A wounded healer

2012-09-19 00:00

YOUR book is about your journey from pacifist to freedom fighter to healer. You changed your pacifist position and joined the ANC. How do you feel about the armed struggle now?

You have to remember that the armed struggle occurred here in a particular context and as a result of particular circumstances. Oliver Tambo’s words resonate with me when he was asked about it. His voice dropped to a whisper and he said: “They forced us into it.” He did not romanticise it, and neither do I. We need to recognise the high cost to our own humanity of resorting to armed struggle. It’s a very high cost and the whole country is still paying for it. If you take the lives of others no matter how justified it is, you diminish your own humanness.

The whole nation needs healing. Our Western approach makes us forget that apartheid goes back centuries and the harm it caused is inter-generational. We had the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and then thought: “That’s that done, now we can move forward”. We wanted to get on with life. But that isn’t the case at all. We need to go on an intergenerational healing journey.

We need a new language to speak about the pain and trauma apartheid has left. The language of politics is inadequate. We need to speak the language of emotions. I was so encouraged to hear the premier, Zweli Mkize, speak at a dinner about the trauma we carry from apartheid, and speak in the language of feelings.

The reality is also that most white people have never owned their role in the horror of apartheid as well as their own trauma. If we want to create a peaceful society, we need a project of national healing in which all sectors of society have a chance to speak, and to listen. Healing requires breaking the cycle and getting people to acknowledge and own their trauma – that is the key.

At IHOM [the Institute for Healing of Memories], we are giving it our best shot, but we also need leaders of the faith community and others to raise their voices in calling for a national healing project. The voices must come from many directions and initiatives must also come from different organisations. No one has a monopoly on people’s healing.

In the aftermath of Marikana, the need for a project like this is thrown into stark relief. The signs are there throughout society, in public and private spaces, that we are a traumatised nation. In the Western Cape, necklacing is coming back, and domestic and sexual violence is everywhere. They say that when political violence ends, private violence escalates and we are seeing that.

The noise around The Spear painting was not at all to do with the president of South Africa, but a reminder of the humiliation and deep pain that black people experienced at the hands of the white community. One man told me he was not thinking about Jacob Zuma at all when he saw it, but was reminded of the way new mine workers were made to line up naked for medical examination. The painting evoked memories of so much pain and humiliation — that’s why it created such a storm.


You make it clear in the book that for you, under apartheid, religion and politics were inseparable. What is your position now?

It is important to clarify that I’m not talking about party politics. Then, if you read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, you find that faith and politics are always intertwined, if by politics you mean social justice. Under the old regime they called social justice “politics”, thereby making it taboo. Yet, social justice, or “politics” is the other side of the coin of worship.


In the book you refer constantly to “my bombing”, which seems an unusual, very personalised and intimate way to talk about something that had such a devastating effect on your life.

My work involves listening to people tell their stories of pain, creating space for their journey to healing to happen. As one who listens to the pain of others, in the book I share my story, so there is an element of ownership. I am at peace with what happened, but I still have unfinished business: who did it, who was in the chain of command and why did they do it? I have no answers; however, these are abiding but not consuming issues.

We have to be aware that although Christians quote scripture and say “The truth will set you free”, the truth may also create new burdens. For example, if I was to discover that a close associate or friend was the one who provided intelligence to the apartheid forces. The truth can create new victims.


In a society dedicated to the cult of perfection and “body beautiful” you and your message are loudly counter-cultural. Is this deliberate?

As a person living with dramatic physical disabilities, I want to remind people that this is almost the norm, and not the exception. I recognise that this is not a message that people want to hear. For example, in the Christian faith we had this myth of Jesus as the perfect white male figure.

As I recount in the book, this is why I was so comforted to find in an Orthodox church an icon of Jesus with one leg shorter than the other.

The norm of the human condition is not perfection, it is woundedness and brokenness that takes many different forms.


How do you respond to the allegation that the new political and economic elite oppresses the poor as much as the previous elite did?

There will always be sycophantic religious people who are willing to bless whatever those in power are doing. There needs to be a relationship of healthy critique between the faith community and those in power. The challenge today is about economic inequality, and the faith community is not raising its voice loudly enough about that.


The Paralympics have dominated the international stage lately. As a disabled person, what do you think about the games?

I was very proud of Team SA and also very encouraged by the whole games as a person living with disabilities. They lifted people with disabilities into the public eye and showed them to be a major part of society.

It was also gratifying that Sascoc [the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee] decided to give the Paralympic medal winners the same bonuses as the Olympic medallists. This showed that disabled people are not and should not be treated as second-class people in any sense.


Any last word?

I have been overwhelmed by the media response to this book — after Marikana, it couldn’t be more timely.

I really want to emphasise the call for a national project of healing — there is a real sense of urgency about this.

Father Michael, as he is known, was born in New Zealand in 1949 and ordained in Australia where he joined the Anglican order, the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM).

He came to Durban in 1973 as an undergraduate student. During the height of apartheid, he became chaplain to black and white Anglican university students in Durban. In 1976, he began to speak out on behalf of schoolchildren who were being shot, detained and tortured.

In September 1976, he was expelled from SA and went to live in Lesotho. After a police raid in Maseru in 1982, which killed 42 people, he moved to Zimbabwe. In 1990, three months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the Civil Co-operation Bureau, a covert security organisation, sent him a letter bomb hidden inside two religious magazines. He lost both hands and the sight in one eye in the blast, and was seriously burnt.

He returned to South Africa in 1992, and in 1993, he became chaplain of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, which assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This work led to the establishment, in 1998, of the Institute for Healing of Memories (IHOM) in Cape Town.

— Wikipedia.

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