Michael Lapsley: We are a traumatised nation

As an author and Anglican priest, Michael Lapsley knows the true meaning of sacrifice and perserverance.

Having survived a letter bombing on April 28 1990, Lapsley has focused his gaze on opposing repression and championing equality and change.

He says the Marikana shooting is a symptom that shows South Africa remains a traumatised nation.

In the crisis of faith and self that followed the bombing that shattered both his ear drums, destroyed one eye and blew off both hands, Lapsley discovered a new calling: "to become a healer" of the South African nation during and after apartheid.

"The bomb that failed to kill me left me with my tongue, which was my only weapon against apartheid," Lapsley wrote in his book Redeeming the Past.

"My visible brokenness creates a bond with others whose brokenness is often less visible than mine but just as real. The truth is that pain unites human beings."

When Lapsley and I spoke, I was struck by two things. Firstly, his manner: unapologetic, emphatic, direct. Secondly, and perhaps even more noticeable, was his quicksilver mind. His speed of thought was startling. He would latch onto and correct tiny inferences as I spoke. I could see how the self-described precocious adolescent with an "inflated confidence in [his] own opinions" had become, through the refining influence of time and trial, the man I now addressed.  

How do the Marikana shootings reflect on South Africa's transition from apartheid?
I think, in a way, Marikana is the latest example that we are still a traumatised nation. The past still continues to infect the present. That is why we need a national project of healing. We need to begin to find a new a language in which we can speak about our pain. It should be a new way of speaking: not from the head, but from the heart.

We need to find a way of listening to each other and not simply shouting past one another. But that also needs to be coupled with the challenge that the income distribution between rich and poor in South Africa is the most unequal on earth. We need to speak not only about poverty but also about greed.

Do you think that Marikana was an example of victims becoming victimisers?
In a conflict situation, the victims one minute can be the perpetrators the next. I think Marikana was a day of shame in that the strikers were arrested for the murder of their fellow workers, and the police who shot the miners were not indicted. Having said that, I believe that everyone – the striking workers and the police – were traumatised by what happened.

What are the biggest changes we need to make as a society in order to be balanced and whole?
There are two pillars [of healing]. The one pillar is political, social and economic; and the other is spiritual, psychological and emotional. These pillars are interconnected. They don't relate to individuals only, they relate to the soul and psyche of the entire nation.

When we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), we thought we had dealt with [the hurt], but in fact we had started a process that would meet across generations.

Do you think the apartheid regime ever "repented"?
I think some particular individuals did repent, but not the regime as a whole. And we never heard from De Klerk that the apartheid regime was intrinsically evil. I think that would have helped the white community to have a strong moral basis to travel the journey towards national reconciliation.

Forgiveness is not glib and cheap and easy. Forgiveness is costly and painful and difficult. But when it happens, there is mutual liberation.

What did writing Redeeming the Past do for you as a person?
The writing of the memoir was an opportunity to reflect on my life journey but also to give back to the reader what I've learned through my journey. It was also to give a voice to what other people have learned, and their own healing journeys. It helped to highlight that healing is both an individual and a collective experience. We heal in our relationship to and with others.  

In your book you say: "I am victorious, but the marks of the past remain on me. My journey from being a freedom fighter to being a healer parallels that of South Africa." How successfully do you think most freedom fighters have made the transition to healer?
I don't think that every freedom fighter was called to be a healer. I think that, pre-1994, there was a monster to be slain [and so many people adopted the role of freedom fighter]. However, post-apartheid, [the nation needs to heal]. Within that rein [of transition], there is a kaleidoscope of roles to be played. My particular role was that of becoming a healer.

What about those freedom fighters who became victims in the process? Is there not a complex relationship between being a victim and a healer?
If terrible things have happened to a person, there are two possible cycles which that person will follow. In the first cycle, the victim deals with the trauma by becoming a victimiser. This is true of individuals, of communities, of countries. In the other cycle, victims became victorious. The key to the victim's ability to take the life-giving route is whether their pain and hurt is given full acknowledgement.

You said in your book the most startling element about the bombing was not that it occurred, but its timing. The ANC and the apartheid government were about to commence negotiations.
The timing [of my bombing] took everyone by surprise. The reality is that the apartheid regime began to negotiate during the day but were still killing at night. It indicates apartheid was a regime that was forced to the negotiating table. It was not a regime that had repented from [its] evil. And it still remained committed to the values of death.

Michael Lapsley's new book Redeeming the Past is published by Struik Inspirational – an imprint of Struik Christian Media.


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