On the 28th of April in 1990, Father Michael Lapsley, an ANC member living in exile in Zimbabwe, opened a religious magazine he had received in the post from South Africa. This was the last act he was ever to perform with his hands. A powerful explosion severed both his hands and blew away one of his eyes. The bomb failed to kill him and the priest with hooks for hands has dedicated his life to healing others, many without the visible scars like the ones he carries.
Last night his memoir, Redeeming the Past, on his journey into the priesthood, the struggle against apartheid and his work as a healer of traumatic memories was launched in Cape Town.
Lapsley was born in New Zealand in 1949 and trained as an Anglican priest in Australia. He became a member of the religious order, the Society of the Sacred Mission. It was on the orders of the SSM that he ended up in South Africa and not Japan where he wanted to go.
It helped that he was aware of South Africa as a country. His first experience of the country was when the apartheid government refused Maori members to be part of the New Zealand Rugby tour to South Africa. "My next introduction to South Africa was reading Trevor Huddlestone's ‘Naught for Your Comfort’ about the forced removals of Sophiatown.
"So I knew that there was something happening in South Africa from a very young age that was contrary to the Christian gospel. But, I never imagined that my own life was going to be intertwined with the journey of the people of South Africa."
"The day I arrived in South Africa, I was robbed of being a human being. I became a white man"
He arrived in South Africa and found the situation quite bad. His ‘whiteness’ meant that he automatically became part of the oppressors.
"I often say that the day I arrived in South Africa, I was robbed of being a human being. I became a white man because suddenly every single aspect of my life, the suburb I lived in, the toilet I could use, the part of the sea I could swim in, everything was decided by race. So in a way I would say that apartheid robbed me of my humanity. It made me in an objective sense part of the oppressor group. So for me to join the liberation struggle was to join the struggle to recover my own humanity, in solidarity with the black people who were struggling for their basic human rights," says Lapsley.
In addition to his religious duties, Lapsley immersed himself in the freedom struggle, denouncing apartheid. The government took a dim view of his activities and they refused to renew his study permit, effectively expelling him from the country. He then moved to Lesotho where he joined the ANC.
He missed death in 1982 when the then SADF raided the ANC in that country and killed 42 ANC members and Lesotho citizens. At the time of the raid he was visiting New Zealand. Later he moved on to Zimbabwe where he continued his ANC activities. Even at the neighbouring country, the apartheid government followed him.
Father Lapsley says when he returned to South Africa after 14-years of exile, he realised that South Africa was a damaged nation, damaged in its humanness and all had a story to tell and when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began, he asked himself, what was going to happen to the millions of people who would not have a platform to tell their stories. "What were they going to do with their stories? What were they going to do with the poison inside them as a consequence of the journey they travelled? And I realised that we would never create a very nice society if we didn't deal with what what we had in our hearts as a consequence of the nation's journey. And so I realised we needed to create what I call safe and sacred spaces where people could explor how the wider context has affected them and begin to detoxify and that is what led me to conceive of what we call Healing of the memories."
Through the Institute for Healing of Memories, Father Lapsley has become a healer. The Institute has several chapters in South Africa, other African countries and as far away as Cuba, Australia and the United States. He insists that while he misses his hands and still struggles everyday with life, his disability has allowed him new things that he would otherwise never be able to achieve. Most importantly, people see him as someone who understands pain and suffering and therefore open up easily to him...
"My disability is dramatic, it's visible. All human beings have a degree of disability and brokenness and throught these years I've found that often when people see of how I've suffered and lost, gives them permission to be able to share their disability and brokennes, which is often invisible."
South Africa continues to experience numerous problems that some are linked to its divided past. There are still traces of racism, the levels of crime and violence are high and the country seems to struggle to forge a common future. Father Lapsley feels there is still a lot that needs to be done to heal the whole nation.
"We remain a deeply wounded nation, that the very psyche of the nation is wounded. And I thionk in my experience, very many black people nknow that apartheid wounded them. I'm not sure how many of my white sisters and brothers, have really faced up to the degree to which they are also wounded. Apartheid and its foundations goes back centuries and we need to see that healing these wounds is part of our task as a nation, even for several generations to come."
His memoir Redeeming the Past is available online and will be available at all leading retailers nationwide from September 15.