A terrorist or a freedom fighter? Letlapa Mphahlele a black South African, atheist and ex-combatant demonised the people he was fighting against and stands as a controversial figure who ‘had no choice to armed and violent resistance’. From prisoner to guerrilla combatant, he rose from a fledgling cadre to senior command in the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) – the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). As a youth, on the run seeking refuge across the African continent he endured a turbulent, nomadic life in exile for nearly 20 years. He defied South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), in which individuals, in return for amnesty, can ‘declare their past crimes and admit remorse’, and escaped criminal sentence for his command in the Heidelberg Tavern massacre (1993) responsible for the killing of four civilians.
Following Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, South Africa looked forward to its first multiracial elections with the hope and optimism for racial reconciliation in dismantling and tackling the decades of oppression, poverty and inequality. As an anti-Apartheid revolutionary, political thinker and philanthropist, Letlapa walks in the shadow of the late Mandela (Nobel Peace Prize,1993). With continuing violence and no ceasefire by the South African Defence Force (SADF), this triggered a train of retaliatory attacks by the black liberation movement APLA that sent shock waves through Cape Town – described as a ‘slaughter of innocents’. Mphahlele was the APLA military commander who ordered retaliatory attacks and the Heidelberg Tavern massacre where Ginn Fourie’s only daughter Lyndi aged 23 was killed.
Surprisingly, Letlapa does not shirk the responsibility for his command in the killing of innocent civilians nor does he shy away from the tough decisions or controversial social issues his country faces today. Letlapa sadly observes, ‘South Africa is suffering from “soul sickness” – we are not a normal society, we have not taken the exercise of healing to its logical conclusion.’
Today, Letlapa is the President of PAC, a politician, and an ambassador promoting ‘freedom, peace and cooperation’ through the Lyndi Fourie Foundation. A man of many sides, he is also a renowned author, poet and philosopher. He impresses with his directness, integrity, a man who simply loves his country and people. He has a great sense of humour, a big laugh and vociferously defends his controversial decisions and political activism. I talked with Letlapa on issues of violence and forgiveness during the Beyond Forgiving UK Tour (18-30 May).
Is the act of violence ever justified?
So does the act of violence not pose a great personal conflict for you, I ask? I questioned his motives and the justification for the part he played in the Cape Town killings and his subsequent evasion at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As a freedom fighter, Letlapa openly justifies his decision for violence in war. ‘The conditions of oppression and exploitation called for resistance… I felt strongly I had to play my role, no-one agitated me, no-one recruited me – but the circumstances resulted in my need for action.’
Does he not agree that violence only perpetuates more violence? Why had he giventhe order for the killing of civilians when negotiations were taking place to end Apartheid? He responded: ‘Violence is never a desirable matter and if we had had any choices then violence would not have been a first choice. However, at that time violence was necessary – over 20,000 African lives were lost through State (SADF) sponsored violence… I reasoned that the white regime needed to have a taste of its own medicine and that African lives should not be violated with impunity.’
In Letlapa’s early years he admits to being a born-again Christian but as a freedom fighter he became disenchanted with the Christian faith and ‘rebelled to all forms of worship’.I asked him what provoked this transformation to atheism. He said: ‘I used to be a fanatical Christian, going from house to house, trying to convert people to Christianity… However, I discovered there is much hypocrisy in the Church being the backbone of Apartheid… It was the indifference of Christians towards Apartheid, oppression, exploitation… so I had a debate with myself that if God was a God of Justice, Love, Mercy how could he be indifferent to the hatred, to the injustices and to the cruelty of what’s happening on this earth… Yes I am an atheist but it was not a question of switching off religion and switching on atheism.’
Responding to my question of whether the Heidelberg Tavern attack was rooted purely in a personal outburst of anger, he commented, ‘I don’t think that everybody who resists is necessarily angry but of course I was impatient and angry with the way that the Africans were dehumanised… If anger was the only factor for the attack, I could have ordered the killing of anyone that they [foot soldiers] came across… So it was not only the anger for the killing of the five schoolchildren at Umtata [which triggered the retalitory attack at the Heidelberg Tavern]… but the anger of the dispossessed… anger for years of slavery and conflict. My order was given not only out of pure anger but within the parameters of politics and history. Anger is not just a one day event but it was a trigger point of the accumulative interaction of injustices… anger I don’t believe is a permanent emotion… like the tide, it rises and it ebbs away… anger is fuelled by poor conditions. Once those conditions are improved then the anger too will fizzle out.’
So have conditions improved and what are the challenges for South Africa today? ‘To some extent inequality and decades of dehumanisation and devaluing of life has just been built into our “collective psyche”. In the history of South Africa we have glorified violence… the “soul sickness” of our country is that the death and killings of loved ones is the norm. Thousands of South African women are killed every year, and hundreds raped every day… Road rage exists where you get shot if you don’t indicate, young babies are being raped and these for me are all manifestations of “soul sickness” – the propensity towards violence… This is a country that cannot disengage from an ingrained culture of violence… So 20 years is too short a time to cure people who have been afflicted by this disease over centuries.’
‘South Africa is suffering from soul sickness’
An act of forgiveness
Whilst injustices and war are often blamed for needless innocent deaths, the reasons behind the violence in Letlapa’s eyes were justifiable. Twenty years on, I asked why had he refused to apologise or take part in the TRC process.
Letlapa responded, ‘It was a just war and there was no reason to apply for amnesty or apologise for the attack. I did not think that it is a good precedent for a freedom fighter to ask for forgiveness for fighting for freedom otherwise what message does this give.’ He adds, ‘I was critical of the process of TRC because the outcome of TRC did an injustice to the struggle of liberation and those who have been oppressed… I was not prepared to face the TRC as I believed it was a sham where those who were accompanied by lawyers manipulate the truth… If TRC were to be reinstated today, I still wouldn’t appear before the TRC tomorrow… The reason being, when I applied for amnesty for everything that happened they stated that crime cannot be generalised, it has to be individualised. So I have a problem with the criminalisation of the “struggle”… I don’t think TRC has a monopoly on forgiveness.’
There is much to reflect on forgiveness, for many it is difficult to comprehend and for most it does not come easily. Christians are taught to forgive everyone, to let go of the feeling of anger or resentment and to keep on forgiving. With criminal charges mysteriously dropped and little or no justice for a victim’s family, it is difficult to imagine that forgiveness is at all possible – but Ginn Fourie did forgive.
As a Christian, Ginn Fourie took such steps and reached out and offered forgiveness to the men who killed her daughter. Ginn gives a moving account of her first meeting with Letlapa: ‘I started to feel admiration for his honesty and integrity… the remorse in his eyes and in his body language and understood why he could not say sorry.’ Ginn adds: ‘Forgiveness is part of the process of moving from victimhood, because as one takes this principled decision to give up your right to revenge and start seeing the humanity in the person who’s committed or perpetrated against you, you no longer feel as though the wound is just yours, you start seeing the woundedness of the other.’
Letlapa describes that moment of forgiveness as ‘a restoration of his humanity’. He comments, ‘Yes, it was Ginn who understood why I could not say sorry. She said in spite of the pain that you caused me, I forgive you. Now that was like being “struck by lightning” out of the blue on a cloudless day.’
I asked Letlapa how difficult it was to forgive himself? Letlapa answered: ‘Forgiveness is not a destination but a journey… I think that the act of forgiveness, the starting point is oneself, the whole world can forgive you but if you don’t forgive yourself then that act just collapses… so some self-destructive decisions that we might take – for example, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicidal tendencies – are because we struggle to forgive ourselves and indeed Ginn encourages me to forgive myself… I have a responsibility to accept the gift of forgiveness, and that in itself, is the gift I give to Ginn and the entire world.’
But also for Ginn forgiveness is a challenge with a ‘burden of guilt’ that weighs heavily for the acts of her British colonial ancestors. She says, ‘We have shared each other’s blood for the injustices in South Africa.’ This act of forgiveness was poignantly demonstrated at Letlapa’s homecoming ceremony when she asked for forgiveness. Letlapa spoke of the significance: ‘At the end of the war we have to make peace so that there is co-existence… Ginn delivered the most moving speech of the day and she got the loudest applause – louder than I got after nearly two decades in exile… Ginn stood up and asked for forgiveness from the people on behalf of her ancestors… She understood me where other people couldn’t understand these terroristsstill being unapologetic… but she understood that this person is remorseful.’
Can forgiveness be a substitute for justice?
For justice to be achieved it is assumed that when a crime has been committed, if found guilty, appropriate sentence is given through the criminal justice system and served. In restorative justice, bringing victim and perpetrator face to face, offenders are still held to account for what they have done and required to take responsibility and make amends. With Letlapa’s impassioned rhetoric: ’You cannot reconcile the dispossessed with the dispossessor; the oppressed with the oppressor’, has his position changed and does he believe forgiveness can be a substitute for justice?
Letlapa is very clear in his response: ‘For me forgiveness should not substitute justice. I was more than prepared to be tried in a criminal court to answer for my actions… Even after Ginn had forgiven me I did not go to withdraw charges. The justice factors should be independent from what people do in forgiving and not be part of legislature.’ Letlapa added: ‘Today all forgiveness and conciliation is concentrated just on one rail to the detriment of another… Reconciliation should not move strictly on one rail – that of morality and religious belief that is deemed to be good. Reconciliation and forgiveness should move on two rails – that of social, political and economic justice.’
Ginn also comments on the need for a justice that beckons us all to take collective responsibility. ‘Just imagine if in our woundedness, separation, alienation and loneliness, we acknowledge our complicity in the injustices of the past. Reach across the divide as individuals and communities and then hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.’
Forgiveness is an endless subject with no clear answers. The debate on whether violence is justified remains controversial. Letlapa stresses he does not feel the need to ‘apologise’ but it does raise the paradoxical issue of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons’ and the duality of the world we live in.
‘Reach across the divide’
Today, Letlapa voluntarily works with Ginn through the Lyndi Fourie Foundation to help others, through conciliation, heal from the wounds of conflict and war. He concludes: ‘When people say who was Lyndi Fourie the story will be told and retold and Lyndi’s name forever will be associated with conciliation.’
In Letlapa’s home town trees have been planted in memory of those killed by the bullets of APLA. An outward gesture of sorrow for the blood of innocents that has seeded forgiveness and hope in South Africa and beyond.
by Yee-Liu Williams