Throughout his presidency, Reagan supported the apartheid government in South Africa and even labeled Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress a notorious terrorist organization. We speak with South African activist Father Michael Lapsley who lost his hands, one eye and was burned severely in an assassination attempt under the De Klerk government.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela recently announced that he was retiring from public life. And Mandela will not be among the foreign dignitaries attending services for Ronald Reagan. After all, Mandela was languishing in a South African prison throughout the duration of Reagan’s presidency. But this history has been effectively re-written in the US. The dominant view is that the US was on the right side in South Africa, that it opposed apartheid. But nothing could be further from the truth, particularly when Reagan was president. Reagan labeled Mandela’s African National Congress a notorious terrorist organization, while continuing Washington’s support for the apartheid regime. In 1981, Reagan explained to CBS that he was loyal to the South African regime because it was “a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals.”
But even as the majority of the American people came to oppose South Africa’s apartheid regime, Reagan stood by his friend. African American leaders and organizations pressured Congress to take action and ultimately it passed sanctions against South Africa. True to form, Reagan vetoed the bill. But to Reagan’s shame, Congress overrode the veto. Today, we are going to look at Reagan’s support for apartheid South Africa with one of the victim’s of that regime-Father Michael Lapsley. In 1990, three months after the release of Nelson Mandela, the De Klerk Government sent Father Lapsley a package containing two magazines. Inside one of them was a highly sophisticated bomb. When Lapsley opened the magazine, the explosion brought down ceilings in the house and blew a hole in the floors and shattered windows. It also blew off both of the priest’s hands, blew out one of his eyes and burned him severely. He flew in from South Africa last night and now joins us in our firehouse studio.
- Fr. Michael Lapsley, director of the Institute for Healing of Memories. Previously he worked at the Trauma Center for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, which assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He flew in from South Africa last night.
Amy Goodman: Welcome to Democracy Now!.
Father Michael Lapsley: Thank you, Amy. Great to be here again.
Amy Goodman: How did you survive? Most people did not think that you were alive after you opened that magazine?
Father Michael Lapsley: Well, I think it was a miracle to survive. Clearly, it was bomb that was supposed to kill, not simply to damage. I suppose in a way it was my faith saw me through and somehow I experienced god being with me in that experience of being bombed. But of course it, was a long journey personally towards healing and coming to terms with have no hands.
Amy Goodman: I wanted to talk you to about those years as we wrap up our week of “Remembering the Dead,” as we look at the history of the Reagan years and then to end by talking about restorative justice, an issue that you take around the world. Can you talk about those years, 1981 to 1989, in South Africa.
Father Michael Lapsley: Yes. I think it’s good to think about what South Africa was like inside the country as well as what was happening in the front line states at that time. During those years, there were two states of emergency. Vast numbers of people were imprisoned. It was during those years, and this is a salient point for people this country this time that torture became normative. It became a principle weapon used by the Apartheid regime against people, particularly against black children during that period. It was also a period where there were a vast number of people on death row in South Africa. Every Thursday, up to seven people at a time were executed, but it was also a time when the Apartheid regime was in the rampage in the Front Line States attacking Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. There were a number of massacres of refugees that took place. It was also a time of civil war in Angola. And it was the Reagan administration that was supporting the Unita bandits in Angola and fomenting war. And it was clear to the people of South Africa during those years, that whilst there were a vast number of ordinary people in the United States, particularly African-Americans who stood with us, the Reagan administration was on the side of Apartheid. It was both Reagan and Thatcher who were giving succor to the Apartheid regime and in a sense prolonging our struggle. More people had to die in South Africa because of the support that came from western governments, particularly from Washington and London at that period.
Amy Goodman: What about this quote of former president Reagan, talking about the Apartheid regime as, quote, a country that stood by us in every war we have ever fought, a country that strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals.
Father Michael Lapsley: I think the interesting thing about that comment is that it focuses on profit. It doesn’t focus on what happens to people. And of course, remembering that that regime that Reagan was supporting was a regime in which the majority of the people were voteless. The majority of the people had no legitimate way of removing an illegitimate regime.
Amy Goodman: This was a time in the United States and its policy towards South Africa of the term coined, “constructive engagement.”
Father Michael Lapsley: Sure. And it was constructive for death. That’s the real point. It was not constructive with the people of South Africa, who were living and dying for basic fundamental human rights, rights that people all over the world take for granted, that we had to die in great numbers to achieve simply the right to go to the polls to choose a government for ourselves.
Amy Goodman: What difference did it make what role the U.S. played within South Africa or in the Front Line States?
Father Michael Lapsley: Well, the African National Congress of South Africa leading the struggle in South Africa was saying to the world, we will free South Africa; we ask the world to be in solidarity with us. So the role the international community had to play was to shorten that struggle, to mean that we would die less. So in a way, the support, the economic support to Apartheid meant the struggle lasted longer. It took us longer to achieve those fundamental rights, to achieve democratic freedoms.
Amy Goodman: You focus on restorative justice. Before I talk about that, have you ever learned who it was that put this, was it plastique in the magazine?
Father Michael Lapsley: It was some kind of substance certainly that caused that explosion. I don’t know who individually was responsible. I know that the clerk was politically and morally responsible.
Amy Goodman: Where were you when this happened?
Father Michael Lapsley: I was in Harari, Zimbabwe. The point was the death squads, even though negotiations were about to begin, they were still in operation. And the Apartheid regime said, we’ll talk, but there was still killing at night. It was in that context that this letter bomb went off. And it is also worth saying that yes, I was a militant of the African National Congress, but you know, the only automatic weapon I have ever used in my life was one I’m using now, my tongue. And the regime in their stupidity took away my hands, which I didn’t need to shoot and left my weapon working reasonably well.
Amy Goodman: How long did it take you to recover?
Father Michael Lapsley: I was in the hospital for about seven months. That’s the kind of a physical journey, but there’s another journey of coming to terms with having no hands. But I was very fortunate in that my pain and what happened to me was acknowledged, reverent, and recognized by people around the world. That enabled me to travel a journey from victim to survivor to victor. That’s in a way why I do the work that I do now, to seek walk beside others who have not had their pain acknowledged. And I think one of the wonderful things that you are doing in this program today is not simply acknowledging Reagan, everybody doing that, but you’re acknowledging the poor of the world, who suffered under Reagan and this great knowledge of what happened to unemployed, poor, homeless, African-American, Hispanic people, but by this very program, we are moving from knowledge to acknowledgement. I think that in itself is one step on the journey to healing, acknowledging what happened to the ordinary people in those years and lifting up their stories, their pain, but also their faith and endurance in the hope and commitment and giving it its rightful place at this time.
Amy Goodman: We spent the week and we spoke with Noam Chomsky about Central America policy, with Allan Nairn, about what happened in Guatemala, the investigative journalist, about the more than 100,000 Guatemalans who died during this period of the 80’s with the U.S. supporting the success of military regimes. We spoke with Father Miguel D’Escoto, the former foreign minister of Nicaragua about the thousands of Nicaraguans who died with the U.S. supporting the Contras and talked about El Salvador, the tens of thousands of Salvadorian civilians who died there.
Father Michael Lapsley: That’s part of the acknowledgement and part of the journey to healing. Those stories are not forgotten, but those individual lives are recognized.
Amy Goodman: You are a part of the whole Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa led by Bishop Tutu. Did you testify before the commission?
Father Michael Lapsley: Yes, I gave evidence to the commission. And Whilst I have told my story many times, speaking to the commission had a very particular moral significance, because in a way, I felt that my own story was becoming an indelible part of the great patchwork of the journey of the people of South Africa. And in a way I would say although I lost hands that I otherwise grieve for, the greatest privilege of my life was to be part of perhaps the most important struggle of the 20th century, the struggle against Apartheid.
Amy Goodman: What do you mean by restorative justice?
Father Michael Lapsley: Well it is interesting, when we say the word justice, in most countries, especially the United States, people mean retribution or in fact sometimes they mean revenge. Restorative justice asks a different kind of question. It doesn’t say, how did the state punish the offender, it is just how can we restore the relationships that have been broken. Of course, in a country where you have–are 2 million citizens in prison? That’s retributive justice at its worst and of course the rampant use of the death penalty. But restorative justice seeks to restore relationships that have been broken and seeks to provide opportunities where victim and offender can meet each other and people can explore the journey they need to travel to make it up to those who are hurt — so, for example, for me, if I had the person that sent the letter bomb and they asked for my forgiveness, I would be happy to forgive them and I would prefer they spent their lives for example working in a hospital rather than be locked up in prison. But I might say to them, of course, you would also be willing to help assist me with the — with my needs for the rest of my life, as a form of restorative justice, a form of making it up in the ways that are possible. So, that’s what I think I mean by restorative justice, which is a justice that gives hope where often retributive justice simply continues cycles where victims become victimizers.
Amy Goodman: Steve Biko, the founder of the black conscious movement, well, on another September 11–September 11, 1977 was being beaten to death by of U.S.-backed Apartheid forces, died in the early hours of September 12, 1977, father of the black conscious movement, his family did not support just the idea of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that if people came forward and they revealed what they had done, what was involved with Steve Biko’s death, that that would be enough, that they should be granted amnesty.
Father Michael Lapsley: I think I know Steve Biko’s son. They were not opposed to the Truth Commission. They supported the Truth Commission, but they had very specific opposition to amnesty because they said it would violate their right to a form of justice. The response of our constitutional court was to say, however, that if there were reparations, there would be a form of restorative justice, and that was in fact what won the day, but of course, amnesty is a bitter pill to swallow, but the alternative to amnesty in South African context was an escalating civil war that would have taken millions of lives. So we did make a compromise, but it is a compromise that opened a democratic space for us to be able to struggle to create a more just society.
Amy Goodman: We have been speaking with Father Michael Lapsley, director of the Institute for Healing of Memories. If people want to get in touch with you, where can they write?
Father Michael Lapsley: www.healingofmemories.co.za or our email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Goodman: For those of who you might not get that last part. That’s email@example.com
Father Michael Lapsley: zi-a, I’m learning to speak American.
Amy Goodman: Learning our impediment. Thank you very much, Father Michael Lapsley.