Where the rest of South Africa may view escalating tensions over race as a portent of a troubled future, world-renowned human rights activist Father Michael Lapsley believes there has never been a better time for the nation to heal through dialogue.
Father Lapsley, director of the Institute for Healing of Memories and vice-president of the SA Council of Churches, was last week named the co-winner of the Public Peace Prize (PPP) 2016 in the Global Peace and Reconciliation – Internationally-Reputed Peacemaker category, sharing the accolade with Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International.
The award, which originates in Canada, recognises the work of the world’s leading peacemakers and gives as many people as possible a chance to express their support for nominees via the website, email and Facebook.
For Father Lapsley, an Anglican priest, being named PPP winner marked the culmination of a momentous few weeks in a career already steeped in achievement. The honour came while he was in Cuba celebrating the third Spanish translation of his memoir, Redeeming the Past, which has now been translated into 11 languages.
“Obviously the award is personally gratifying, but it is also a tribute to the work of my colleagues,” he said at the institute’s offices in Cape Town last week.
“I think what has been recognised is that emotional and spiritual aspects are just as important as economic and political factors in the healing process.”
Father Lapsley, who while in Zimbabwe lost both hands and sight in one eye to a letter bomb in 1990, sent by the apartheid security force’s Civil Cooperation Bureau, has noted the growing sense of racial polarisation in South Africa,.
However, he believes this can provide the necessary impetus for a national dialogue that is long overdue.
“The Penny Sparrow incident touched a raw nerve. What was especially interesting about that is that she was not a significant or public figure. I believe what that suggests is that we are beginning to see a new depth in terms of the pain that people have been harbouring.
“What we are seeing amidst the gloom is people wanting to speak about their experiences. We are not only beginning to hear the voices of the black people affected by apartheid, but also those of the conscript generation.
“The demons won’t be kept quiet anymore. White conscripts were also damaged by apartheid, and now they want to meet their black counterparts to learn about their experiences.
“People are now ready to look racism in the face.”
Father Lapsley pointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example of these conscripts’ voices having largely gone unheard.
“We heard about the police, but not about what the military was part of.
“There is a degree of anger that these conscripts were not given the space to express themselves. There is definitely a depth of woundedness there.”
As founder and later president of the Friends of Cuba Society, Father Lapsley has long admired the island nation’s status as a champion of the poor minority, rather than the wealthy majority. However, with relations between America and Cuba thawing to the extent that American President Barack Obama will next month become the first American head of state to visit since 1928, he is concerned that Cuba could be affected by the “worst of Western consumerism”.
“When I was there last week, there were American tourists everywhere, whereas in the past there were only a handful. I think what we don’t want is a McDonald’s on every corner.
“I think while the Cubans wholeheartedly welcome normalisation of relations, there is that fear. You don’t, for example, want to see the great hopelessness that you see in parts of the United States.
“One of the great things about Cuba has always been that it has never subscribed to the ‘charity begins at home’ line of thinking. It has never said that it has to wait until it has sorted out its own problems before it could help other countries. It has always offered training to others who have asked for it. We would not want that to change.”
Father Lapsley also heaped praise on the country’s commitment to literacy, citing his own book as an example.
“The third Spanish edition was launched at a book fair in Havana two weeks ago.
“There were more than 300 authors and publishers there. From there, it has been spread through the island, selling for only 80 pesos (R40), and thereby accessible by all. This is part of the flowering of Cuba’s literacy programme.”
Looking ahead to the rest of 2016, Father Lapsley said the institute would be hosting an international healing conference later in the year, while it would also be looking to shore up its God has Many Names programme, which seeks to bring South Africa’s different religions ever closer together.
“That is the interesting thing about South Africa: we argue about everything else, but in terms of religion we, as a nation, have always lived together peacefully,” he said.