Redeeming the Past

Fr Michael Lapsely and former president, Nelson Mandela

Fr Michael Lapsely and former president, Nelson Mandela

The saying goes forgive and forget but, in truth, it’s very important that we remember our past in order to try and forgive. That, in part, is what projects like the Liberation Heritage Route aim to do. It’s very difficult to move forward when there are unanswered questions, when details of events are either ignored or shrouded in mystery.

The Institute for Healing of Memories (IHOM), run by Father Michael Lapsley, believes that it’s only when personal stories are acknowledged, that individuals and communities start to heal. The IHOM facilitates workshops and events that enable people from different backgrounds to gain a better understanding of each other through the telling of their stories, and in the process empower themselves through forgiveness and understanding. And if there is anyone qualified to speak about the role of forgiveness in the healing process, it is Father Lapsley.

Father Michael Lapsley, Cape Town, 1997

Father Michael Lapsley, Cape Town, 1997

Born in New Zealand, Lapsley trained as an Anglican priest in Australia, where he joined the religious community, the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM). In 1973, he moved to South Africa where he took up studies at the then University of Natal, before eventually becoming university chaplain at three of its Durban campuses. It was after the events of June 1976 that Father Lapsley became more outspoken against the apartheid government, and specifically its treatment of minors, which resulted in the government instructing him to leave South Africa.

Father Lapsley then made Lesotho his home, and became a member of the ANC. In his testimony to the Truth And Reconciliation Committee in June 1996, Lapsley stated that his membership of the ANC was his way of “taking up citizenship” in South Africa, a country that he had no claim to, but for which he was prepared to fight. In 1982 ,the South African government launched a raid on Lesotho that killed 42 people. Father Lapsley was fortunately out of the country at the time, but it was believed that his name was on the list of intended targets.

In response, Lapsley moved to Zimbabwe, which is where he was living when, on the 28th April 1990, he received a letter bomb that resulted in the loss of both of his hands and his right eye. His eardrums were burst, he had a broken leg, as well as serious burn wounds from the bomb that had been hidden between two religious magazines sent to him by the Civil Cooperation Bureau, a covert organisation of the South African Government’s security apparatus, generally believed to be part of the ‘third force’.

In speaking of forgiveness during the 1996 TRC hearings, Father Lapsley talks of ‘restorative justice’, an interesting notion for a country like South Africa:

….in a funny sort of way for me forgiveness is not yet on the agenda. And the reason I say that…I’m not filled with hatred or bitterness or self-pity, nor that I want revenge….I think what I believe in is not retribution, I believe in restorative justice – not retributive justice, restorative justice…for example if the person who made the bomb was to come to me and said “I’m sorry for what I did, and I want your forgiveness, and this is what I’m now doing in the way of reparation” – not to me personally, but to our country and our people – “these are the kinds of things I’m doing to heal our land”,  then of course one would say, here is forgiveness”.

Father Michael Lapsley, SSM, is the author of the book Redeeming the Past, winner of the 2013 Andrew Murray/Desmond Tutu Prize

Images courtesy of and

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