treatment that would make me feel a need to be reconciled to anyone in particular.

The evil of apartheid, as Michael Lapsley points out in his book, was systemic. No one person was responsible for it. Our struggle was not against blood and flesh, but against the principalities, the authorities, the world powers of this present darkness.

Well, I did discover one thing. Mr Vorster signed a banning order for me on 11 January 1966. I never received it because I skipped the country before it could be delivered, and I only discovered it a few years ago, in my Department of Justice file in the archives, and discovered that it had Mr Vorster’s personal animosity behind it. But at the time I was not aware of the banning order, nor of the animus that lay behind it.

And a few months before, when talking to a friend who was preparing for baptism and had all sorts of questions about the Christian faith, she said, “We are supposed to thank God for everything, but how can you give thanks to God for Mr Vorster?” And I said, without thinking, “You can thank God for giving you Mr Vorster to love.” And then wondered where that had come from, and if I had really said it. I concluded that it must have been one of those things that the Holy Spirit does.

The Security Police used to follow us around in those days, and we got to know some of them by sight, and we were on speaking terms with some of them. One in particular was Warrant Officer van Rensburg. I found his home address and when I was overseas I used to send him Christmas cards. Once they followed us to a meeting in a rural area, and when crossing a stream water got into the car’s distributor, and we were stuck in the middle of the stream. A couple of us went on to the meeting on foot while the rest stayed and we took our time about cleaning the distributor, and the SB could not get past, and were furious with us, as they never made it to the meeting.

On their way back, however, their car got stuck on a ridge of rock, so that it was rocking with either the front or back wheels touching the ground, but not both. It also holed their petrol tank. We waved at them as we passed, and some of our party were gloating from schadenfreude, but I thought it was inappropriate, and said so. If we hadn’t been late for the next meeting, I’d even have stopped to help them and pour some burning coals on their heads. They were victims of the system too, and were just doing their job. I don’t think the ones I met were the ones who actually tortured anyone. They just watched people, tapped their phones, opened their mail, and interpreted what they saw and heard in terms of the demonic ideology that held them captive, and sent off reports coloured by that view to Kompol in Pretoria. And Kompol would in turn report to the Minister of Justice and say “Ban this one, remove that one’s passport, detain that one, and charge that one with high treason.” If I encountered any torturers, I didn’t know it. I did know people who did encounter torturers, of course, on both sides of the conflict. But I got the feeling that the “healing of memories” part of the book was for them, not for me; for the tortured and the torturers, the bombers and the bombed. The closest it came to me was the sackers and the sacked.

Later, in 1972, a banning order did catch up with me. But I thought of it rather as a badge of honour than as something bad. The worst thing about it was a telegram I received from a Methodist minister friend, “Deep shock and anger at arbitrary action against you.” It would have been more appropriate, it seemed to me, if he had said something like, “Congratulations! You’ve made it.” Great is your reward in heaven, we are told (Matt 5:11-12). Why should a reward in heaven cause deep shock and anger?

So in all this, I could not think of anyone that I needed to be reconciled with, anyone who had caused a festering memory that needed healing — at least not in relation to apartheid and the struggle against it.

But as I read the book more things came to mind. Some names came to mind. And I thought, yes, with those people there may still be some unfinished business. Interestingly enough, the names were all German. One was Jürgen Meinert, who in 1971 fired me from the Windhoek Advertiser, which he owned, along with the Allgemeine Zeitung. He hadn’t hired me — the editor had done that — and I’d never met him and didn’t even know who he was. I met him for the first time the day he fired me. On the same day he fired my friend Toni Halberstadt who was also involved with the Anglican Church in those days.

There was also Kurt Dahlmann, the editor of the Allgemeine Zeitung, who, some of my colleagues on the Windhoek Advertiser told me, had been gunning for me, and also wrote a lying editorial about me. He it was, they said, who asked Jürgen Meinert to fire us. But then in 1978 Kurt Dahlmann got a taste of his own medicine when he himself was fired by a new boss who was even more right-wing than he was. Perhaps it was Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid.

The third one was a Mr Klingenberg, a farmer of Commondale, near Piet Retief. He was the absentee landlord of a farm in the Utrecht district, on which there was a small Anglican Church, and one day, just as we were about to start a service, he came and closed the church at gunpoint. We thought that the SB had probably put him up to it.

So perhaps I do have some memories that need to be healed after all. And Michael Lapsley’s book has made me think of them.

But then I think about it again, and think no, that is too trivial. I can say yes, I’ve suffered human rights abuses, but they weren’t too gross; perhaps they were God’s way of teaching me to sympathise with those for whom they were gross, like Michael Lapsley himself. Whatever human rights abuses I suffered were merely temporary inconveniences, for him they were permanent disabilities. When South Africa became free in 1994, my temporary inconveniences ceased; but Michael Lapsley’s disability will last for the rest of his life.

The book launch of Redeeming the past was a very interesting affair and you can read about it at Redeeming the past: book launch | Khanya. The launch of the book is also the launch of a conversation that we in South Africa need to be having.

View all my reviews

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