Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

4 November 1999 Edition

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From victim to victor

By Laura Friel

TRAUMA must be ``acknowledged, reverenced and recognised'', says African National Congress (ANC) chaplain Michael Lapsley, describing his personal journey in South Africa from victimhood to survivor and on to victor.

In the Falls Road offices of Relatives for Justice, relations of victims, survivors of the conflict and political activists listened to a man whose personal story and political experience shared a natural affinity with their own.

In 1990, Fr Lapsley, an Anglican priest born in New Zealand and working with the ANC, was seriously injured by a letter bomb sent by South Africa's apartheid security police. In the attack, Fr Lapsley lost both hands and an eye and suffered a number of internal injuries. The attack occurred while negotiations for a peaceful settlement were already underway.

``The bomb was hidden within the pages of two religious magazines,'' Michael recalls, ``the final cynicism of a regime which called itself Christian.'' There is no trace of bitterness in this remark. It is merely an acknowledgement of the facts. And acknowledgement is one of the key factors, Fr Lapsley argues, in sucessfully overcoming trauma.

It was the ``support, love and prayers of people around the world'' that saved Michael from bitterness, but more significantly, it was the international acknowledgement that what had been done to him was wrong which allowed Michael to make the leap from victim to survivor.

But Michael's journey didn't end there. In his work with the Institute for the Healing of Memories in Cape Town, Fr Lapsley finds he can now describe himself as a victor, not just in terms of overcoming his disabilities but in transforming an act of hatred and destruction into a force for good.

The past must not be forgotten, says Michael, but it can be forgiven. Public disclosure of the full facts and public acknowledgement of the pain and hurt which has been inflicted is fundamental to the process of personal healing and to the healing of communities emerging out of conflict.

In South Africa, all sides of the conflict saw themselves as victims, with their own ``internal logic''. The Afrikaaners had survived the appalling brutality of Britain's first concentration camps, says Michael, but past victims often victimise others.

Whether real or imaginary, the ideology of victimhood is often used ``to give ourselves permission to do terrible things''. Acknowledging the hurt and pain inflicted on ``the other'' is one way of breaking that cycle.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while far from perfect, not only exposed the appalling operation of the apartheid regime - it also allowed the ANC to put on the public record breaches of human rights carried out as part of the struggle against apartheid. The ANC had the moral courage to say this was part of the war; it must not be part of the peace.

``We have all been damaged in some way, oppressor and oppressed,'' says Michael. A just and democratic society is created politically, economically and socially. It is also created ``at the level of the human heart''.

Paraphasing a Chinese proverb, Michael says: ``The one who wants revenge should dig two graves.'' Revenge should be rejected in an affirmation of life. Irish republicans have expressed a similar sentiment in the words of Bobby Sands: ``Let our revenge be the laughter of our children.''

Commenting on the proposed building of an arms software factory in Derry, Fr Lapsley said it would be a ``sad irony'' if peace in the North of Ireland were to be accompanied by employment which ``caused destruction and death to other parts of the world''.

In South Africa, the ANC inherited an arms industry which was already well established and therefore much harder to dismantle. ``The time to reject it in Ireland is now,'' says Michael,''while the Irish economy is still independent of the arms industry.''

Michael Lapsley hopes to return to Ireland next year to run a series of workshops along the lines of his work at the Cape Town institute. ``As part of our contribution to the peace process,'' says Michael.

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