Apartheid’s survivors work toward healing

Published September 1, 2000

EVERY South African has a story to tell about the apartheid years. It is the story of what we did, what was done to us, and what we failed to do.” So reads a brochure describing reconciliation workshops offered by the Institute for the Healing of Memories, in Cape Town, South Africa.

Father Michael Lapsley and his skilled facilitators work to bring reconciliation processes to South Africa’s still divided racial groups. Having lost both hands and an eye to a letter bomb, Father Lapsley, himself a victim of the struggle against apartheid, is in a special position to make reconciliation meaningful.

On May 26 – 28 of this year, I was permitted to participate in one of Father Lapsley’s workshops. South African participants were male and female, young and middle-aged, and – most significantly here – black, coloured, and white (both English and Afrikaner). Two graduate student researchers from Germany and the United States were also present.

Held in a Catholic retreat centre, the workshop began Friday evening with introductions and a dramatization of some horrors of the apartheid era. Police with guns were depicted in a township. A mother wailed for her child killed in a demonstration. A ‘Boer’ army marched to defend the country against communists and terrorists. An Afrikaner mother showed horror at what her drafted son had become.

On Saturday morning, art provided the starting point for telling our stories. I drew Calgary’s Nose Hill Park, showing the hill covered with buffalo as it would have been when aboriginal people owned the land. I talked about Canada’s failures with regard to First Nations peoples, and the tragic anomaly of these failures, given our national pride in our tolerance and multiculturalism.

I told the story of my own greatest life tragedy, losing custody of my first son after repeated abductions by his father. Other art showed guns, jails, children, the climbing of mountains to face the past – and leafy suburbs where white people had led comfortable, but guilt-ridden, lives.

We broke into smaller groups to tell our stories. In my group were three men (Afrikaner, black, and coloured) and four women (white and black). Supporting each other with attention and sympathy, tears, warm arms, and hugs, we shared stories of loss, terror, suffering, confusion, guilt – but also solidarity, generosity, and love.

A common theme was that of being separated from others and still burdened by the past. Several stories were of jail, torture, beatings, and loss. A white woman expressed intense love for her ‘second mother’ who was black; another was agonized by family loss and guilt about the horrors her community had condoned.

It was through my friend and colleague Wilhelm Verwoerd that I had come to this workshop. Wilhelm’s grandfather, Hendrik Verwoerd, is known as the architect of South African apartheid. One of the ways Wilhelm has sought to contribute to reconciliation is by telling his own moving story, based on personal struggles with his family history.

Charting feelings that emerged from the small groups, Father Lapsley mentioned revenge, hatred, anger, rage, helplessness, hopelessness, isolation, guilt, and unwarranted privilege. But there were also compassion, sympathy and empathy. A common theme was the hope that people could work to overcome negative feelings and support each other in bridges of friendships built across racial divides.

After a day of intense telling and listening, we were more than ready for the evening party. From casual chat and friendly mingling, it moved to African religious songs, line dancing, Afrikaaner folk dancing. The climax was lessons in toyi-toying – the protest run characteristic of black demonstrations during the struggle. In South Africa, all this was a striking achievement in sharing across cultures.

Sunday’s work began with making clay peace symbols. We then designed and conducted a creatively designed liturgical ceremony, where names of negative feelings, written on scraps of paper, were burned. There were repeated hugs, as participants planned a reunion, established a buddy system, and vowed to keep in touch. As a foreigner, I couldn’t hope to participate in this phase.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was designed to work toward national reconciliation and it had a tremendous impact on national and international politics. But reconciliation must also be within the feelings and lives of individuals – and therein lies the value of these workshops. Trudy Govier is a philosopher who lives and works in Calgary. Among her books are Social Trust and Human Communities (McGill-Queen’s University Press 1997) and Dilemmas of Trust (McGill-Queen’s University Press 1998). She may be contacted at [email protected].


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