Apartheid denialism and our trauma: Father Michael Lapsley SSM

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Like millions of South Africans, I wanted to watch President Cyril Ramaphosa give his State of the Nation Address (SONA).

I wondered how my sister Thandi Modise, Speaker of the House of Assembly, would handle Julius Malema’s threats to disrupt SONA.

Malema’s first point of order calling for the removal of FW De Klerk took me by surprise. I consider the anti-democratic behaviour of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) at SONA totally unacceptable and actually reprehensible. Nevertheless, I have to admit that emotionally part of me was pleased to hear De Klerk called out.

De Klerk’s recent denialism of apartheid as a crime against humanity has understandably inflamed passions across the country including my own.  His assertion that most of the death and dying was caused by black people against other black people is also totally disingenuous. It seeks to shift the culpability and responsibility away from De Klerk, his government and its millions of supporters.

Watch: FW de Klerk denies that apartheid was a crime against humanity

I received a letter bomb from the apartheid regime in April 1990 hidden inside two religious magazines, blowing off both my hands and an eye.

When I gave evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), I said that I held FW De Klerk politically and morally responsible for my bombing.

My reasoning was simple. I was bombed by a death squad of the apartheid state. De Klerk was Head of State. He knew about the death squads but did nothing to disband them.

The late white opposition Frederik van Zyl Slabbert told me that he had spoken to De Klerk personally about the death squads.

In response to what I said at the TRC, De Klerk said he saw nothing, knew nothing and did nothing following the doctrine of deniability which had been perfected by the political leadership of the apartheid state.

So when Malema speaks of De Klerk as Commander-in-Chief of Vlakplaas, the headquarters of the apartheid death squads, he is correct.

The FW De Klerk Foundation has added oil to the fire by, as the Citizen suggested, playing the rooi gevaar card to claim that to describe apartheid as a crime against humanity was and is a communist plot.

Finally beginning his SONA Address, President Ramaphosa referred to FW as former Deputy President thus accepting that he was the deputy president of a legitimate government but with no reference to him as the last illegitimate leader of South Africa.

Through the years, I have often been asked whether I would like to have a one-on-one with De Klerk. His denialism in the last week convinces me that I made the right decision.

What do we learn as South Africans from the scale of our reaction to the De Klerk interview last week and what happened in Parliament on Thursday night?

Similarly, the evidence, given by among others, Barbara Hogan and Frank Chikane, has confronted us once more with the horror of what was commonplace during the apartheid years.

De Klerk’s depth of denialism and self-justification is a moral tragedy for him personally. We are right to credit De Klerk with having the guts to do what he did on February 2nd, 1990, reading the writing on the wall and also helping avert a racial conflagration.

The tragedy is that he has never been able to face the fact that apartheid was fundamentally evil and caused immense pain to millions of people across generations.

In this context, his apologies ring hollow. The tragedy for white South Africa is that it did not have a leader with enough moral stature to lead it on the journey of facing guilt and shame, of confession, repentance and restorative justice.

That is part of the reason that some scholars have described our reconciliation process as frozen.

As President Ramaphosa said at the funeral of Winnie Mandela:

“We must also recognise our own wounds as a nation. We must acknowledge that we are a society that is hurting‚ damaged by our past‚ numbed by our present and hesitant about our future. This may explain why we are easily prone to anger and violence.”

If we continue the way we are going, we will pass our woundedness on from one generation to the next especially manifest in domestic, family and sexual violence. As the saying goes, hurting people hurt others.

As an Institute for Healing of Memories, we believe it is time for a new national conversation about our pain and trauma that is so close to the surface and which needs to be healed if we are to attain peace with ourselves and create a kind,  compassionate and just society.

Alan Michael Lapsley, SSM, known as Father Michael Lapsley, is a Director at the Institute for Healing of Memories and South African Anglican priest and social justice activist.


Watch: EFF’s Julius Malema requests for FW de Klerk to be removed from Parliament