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Human Rights Violation Hearings
Type HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATION HEARINGS
Starting Date 10 June 1996
Case Number CT/
Victim FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY
Testimony FATHER MICHAEL LAPSLEY
Nature SEVERELY INJURED BY A LETTER BOMB
Chairperson, before I call the next witness Iíd like to extend a very warm word of welcome to some international visitors. To Joan Malhern and Stacey Taber from the United States who are law students. Theyíre standing right at the back there, weíre very glad to see them. Also with them Ricardo Maranda from Gwatamala - weíre glad to see him.
All three are - well one is a journalist, two are law students and they are working in co-operation with NADEL in South Africa and the National Lawyers Guild and the National Conference of Black Lawyers in the United States of America. Weíre very pleased to have then with us for a while.
Chairperson, I understand that Dean Markes is here and if he would mind standing for a second so we can recognise - thank you very much, we welcome. The following witness is Father Michael Lapsley and Iíll ask him to please come forward. Father Lapsley I would like to welcome you [indistinct] and very grateful to you for coming to share with us your own experience. In particular you will be telling us about a parcel bomb explosion of 28th of April in 1990 in Harare which brought about extremely serious injuries.
Perhaps just by way of introduction you are an ordained priest of the Anglican Church and presently the Chaplain to the trauma Centre for victims of violence and torture in Cape Town, is that correct?
Yes, thank you very much. May I just say also on beginning that I have the privilege of telling my story many times in South Africa and around the world but I think for me this has a particular [indistinct] in significance to be able to tell it to a Commission which represents the nation.
And I want to express my own respect to the Commissioners for the way they are hearing the pain of the nation. And for the opportunity to share my own story. I was - Iím originally from New Zealand, I was born and brought up there. I went to Australia to train to become a priest and I joined an Anglican religious community - the society of the sacred mission in Australia and it was my community - the society of the sacred mission which transferred me to South Africa in 1973.
And I became a university student at the University of Natal in Durban and subsequently Chaplain to the three campuses in Durban. And maybe I might observe that through out the time that I was in South Africa I was a convinced pacifist - which Iím sure the Arch Bishop will agree is not typical for Anglicans.
This - but it was for me I suppose the turning point was 1976 - the Soweto uprising and the killing of school children that changed me very dramatically. And I was at that stage National Chaplain for Anglican students and I was speaking out against the killing of school children and the torture of children during that - that year. And then I was expelled from South Africa in September 1976 and then I went to Lesotho - I was - continued my studies in Lesotho, became Chaplain at the university, trained priests for the daises of Lesotho.
But in Lesotho also I - I joined the African National Congress of South Africa. Not having been born in South Africa that was a way I understood that I was taking citizenship in the South African that we were still fighting for. And it was in Lesotho - the - perhaps the first indications came that I might be on a South African Government hit list, particularly through the citizen news paper and the [indistinct] news letter there were articles written diminishing me thatís appeared around 1979, 1980.
At the end of 1982 the South African Defence Force attacked Lesotho and 42 people was shot dead. I was away from Lesotho at the time but it was believed particularly by the church authorities that I was one of the targets of that massacre and then I was forced by the church to leave Lesotho. And I went to Zimbabwe - I lived from 1983 to 1992 - trough out the period I was a - a Chaplain of the ANC, Iíd headed an ANC unit at the National University of Lesotho. In the ANC I was involved in educational, pastoral and theological work - the work of an Chaplain of the ANC and in Zimbabwe I was head of the ANC Education Committee.
But the - I was not an employee of the ANC - I did various church work, working for the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe and also for the Lutheran World Federation. And I did a masters degree in Zimbabwe as well. In - and I was part of the community - the exile community in Lesotho and subsequently in Zimbabwe.
I canít remember the exact date but in about in 1988 - I think it was - the Zimbabwe Authorities came to me and they said that we have information that you are on a South African Government hit list. They said that we believe that there may be some attempt by commandos to kill you.
Itís one of the moments I remember when I was called into this office and told that the Government of South Africa wishes to kill you. And I remember the loneliness in the way of the moment because it was very personal - it wasnít simply that they wanted to kill members of the ANC but it was me in particular. And you may be ask what it was that I was living for if in fact they may wish to kill me for it - I came to the conclusion that the only way that I could be a threat to the apartheid state was because of my theology.
Because I believed that apartheid was a choice and an option for death carried out in the name of the Gospel of live. And my work was the work of mobilising the religious community in South Africa and internationally to applause apartheid as an issue of faith. Now 1990 came Nelson Mandela was released, the political organisations of the people were un-banned but I forgot the say that when the Zimbabwean Government said that they had information that the South African Government who wished to kill they asked me to except an 24 hour armed police guards and I had those armed police guards.
I suppose it was for about 2 years and then there were around end of í89 the end of 1990 there where assurances from Magnus Malan that there would be no further attacks on front line states and my armed guards were removed. And after February the 2nd - although we kept saying we shouldnít be naÔve we relaxed. February, March into April I visited Canada invited by the Canadian Churches to speak about what the significance was of the release of Nelson Mandela.
At the end of April 1990 I returned from this visit and I was about to start a new job as a parish priest in Bulowayo having been working for the Lutheran Bop Federation for the previous couple of years and you know when youíve been away for about 6 weeks - especially as a priest - like other people you get lots of mail of all sorts of shapes and sizes and all this mail had accumulated whilst I was away. And perhaps naturally when I first got hold and read all the personal letters and left all those [indistinct] envelopes to be opened a bit later.
But there had been a letter which had come from - from South Africa written on ANC letter head from somebody who called himself Vusi - a type written letter saying that he - he had some religious literature of some kind of [indistinct] literature that I might be interested in and he would soon be sending it. I didnít I suppose attach that much significance to the letter in that I had this vast amount of mail that I was simply ploughing through.
But there was also a slip from the post office to go and collect a registered article. So Iíd gone to collect that but hadnít in fact opened it - I just pilled the envelope with other envelopes. So about a week after my return from Canada I had a farewell party on a Saturday - on the Monday I was starting a new job in Bulowayo. I came back from the party in the early evening and I continue to open mail and I sat opposite a colleague I stayed with, Andrew Mattishwe - a young Zimbabwean teacher.
I stayed with two young Zimbabweans and we were chatting about the party and I actually said I was about to phone Tito Mboweni - heís an old friend of mine. And I was about to pick up the phone at the same time I was opening the mail - the accumulated mail.
So I came upon this [indistinct] envelope that had been among the accumulated mail. I opened it and it was addressed to me and inside where two religious magazines and they - the magazines were - were wrapped in plastic - sealed in plastic. So I ripped open the plastic and took out the magazines both religious - one in Afrikaans one in English.
I put aside the Afrikaans one because my Afrikaans is not very good and I opened the English magazine and the act of opening the magazine was the detonating devise for a bomb. I - one of the extraordinary things was that I, and the doctors donít know why, I didnít become unconscious - I didnít go into shock. The ceiling of three rooms blew out and there was a hole in the floor and I can still remember what happened - the actual explosion it still - itís still - itís still something with me.
I remember pain of a scale that I didnít think a human being could ever experience. I remember going into darkness - being thrown backwards by the force of the bomb. The exact angle saved my life that I opened it - I opened it on a - a small coffee table. If Iíd opened it on a - something like this - a table like this it would have killed me because it would have knocked out the - the heart or knocked of the head. But because I was opening it on - down on a lower angle it blew off my hands - I lost an eye, my eardrums where shattered.
I think perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all was that I felt the presents of God with me in the bombing. I felt also that - that Mary had watched her son being crucified. Also understood what it was that I was going through, I remember the calling out for an ambulance, calling for the police. I suppose in a way my - my years of Chaplain of the ANC, the people Iíd had to bury in a way also helped prepare me. I think I had long realised that it was only through sacrifice that - can we have some water - that our freedom would come.
And I suppose Iíd face the possibility of my own death and I had never - Iíd never - sorry but Iíd never face the possibility of major permanent disability. So I was taken to the hospital for a variety of complex reasons - I didnít receive any treatment for about 6 hours and remained in pain for that period. And in darkness and I guess for little bit of the time after I came round after the operations that happened later in the night, I thought maybe it would have been better to have died when I realised I had no hands. Iíve never met another human being with no hands, I didnít know whether life would be life and meaningful since.
They didnít know whether I would ever see properly again, I lost one eye - couldnít see properly out of the other. I couldnít hear properly because the eardrums were scattered, I was burned extensively. I had a broken arm and just a fast number of injuries but Iíd also travelled the world for years in the cause of the struggle against apartheid and one of the effects of that was when I was bombed - I think that when I was bombed I would say this that I became the focus of evil because of something very personal about a letter bomb that was supposed to kill me but in the response all over the world Iíd became the focus of all that is beautiful in the human community.
Our ability to be turned the loving compassionate and I think thatís what enabled me to take that situation and make it redemptive to bring the life out of the death - the good out of the evil. But I - I spent a month in hospital in Harare and then I was flown to Australia where I spent 3 months in a [indistinct] hospital in Sydney and then another 3 months at a rehabilitation hospital and then I returned to Zimbabwe to joblessness in that the Bishop who was suppose to employ me said well youíre disabled now, what can you do.
And I remember saying to him I think I can be more of a priest with no hands than I ever was with - with 2 hands. So thatís more or less the account of the bombing and that experience. I should say also that I was as helpless as a new born baby for 3 months. There was literally nothing that I could do for myself but I also said to myself that I - my struggle now is a struggle to get well - a struggle to return - a struggle to live my life as fully, as joyfully, as completely as possible and that would be my victory.
I also realised that I was filled with hatred, bitterness, self-pity, desire for revenge that they would have failed to kill the body, but they would have killed the soul. That I would be a permanent victim and today I would say that I see not simply as a survivor but Iím a victor over the evil and hatred and death that apartheid represented.
And the sign of the triumph of good but I want to just conclude on two other parts, I want to talk about responsibility and also what I would ask of the Commission. I my mind there was somebody obviously who typed my name on an envelope - a woman or a man who typed that bomb, also somebody who made it, who created it. And I have often asked the question about the person who made it - the person who typed my name.
What did they tell their children that night that they did that day, how did they describe when they said how was your day today. What were they saying that they actually did on that day? So of cause that person has a particular responsibility but I believe responsibility increases the higher you go up the chain of command. To my mind I have always been clear that the person I hold responsible [indistinct] for my bombing is FW De Klerk and the reason I say that is that remembering I was bombed on April 28th 1990 - on the eve of the first talks between the ANC and the Government.
FW De Klerk was the head of state, the death squads remained part of the machinery of the State. They - they were there within the machinery of the State, he knew about them - I know that for a fact. At a conference that Alex in fact chaired I spoke to Van Zyl Slabbert and he said I - I Van Zyl Slabbert went to De Klerk and told him about the death squads. He cannot say he didnít know and so I hold him politically and morally responsible for the attack on me. Iím not saying that he gave the command, Iím not saying he even necessary knew about my particular bomb - he may have but Iím saying because he knew the death squads were there and were part of the machinery of the State and did nothing to dismantle them I would hold him responsible.
I would also say that there is a sense in which - I know the Arch Bishop often speaks about the question of forgiveness and in a funny sort of way for me forgiveness is not yet on the agenda. And the reason I say that Iíve said that Iím not filled with hatred or bitterness or self-pity nor that I want revenge. I think - I think what I believe in is not retribution, I believe in restorative justice - not retributive justice, restorative justice. And for example if - if FW was to come to me or the person who made the bomb was to come to me and said Iím sorry for what I did.
And I want your forgiveness and this is what Iím now doing in the way of reparation. Not to me personally but to our country and our people, these are the kinds of things Iím doing to heal our land then of cause one would say of cause here is forgiveness, there would not be a problem about that.
But I havenít heard from De Klerk one work of remorse, I have not heard one acknowledgement of evil at all and Iíve heard very few voices coming from that community of perpetrators showing any sign of remorse or sorrow or willingness to make reparation and perhaps what makes - perhaps many survivors quite cynical is that rather we see golden handshakes - we see [indistinct] benefit coming from what in fact they had been parted to and I think that is particular gaoling to many people.
I think in - in - to conclude my last part is what do I ask from the Commission. I should say to that the Government of Zimbabwe has an open attempted murder docket in my case which is not complete because they have not found who was responsible. Now obviously there was a complex range - I think one must also be clear, one is not talking about the active and the individual. That bomb was so sophisticated that it could come through the post registered mail from South Africa to Zimbabwe and not explode until I opened it.
It also came to my private post office box - in fact not even mine one I shared with a friend. There was a grate deal of intelligence and sophistication - the sophistication that only lay within units such as the CCB and it certainly bough the [indistinct] of the CCB whether it was particular. So I say to the Commission I would like to know who was responsible - I would like to know the chain of command and Iím some ways more interested in the top of the chain of command that at the bottom.
Because their lies the greatest moral responsibility all though it may extend beyond the chain of command as Iíve said to the De Klerkís of the world and the members of the Stateís Security Council and the [indistinct] . So that I what Iím asking but also one of the things Iíve been thinking even this morning do I want to meet the person who made the bomb? The answer is it depends, I donít know if I could cope with somebody who doesnít care, I donít know if I could cope with somebody for whom there is no issue - who is perhaps so dehumanised that it doesnít matter that you make better bombs.
But if there is somebody who is trapped by what they have done - what theyíve been part to do perhaps to me and perhaps to many others then Iíd love to meet them. I think we could have a very interesting conversation where we could begin to discover each others common humanity and of cause - you know if somebody I was sorry but I want to ask them what they do for a living now, if they still make letter bombs. Iím not sure what that would mean but again if that person - if the sorry and they Ďre living their life in a new way, Iíd love to be able to say to them of cause - of cause I forgive you in that contexts, thank you very much.
Thank you Father Lapsley, thereís nothing that one can meaningfully add to that testimony, I think weíll go to Mr - the second Michael Wilsner and just say that you have been in Zimbabwe at the time when the incident happened and that you were in fact saw Father Lapsley after the incident, is that correct?
I was not in Zimbabwe at the actual moment of the bomb but I have had a very long relationship with Michael and Iíd like if I may to put my perspective in terms of the context for this - for this bomb?
[indistinct] met Michael in 1979 when I left South Africa to go to Lesotho as a war resister because I came to the conclusion that I could not serve in the SADF in any capacity what so ever. And Michael was at the time the warden of Lelapela Jeso Seminary in [indistinct] .
Michaelís house was a meeting point for South African refugees and all of us discovered each other there. It was the most remarkable place to be in. For people like me who had lived in a fairly closed white society it was the first time on a person to person level to be able to meet and to debate with and to converse with and to disagree with on an eyeball to eyeball level - fellow black South Africans.
And for me it was an conversion experience - I mean once I had gone through that, there was no turning back. And it was - I was not the only person for whom that was an important place to be. It was a house of peace, I want to emphasise that I never say weapons there - ever. It was a house of protest, it was a house of debate where people met in real terms and could discuss and disagree and that sort of thing.
But it was a house essentially of peace, it was sometimes a house of prayer. That is the contexts in which I met Michael, the only violence that I personally encountered while living in Lesotho was the two raids that happened from South African into Lesotho in 1982 and in 1985.
The level of terror which those caused killing and maiming civilians inside Lesotho is beyond description. The way in which the country and all of us living in the country felt raped by the kind of aggression and senseless killing that taking place across the border. Michaelís name was probably on a list for one of those raids, he just happened to have been out to the country at the time. There were times in Lesotho when everybody was scared particularly South Africans living in that society and Michael was quite clearly a particular target of the apartheid state.
Because unlike many others in the church, Michael would make no compromise. He was a target because he was white and because he as a very committed and a very public Christian supported the arms struggle against apartheid. This was not something which the apartheid state could easily overlook because his being challenged many of the myths which apartheid had put up as itís own and constructed.
The first myth that apartheid - that the apartheid state wanted people to believe was that the struggle was a struggle for the rationale survival of the whites against the blacks. On the one hand the ANC was portrayed as an all black organisation, on the other no white in their right mind would want to join it because it was out to destroy then. Than was the first myth, the second myth was that the ANC was portrayed as a Marxist, Atheist organisation.
To have a priest of the Anglican Church publicly being a member of it and functioning as itís Chaplain could not be condoned. And that despite the fact that in terms of the history of the ANC many priests have belonged to it - many religious people of many faiths have belonged to the ANC. The ANC was also identified almost entirely with Umkhonto we Sizwe - in other words the only picture which was given to the South African public was of an organisation with only one goal - violence, terror and destruction.
Michael while not a member of MK but wholeheartedly supporting the arm struggle exposed some of the contradictions with this kind of presentation. But the other thing that I think must have been enormous threat to the State was Michaelís effectiveness in communicating his message and that it self must have made him a target. Now youíve already heard what Michael - what Michaelís experience of the bomb was and the kind of devastating effect that it had on him personally.
I saw Michael 3 days after the bomb in the hospital in Harare - it was an awful sight. His face was charred and blackened, his beard had melted into his skin, his face was swollen to twice the size - twice itís normal size. In fact the only way that I could recognise him was by a single gold filling which he has in his teeth.
Both of his hands were taken off, he needed to hold his stumps up all the time because anything touching then cause him the most extraordinary pain. His lips were swollen and bleeding, his one eye was damaged completely by the explosion and he could see nothing at all out of the other one. We had to shout to make him hear but it seems as though he could hear just a little. He was in a terrible state, his sister Helen who was with him told us about how he would wake up at night, screaming, reliving the bomb.
I wanted to touch him but everywhere you looked - everywhere over his body was red and swollen and sore and painful. There was nowhere to touch him, we were grateful that he was alive but we were very aware that his live would be changed irrevocably from that moment on. There was very little any of us could do, except be there. It was an agonising time for everyone but non of us could even remotely imagine the kind of agony that he was going through.
From myself I want the perpetrators of deeds like this to be exposed and to be named. Or for them of their own accord to come forward and own the deeds that they have done. I would like to hear what they have to say for themselves, I would like to see them so that I can put a face to this kind of terror. The person who made this bomb that was sent to Michael is unlikely to be mad, there was a clear skill and professionalism in the way in which this whole dead was executed and to me itís quite inconceivable that they should be allowed to remain hidden within the society without any sense of ownership or remorse or regret.
Itís inconceivable that any one should be allowed to do this to another human being and to remain hidden. In any case for their own sake I would want them to come forward I say what they have done and what they thought they were doing. Then at leased we can begin perhaps to deal with it and take it somewhere. But behind all of these hidden players I also want to see the Government of the day express remorse and sorrow for what they did to us all, how they damaged the entire nation, both physically and psychologically.
Father Lapsley I would like to take it a little further, your comments about forgiveness and restorative justice. You will know better that most that the hole question of amnesty is - is very controversial.
You will also know that the amnesty provisions in South Africa are unique and very different and much more demanding that any other that I certainly know of in the world, but never the less. There is provision made for amnesty under certain circumstances. Now just to clarify my own mind - make sure that I understand what youíre saying.
If - so far we donít know who did this despicable thing to you. We can guess or we can have some very good idea about an organisation - the groupings - the authorities but personally who typed the letter, who sealed it and who made it and so on.
If any of those people and itís unlike that weíre ever find out - thatís the hard thing to accept but if any of those came and applied for amnesty and made full disclosure, they would receive amnesty in terms of the act. How do you see this, how do you feel about this because feeling level probably the strongest. Is that - does that meet with your restorative justice or is there something beyond that?
Well, you see my view has always been that it would be - have been much more desirable for there to be trials and then amnesty. I mean I was present when the Bishop of the church in the new South African spoke about the St James Massacre and I was fascinated when he said about how his son went to the prison to say on behalf of the congregation we forgive you. He was very quick to say - but I didnít say that he should be released. And that - that fascinated me because in fact that was a concept of forgiveness linked to justice.
But my few has been and I have been from the beginning in support of the Truth Commission. I believe that we are sacrificing a degree of justice which I think extremely painful to the nation for the sake of the greater good and the greater good as a saw it was if we hadnít had amnesty we were going to have civil war that was going to consume us all.
And that is the contexts in which I think I support my leaders in the insistence of amnesty but it remains very painful but the Arch Bishop had been a good teacher and I believe in very old fashion concepts of forgiveness. And it seems to me that in the Christian contexts weíll give this as a package deal and we often in South Africa make it something [indistinct] cheep and easy.
It seems to me the Christian understanding of forgiveness - itís about confession, itís about amendment of life, itís about remorse, itís about reparation. Itís a whole - whole package, now yes I would may get amnesty but that doesnít deal with the package, thatís legal thing and we know that. And I think one of the first things that the Arch Bishop said in the beginning of this Commission was that end of Tape 2, side A Ö direct my life in such a way. Iíd say with Godís help that Iím not consumed by that.
You know, I realised equally soon after I was bombed that if I spend my life pursuing those who did it to me, they would eat me up. Again that would consume me and I donít want to consumed, but that there is unfinished business. That is true of me so I think it is helpful for it to be linked. But if I can just make one other point that I had forgotten to make that I wanted to make and that really relates to reparation.
You know because Iím a member of a religious order and a priest of the church in 20, 30, 40 years time if I have problems of a medical or physiological or a psychiatric character, thereís a fair chance I would get help but Iím not sure that that may be true of some of my fellow South Africans.
And Iím very concerned and the recommendations that are made that it takes account of very long term needs. I can expect - Iíve had a whole serious of operations and in some ways although with major disability Iím in very good health. But I can imagine that in 20, 30 years time some of the effects of the bomb will actually come to and head a knew ways and I would be very concerned it people who donít have anything to say - cause you say to the people now do you want anything and they say no well we need this or that.
But in 20, 30, 40 years time thereís got be a quietly, that we as a society need to take care. Just as there are people whoíre having a quite psychiatric problems around the world because of the second world war now, who have never had them before and I think we need to learn that and I hope the reparations recommendations will - will institute those kind and structures for those who say no weíre fine but we may not be fine further down the track.
Father Mike I was very - I was very moved when you talked about your understanding at the time of your bombing. About what it must have meant for the mother of Christ to witness the crucifixion and in a sense I was realising that you were also making reference to your own family.
No, I mean I canít , I think itís a valid question, the - the - I would - can I put it this way. I see myself as belonging to a number of families. My natural family with my parents - my father is late, and my brothers and sisters - a family of a religious order - the Society of the Sacred Mission - a family of the church for very many years the family of the ANC having lived also in Zimbabwe and Lesotho - the family of both those nations.
When I was bombed all those families loved me in a very - in a very extraordinary way. The - and that was what enabled me - I mean the doctors said it would take 18 months to 2 years before I was well again and 7 months later I returned and I was fine and I think that is because of all those families and the roles through their prayers, their love, their support. Religious people - people who are not religious at all prayed. Two of my sisters came to see me in hospital.
The point that Iím making when I say that I canít is that it is difficult to know the - and I think sometimes in a strange kind of way and I think Iíve seen this watching this process that for the families - the mothers, the spouses, the friends in some ways itís harder that for the survivors and I think that when we talk about the concepts of forgiveness I think itís much easier for the survivor that for the relative of the one who has died.
Michael was a priest in the diocese of Lesotho when I was the Bishop of Lesotho. He has had me say this before, he was one of the most [indistinct] , most difficult priests Iíve ever had. Well, listening to Michael was [indistinct] there was probably other sides that I didnít always know, I mean he was always bringing - you may be why it was such a problem was that he was probably making you face up to things but it was also how he did it, it was horrible.
Iím going to say something I have said it - Iíve said to Michael which people will may find difficult: I in a way give thanks to God for what happened to Michael, itís a very difficult thing to say but he knows that Iím saying it and Iím saying it as someone who loves him very dearly. Because the Michael after the bomb outrage has been an incredible person, he has been an [indistinct] he speaks about forgiveness in a way that he probably knows his Arch Bishop who is about to leave doesnít always agree.
But he is an [indistinct] sort of living example for the kind of thing that we are trying to help be incarnated - be in-fleshed in our country. And I am very deeply humbled but also very proud that Michael is now a priest in my [indistinct] in Cape Town and a priest of which - of whom I am very deeply proud. I give thanks to God, I give thank to God for you Michael and I also give thanks for the experience through which you went because you can talk about crucifixion and resurrection because it is real - you - it is in your body.
You should see when he celebrates the Eucharist - Iíve sometimes stood next to him and got a little worried whether he was not going to overturn the [indistinct] or something. And there is an incredible kind of hush in almost every service that I have being with you because people somehow feel that they are in touch with goodness. I mean in a awful situation somehow they - they are aware they are in touch with light in darkness but they are in touch with life in death and somehow they know goodness is going to triumph over evil, we thank you, I think we should stand.