Anglican priest who was radicalized against the apartheid regime of South Africa.
Michael Lapsley, a white Anglican priest, was letter-bombed by the White South African government of F.W. de Klerk. He joins Amy to discuss the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa and his role in the freedom struggle. He arrived in South Africa from his home of New Zealand as a pacifist but, witnessing the gross abuse of power and force by the apartheid regime, changed his feelings. He supported the movement to resist against the white South African government. He came to believe that in South Africa black people had no option but to use violence to obtain their basic human rights. Father Lapsley now works at the Trauma Centre in Cape Town, South Africa. He discusses the the issues of amnesty as well as the Truth Commission. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In April of 1990, Father Michael Lapsley was the target of a letter bomb from apartheid South Africa’s security forces, losing both his hands and an eye. This brutal assassination attempt culminated a long spiritual and political journey for Father Lapsley, a journey that transformed this Anglican priest into a freedom fighter. Taking on the established church hierarchy, Father Lapsley joined Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and turned his energies into fighting one of the greatest crimes against humanity—apartheid. And joining us right now in our studios here in New York to talk about South Africa today, the apartheid years and the post-apartheid years is Father Lapsley.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Thank you, Amy. Good morning, and good morning, listeners. And good to be with you on May Day.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s great to be with you. And I was just reading this biography of you that has just come out, called Priest and Partisan: A South African Journey. And I realized, as I read it, it starts with April 28th, which was really just almost exactly seven years ago, April 28th, 1990, when you received this letter bomb. Can you talk about that day?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, I had just come back from a trip, both to Canada and to Cuba, and I had just returned to my home in Harare, Zimbabwe, and I was about to start a new job as a parish priest in Bulawayo, the second city of Zimbabwe. And I had a farewell party, because I was transferring from Harare to Bulawayo. I came back to my house in the early evening, and I found a—there was a pile of mail that accumulated in the six weeks that I was away. And I had been, over the previous week, gradually opening them. And I came to one manila envelope that had been posted from South Africa to my home. Inside were two religious magazines in this particular envelope, one in English, one in Afrikaans. And I ripped open the plastic that surrounded the magazine. Then I opened the magazine itself. And as I opened the magazine that was in English, it exploded, because that was the detonating device for the bomb. And the ceiling in three rooms went out, and there was a hole in the floor. And in the process, I lost both my hands, I lost an eye, my eardrums were shattered, and I had a whole range of other injuries.
AMY GOODMAN: You made it to the hospital. Friends got you to the hospital that night.
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Yes, in fact, but it was about several hours before I actually received medical treatment. I never went into shock, and I never lost consciousness. And in a way, I’m glad about that, that I actually remember. One of the extraordinary things was that I somehow felt that God was present with me in my bombing, in my crucifixion. But there’s also the indescribable pain that I remember, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Who did it?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, it came from South Africa. I think one needs to remember the timing. It was three months after the release of Nelson Mandela. South Africa had supposedly set off on a new track. The political organizations, the African National Congress had been unbanned. And I must say that those of us who lived in exile had begun to relax, even though we said to ourselves, "Be careful." But it could only have been the security forces of the apartheid state. In other words, it came from the de Klerk government at that time. I think it’s only in retrospect that we began to realize that when they released Nelson Mandela, that they had changed their tactics, but they had not changed their hearts. So they were negotiating in the day and continuing to kill at night.
AMY GOODMAN: Why you? Why don’t you tell us your story, why you would be a target of the bomb?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, you’ve got to perhaps ask F.W. de Klerk why me; it’s not so easy for me to answer that question. But I’m originally born and brought up in New Zealand. I came to South Africa as a young priest in 1973, sent by the religious order of the Anglican Church, the Episcopalian Church that I belong to, the Society of the Sacred Mission. And I was a university student in South Africa. I was also a chaplain to two black campuses and one white campus. The campuses particularly at that time were almost exclusively racially divided. But I think I realized soon after I went to South Africa that you either had to beat them or join them. When I first went to South Africa, for example, I was a pacifist, which is quite unusual, because we Episcopalians have a long history of blessing wars. But I had read my Martin Luther King, I had read my Mahatma Gandhi, and I thought that we could achieve justice nonviolently in South Africa. But the events of Soweto in 1976, when school children were shot in the back by an army and a police force who read the Bible every day and went to church on Sunday, shook my faith and my pacifism to the roots. And I came to the conclusion that a people had a right to defend themselves.
Now, in 1976, I was expelled from the country, and I went to live in Lesotho, which is this tiny African country completely surrounded by South Africa. And there, I asked to join the African National Congress of South Africa, and I became a chaplain of the liberation movement in exile. And I was with the ANC in exile in—first in Lesotho and then from—I had to leave Lesotho after a massacre there in 1982, when I was away, but believed by the church authorities to be one of the targets. And then from ’83 to ’92, I lived in Zimbabwe. My work in the ANC was pastoral work and theological work, the work of mobilizing the faith communities in South Africa and internationally to see that, in a sense, to put it very simply, that apartheid was a choice, or an option for death, carried out in the name of the Gospel of Life. And therefore, it was an issue of faith to say no to it. So, when I was bombed, I can only come to the conclusion that—I mean, I was not a military threat—that I was somehow—it was my theology that was somehow a threat to the apartheid state, because we have to remember that the apartheid state claimed to be Christian, claimed divine guidance for what it did, which of course was the very opposite of Christianity.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Lapsley, what was the reaction of your church, of the Anglican Church, what we know here as the Episcopalian Church, to your becoming a member of the African National Congress?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, my church probably has the proudest reputation in its public opposition to apartheid. It passed countless resolutions against apartheid. But that reality, of course, was something different, that we came to realize that the church itself was a site or a context of struggle. And my own church was much better at the resolutions against apartheid than it was in terms of actually opposing it. And while technically I was within the resolutions of my church by joining the ANC, in reality there was extreme discomfort by the church authorities. And in fact they had very considerable problems with the fact that I was a member of the ANC. It seems I had taken the resolutions a bit too seriously and tried to put them into practice, and that was, I think, somehow a threat to the church authorities, because in fact it was the church authorities, and even the authorities in my order, who were responsible for expelling me from Lesotho. And it reminded me in a bit of sort of Nazi Germany, where people said the problem is the Jewish people, not the problem is Nazism. And those of us who were the ANC who were hunted down like wild animals by the apartheid state, sometimes you felt that we were the problem, the way that we were treated, rather than the apartheid regime was, in fact, the problem that had to be finally dealt with.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, when we come back from our break, I want to ask you how many ANC members lived outside the country, lived in exile. And then we’ll talk about all sorts of issues, like the issue of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is going on right now. You don’t even know who it was who actually sent you this letter bomb. What does it mean to reconcile before you can get the truth? We’re talking to Father Michael Lapsley, priest and partisan. And we’ll be back in 60 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman. And on this May Day, we’re joined by Michael Lapsley, priest and partisan. I’m using that term because it’s the title of a biography of Father Lapsley, Priest and Partisan: A South African Journey. It’s got a forward by Nelson Mandela. And he says, "When I was approached to write a forward to this biography, I agreed readily—even before having the chance to read a single page. I did so because of the very special person Father Michael Lapsley is.
"This story constantly forces the reader to confront, through the intense personal suffering, the suffering of so many people in our country and the world beyond. Although historically located here in Southern Africa, it has a universal message about universal human suffering and our struggle for dignity and healing."
And on the back of the book, Nelson Mandela says, "Michael Lapsley’s life is part of the tapestry of the many long journeys and struggles of our people."
In one way, Father Lapsley, you were lucky because you survived this assassination attempt.
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Yeah, I’ve often asked that question, Amy. Why did I survive? As a priest and a chaplain of the ANC, I often went to the graveyard to bury—to bury others. But I think, you know, just by being alive in South Africa today, I’m a reminder to the people of South Africa what it was that we did to each other, because there’s an enormous amount of denial going on, attempt to rewrite history, say these things didn’t really happen, particularly in the white community. And just by being there with no hands, it’s a statement of its own.
But I think it was also important to survive to be able to say that, in the end, the forces of justice, of liberation, of peace, of gentleness, of hope, are stronger than the forces of evil and hatred and death that apartheid embodied and represented. So I think it was an important reason to survive.
AMY GOODMAN: You really answered it already, but for those that asked you how you could reconcile being a freedom fighter supporting the ANC—and it had a guerrilla movement—as well as being a priest, what did you say to them?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, as I said earlier, I mean, I was a pacifist when I went—first went to South Africa, which is a minority tradition within the Christian Church. And it’s a tradition that I still respect enormously, but it’s not the dominant tradition. Most mainstream Christianity has never had a problem with armed struggle. And most of the people who opposed me and my—and opposed us in the ANC for our support of armed struggle were not in fact pacifists. And one often had to come to the very painful conclusion that their problem was not that they were not pacifists, but that they were racists, and that the real problem was it was black people who were taking up and were using arms, as a last resort, to achieve fundamental human rights, remembering of course in South Africa there was no nonviolent method by which black people could achieve their basic human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: How was it for you coming to South Africa, you who considered yourself a non-racist, who was there to work with the people of South Africa? You were white, and that puts you in a special position there, especially under apartheid.
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Yes, well, I knew before I went to South Africa that apartheid was bad. I had read Trevor Huddleston’s Not for Your Comfort, a book written about forced removal by another priest in South Africa in the 1950s. But I suppose in my naivety, I thought there were going to be three groups of people in South Africa: the oppressed, the oppressors, and a group that I will be part of called the human race. And the first shock to the system was the realization that—excuse me—in an objective sense, there were only two groups—the oppressed and the oppressors—and that even though I may be totally opposed to apartheid, in an objective sense, I was an oppressor and a beneficiary of apartheid—excuse me. But I think, in a sense, that before I went to South Africa, I thought of myself as a—as a human being. When I went to South Africa, I became a white man. And for me, whiteness became rather like leprosy that somehow wouldn’t—wouldn’t wash off. And so, when I—excuse me—when I joined—
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll get you some water.
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Sorry. There’s no water in America? And I felt that, when I joined the struggle, I wasn’t essentially doing a favor to black people, but I felt that apartheid had robbed me of my humanity and that what I was doing by joining the struggle was struggling to recover my own humanity in solidarity with people of color, so that we could all in fact become human beings. And I realized also that in South Africa, if we simply turned the tables, that wouldn’t spell freedom. We had to create a society which would give dignity to every South African. And that, of course, is why I joined the ANC, because it had a non-racial vision. But it was important that one didn’t just say, "I’m against apartheid," but joined the struggle and became prepared to lay down one’s life in that struggle.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Michael Lapsley, you now work at the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, which is assisting the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. Who comes to this Trauma Centre?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, we have a number of different categories of people that we work with. One of the categories that we work with are those who were in exile. We also work with those who were imprisoned and tortured. We also work with refugees from other countries. But I’ve developed a program that’s called the Healing of the Memories program, that we are running all over South Africa, because the truth commission, which we have in South Africa at the moment, has provided a platform for people who have been victims of gross human rights violations, like torture, like attempted murder, like abductions, but there’s a sense in which the entire South African nation, whether oppressed or oppressor, has been traumatized by apartheid. And some of us believe that we have to provide a platform where everybody who wishes to can tell their story. They can confront the past and begin to work through it, because if we are angry, bitter, full of desire for revenge, we’re not going to create a very nice society. So we need to work through and face those emotions.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the Truth Commission is very controversial. You have actually, more than in any other country that’s gone through this process, the military actually cracking a bit, and some of those who committed these gross human rights violations testifying about their crimes before the Truth Commission. Now, much of the reason that they’re doing this is because it means they will get amnesty, and so you’ll have some people who are about to be prosecuted in a court, who then run to the Truth Commission so that they can get that amnesty. I know that there are those who support this, though, still, and say that truth is more important than punishment. And there are those, like the Biko family, the family of Steve Biko, and—let’s see if I could say this name—the family of Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge—
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Mxenge. You’re doing well.
AMY GOODMAN: —who were human rights lawyers, black human rights lawyers, who oppose the Truth Commission. What are your feelings?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, Amy, there’s no modern conflict which is not—where there has been a negotiated settlement, where there has also not been amnesty, that amnesty comes with negotiated settlements. It’s only when there’s a clear victor and a vanquished, like in Nazi Germany, that you can have a Nuremberg. But if in fact there is a negotiated settlement, then amnesty comes. But what the apartheid generals wanted when we negotiated our settlement in South Africa was blanket general amnesty. What they got was individual amnesty after full disclosure.
But there’s a sense in which amnesty, in some ways, involves a sacrificing of justice, because you don’t have a trial. But also, we saw in the Magnus Malan trial last year that the courts themselves, which have not been entirely reconstructed and transformed, can neither be a total guarantee of justice. But I think one also wants to distinguish between retributive justice and restorative justice. And I think one of the things the commission is seeking to do is to restore the dignity of those who have been victimized. And there’s going to be a rehabilitation and reparation program that will actually begin when the Truth Commission finishes its term.
But I think also, the real issue in terms of restoring justice is what kind of society we can create in South Africa. I think in five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, if people see the houses being built, the water being provided, the electricity being provided, decent education. If people see South Africa being transformed, they will say, "Our suffering and our struggle was worth it." If, however, we don’t transform our society, then people will, I think, become increasingly impatient and embittered. So you can’t separate what is, in some ways, a spiritual process from the physical reconstruction of the country.
See, I would argue that South Africa proceeds on two pillars. One is dealing with the past, confronting it, facing it, saying, "Yes, this is what we did to each other," because if we don’t, we’ll do it again. The other pillar is reconstruction development, creating a different kind of society. One is spiritual, in some senses; the other is physical. But they’re two intertwined pillars.
But I think when people were tortured in South Africa, the torturer would say, "It doesn’t matter how much you scream. Nobody can listen. No one is listening." But also they would say, "Don’t worry. We won’t leave marks, so no one will believe you." So, for the very first time in our history, people are standing up in front of the country and saying, "I was tortured," and their story is believed. Their story is reverenced and recognized. And this is part of the process of us, for the first time in South Africa, creating a moral order where good is called "good" and bad is called "bad," because the torturers were in fact promoted, and often, when they retired, given golden handshakes. So we’re beginning to create a society based on human values, and that is part of the role of the Truth Commission. But also, the next—our children and our grandchildren must grow up knowing this is actually what we did to one another, so that we can guarantee we never again in our history repeat this terrible event of apartheid, this crime against humanity.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Lapsley, what do you say to those white South Africans who say they just didn’t know?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, it’s interesting. I was at a workshop the other day, and a woman in the workshop said just that. She said, "We didn’t know." And I challenged her. I said, "Well, what do you mean you didn’t know?" I said, "There was no massacre that took place in the Frontline States that was not publicized. There was no major trial in South Africa that did not give an account of torture." Then another woman quietly said, in the same group, also white, said, "Actually, we did know, but we didn’t want to know. The cost of knowing was too great." And perhaps that’s part of the reality of South Africa, that to be a decent human being required heroism, and most of us aren’t in fact heroes.
But it’s true that we never knew the extent. We never had the full picture. And, of course, people were brought up to interpret the events that happened, you know, in a different way. But it’s also true that the white community is massively in denial. And this is part of the importance of these stories being told, because in fact, in many ways, we did know. And that’s part of the awful burden of what we have to carry as a country, that we did, in some sense, know what it was that we were doing to one another, because, you see, if you say you don’t know, you’re not responsible, but part of putting it on the table is to say, "Well, OK, maybe you didn’t know then, but now you do know." And so, we all carry a responsibility for healing each other’s wounds and for recognizing those who suffered, particularly, and creating a different kind of South Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re quoted in U.S. News & World Report, in last week’s issue, as saying that you feel that white South Africans who did, committed these crimes, are worse off than you are here without your hands, without an eye.
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, that is true, in the sense that I am a free human being. You see, the person—for example, the person who sent me the letter bomb either—either is so dehumanized that they don’t care, or they live with their guilt. So they’re either dehumanized or prisoners, where, in a sense, I am a free person. And I think, for me, that was part of the miracle that happened after my bombing, you see, because for 16 years I had traveled the world in the cause of the struggle against apartheid. I think when I was bombed, I was a focus of evil. But in the response of the people around the world—prayers, love, support from people from many countries—I became a focus of all that is beautiful in the human community, our ability as a human family to be tender, loving, kind, compassionate. And that enabled me to be freed from hatred, bitterness, anger, desire for revenge, but rather to grow as a person, so that I can say to you now: In that bomb, I lost a great deal. I lost hands that I will always grieve for. And I have a great deal of grief and, at times, real frustration. But also, I still have a lot, but even more, I gained a lot. I’m a better human being because of what I endured in that bombing. And that’s why I think I have a role to play in South Africa and walking beside others on the road to healing.
But, you know, one of the reasons I come to North America and I’m traveling now to the United States, to Cuba, to Canada, on to New Zealand and to Australia, because I think, in some ways, it’s the human story of what happened in South Africa. South Africa is the world writ large. And I hope that people in North America won’t just say, "Oh, how interesting," but will say, "How are we dealing with our past? Are we confronting it? Are we facing it?" because many societies—and I think the U.S. is one—have buried their past. And if you bury it, it poisons the system and comes back to haunt you.
AMY GOODMAN: I think it’s interesting, on this May Day as you head off to Cuba, that you were the head of the Cuba Solidarity Conference in South Africa. In fact, in the book, the biography of you, Priest and Partisan, I’m looking at a picture of you, together with Nelson Mandela, who is holding up a photograph of himself with Fidel Castro.
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Yes, I mean, I must say that I’ve always been inspired by Cuba. And the reason I’ve been inspired, not because it’s a perfect society, but because it’s a society which has been organized for the poor, in the interests of the poor majority, as opposed to the rich minority. And I think Cuba has a great deal to teach the world. And I, like perhaps most people in the world, think that the U.S. blockade against Cuba is pathological and immoral and unjust. But I know many, many people in the United States share my view on that. But also, I’ll be interested in talking to Cubans about how they’ve coped with their past, how they’ve coped with the effect on them of the struggles that they had been part. But it’s a two-way street in terms of learning. I hope to learn from them, but I think I also have something to share.
AMY GOODMAN: Will you be meeting with Fidel Castro?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Well, I suppose what I’d love to do is to give him a copy of my biography. Whether that will be possible, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll tell you the next time I come back to the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Father Michael Lapsley, do you expect ever to find out specifically, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who did send you the mail bomb?
FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY: Amy, on this Monday, on the anniversary of the bombing, the investigative unit of the Truth Commission came to my house, because they are very specifically working on my case at the moment. I have asked them to find out the chain of command, how high it goes. I have said I hold F.W. de Klerk, the former president, politically and morally responsible for my bombing, because he knew about the death squads and did nothing about them.
You know, if the person who actually sent me the bomb came to me and said, "I sent you that bomb. I’m sorry about it. Not only am I sorry, but I’m not—for example, I’ve become an ambulance driver, because I want to make it up to people who I have victimized in this way," I would love to say to that person, "I forgive you." I’m not sure that I want to meet the person, however, who doesn’t care. So maybe I’ll find out. But what I had to attend to was my own process of healing my memories, whether or not I find out who did it. And I think that’s true for millions of South Africans.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Father Michael Lapsley, I want to thank you very much for joining us. The quote on the back of your biography, "I am no longer a victim, nor even simply a survivor. I am a victor over evil, hatred and death. The apartheid regime and all who supported it carry the responsibility for the loss of millions of lives throughout Southern Africa." If you’d like to get a copy of this book, it might not be readily available in your bookstore, though you should ask. I’ll read the 1-800 number—it’s a little small, I think for you to read, Father Lapsley—1-800-243-0138. That’s 1-800-243-0138.