Keeping memory alive

Father Michael Lapsley and Sue van der Merwe.

A gala fundraising dinner for the Institute for Healing of Memories, which seeks to assist victims of political and social injustice, was held at the Taj Hotel last week.

The institute was started in the 1990s by well-known anti-apartheid activist Father Michael Lapsley, and grew out of South Africa’s unique history and need to remain attentive to how the country’s divided past can impact people both as individuals and as a nation.

The effectiveness of the Healing of Memories workshop has been widely documented and the methodology has been used in countries as far afield as the USA, East Timor, Rwanda and Northern Ireland.

Guests at the event, which took place on Thursday June 23, included ANC national executive committee member Sue van der Merwe and Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, who also gave the keynote address.

Father Lapsley, who lost both hands and the sight in one eye in 1990 after being sent a letter bomb by the apartheid security forces while in exile in Zimbabwe, said when he returned to South Africa in 1992, he found a nation that had been “damaged in its humanity”.

“All South Africans were damaged, although not all of us were in need of a psychiatric intervention. Lots of us appeared to be living normal lives, but I believed we still had a lot of unfinished business,” he told an audience of three hundred people.

Father Lapsley revealed the only other area of the country where the institute maintained a full-time office was in KwaZulu-Natal, a province that still bore the scars of the “huge political violence” that characterised the country.

“The problem that had occurred was that initially we were speaking to people who were on different sides of the political divide. What we had to do was get them talking to each other in the same workshop. While we were doing this, we realised that a lot of the people we were talking to were HIV-positive, and of course there was also trauma there.

“The term which we came across and which helped in our healing process was ‘open woundedness’. That is a very appropriate term. So what we had to do was tell the whole person’s life story.”

He said the workshops, which have also expanded to include foreign refugees in South Africa and in Cape Town are held regularly in Atlantis, Dunoon, Manenberg, Mitchell’s Plain, Belhar, Langa, Mfuleni and Blue Downs, showed that very often people who had done “terrible things” to others did so because “terrible things had been done to them”.

“Recently, we have seen an increasing number of young people coming to our workshops. However, it’s not only they want to talk about. Many of them tell us that their parents don’t want to talk about their own past. As a result, we have started something we call the ‘Restoring Humanity’ programme, in which the youngsters are able to learn the truth of South Africa’s history.”

In her address, Ms Pandor said what she had encountered was the formely oppressed had a remarkable capacity for forgiveness.

“This is a sign of humanity, and I believe we need to be saying more to black people that the stance they have taken can be used to encourage all the people of this country,” she said.

“South Africa has incredible character to build as a nation. We truly have unity in diversity, but we need to make more of this. I was thrilled that during the 40th anniversary of the June 16 uprising there had been such strong public debate. We heard from teachers, from families and from young people about what this moment in our history meant. There has been a great deal of talking, and I believe we musn’t lose this momentum.”

The minister encouraged people to learn the stories of South Africa by looking at the South African History Archive and sites like South African History Online.

“We also must not forget the study of our oral history. During apartheid, some of us came to Cape Town in search of our sons and fathers, and we need to remember this. But what is encouraging is that we are also beginning to create a new identity for ourselves. If you ask the young people today, they will tell you, ‘I am a South African’. No longer are they identifying as Zulus or Xhosas, but as South Africans.”

Ms Pandor briefly touched on last week’s protests in Pretoria, but suggested those reponsible were not people committed to the country but “thugs”,

“Every country has thugs,” she added.

“We are going through difficult times and we feel healing past memories is impossible, but it is not so. What we need to do as South Africans is strive for a culture of respect, and speak up for tolerance. We need to tackle discrimination more directly. It is only through tackling prejudice that we can rise.”

Among the invited guests at the fuction was Richard “Uncle Dick” Herbert, a former facilitator at the Institute for Healing of Memories, who told the CapeTowner that while listening to the stories could make people angry, it was important that they were heard. We were doing a workshop in Bellville. All of a sudden a woman came up to us and said, ‘Ek hoor julle wil stories hoor (I heard you want to hear stories)’. She had been in Upington in the last years of apartheid,” Mr Herbert said.

“There was a small town near Upington, and in order to enter the town you had to walk past the police station. The woman’s daughter and her friend had passed the police station on their way home, when a young man pulled up in a car, asking where the police station was. They found this strange because you could see the police station from where they were.

“It was then that they realised he was a security policeman. Out of fear, they started to run, but the woman’s daughter was heavily pregnant. She couldn’t run.

“As she tried to get away, the young man shot her in the back.”

He said he realised at that point that it was the first time the woman had ever spoken about this event, and how important it was that people were able to speak about such experiences.