In the first of our blogs from storytellers Letlapa Mphalele talks about faith, freedom and forgiveness.

Letlapa Mphahlele was born and grew up in rural South Africa during the height of apartheid. At the age of seventeen he went into exile to join the liberation struggle. Rising through the ranks of the Azania People's Liberation Army (APLA), the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, he became its director of operations. In 1993 Letlapa ordered several high profile retaliatory massacres, including at the Heidelberg Tavern where Lyndi Fourie, a student, was amongst those killed. Her mother Ginn Fourie later forgave Letlapa. The film Beyond Forgiving tells their story.

Growing up in white-dominated South Africa, where the rulers publicly professed their belief in the doctrine of Herrenvolkism (Afrikaans for "God's chosen people") meant that for me the Christian faith increasingly merged into the politics of oppressive power. It was therefore easy for me to embrace atheism at the age of twenty.

Be that as it may, I do not judge people by what they believe, or don't believe. Beliefs, or the absence thereof, do not necessarily make people good or bad. I learnt that many years ago, when in exile in neighbouring Botswana. I believed I was a freedom fighter. Together with my comrades, we all believed in freedom. But little did we know, that we knew very little about freedom.

It took one football game to unmask us as oppressors in freedom fighters' skin.

A group of us visited a neighbouring village to play football. The opposing team consisted of Khoisan players, what the wider world knows as Bushmen. They outplayed us and yet the referee, who happened to be one of us, made us winners against all the rules of the game. A hollow victory it was but we all agreed we could not let Bushmen beat us.

This was more than a game of football, it was an arena of prejudice. We believed in freedom. Freedom for ourselves, not for others. We resisted white supremacy. But we carried ethnic supremacy in our hearts, in our heads.

In a journey, we discover new places. Most importantly, we also discover ourselves. We learn a lot by listening to our friends. But we learn even more by listening to our enemies, or to the people we regard as our enemies. By listening to what they have to say. And even by listening to what they do not say.

We grow a bit taller by discovering that the people we believed were beasts, are actually more humane than ourselves.

If a man walks in the moccasins of someone who has caused death to his friend that man is sending a message humanity should listen to.

It is said, "There are no black and white answers to multi-coloured questions." It is sometimes convenient though to see the universe in black and/or white lenses. It is even more convenient if your oppressor is white and espouses white supremacy.

In the wake of APLA attacks on white targets, which I had authorised as director of operations, a journalist asked me if I would object to meeting a survivor of the attack I had ordered. A meeting was arranged and at last I was face-to-face with Charl van Wyk, the man who had survived a deadly attack on St. James Church in Cape Town and had actually shot back at the APLA attackers.

We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. I told him how violent history of colonialism had angered me and my generation to the point where we resorted to violence as a means of ending violence.

Charl is a deeply religious man. An old school Christian, and in one of our subsequent meetings he invited me to a church service. I told him, that as an atheist, I do not attend services of any religious group. However, because I was not invited by a religion, but invited by a man on a mission to heal our wounded past, I willingly accepted the invitation. After decades of staying away from church services, I found myself attending one with the "enemy", at the invitation of the "enemy".

Some saw the miracle of God at work. I saw a huge human potential in overcoming the barriers of "othering".

The man I hated, to the point of planning his death, once I got to know him I enjoyed his company and his sense of humour.

The meeting with Charl was a memorable landmark of my journey.

The story of my journey will be incomplete without relating how I met, and later worked together with, Ginn Fourie. Her daughter, Lyndi, died in an attack which I had ordered. She had every reason to hate me, and even to hate the ground I trod on.

The first time I met Ginn it was at the event hosted by Cape Town Press Club. Never before had I come so close to a person who had lost her beloved child as a result of my decision. This was the beginning of a tearful journey.

In our follow-up meeting, Ginn asked me if I believed in God. For an atheist the answer was obvious. Unperturbed, she asked me if I believed in spirituality. Yes, I told her that I believe that every human being has a spiritual dimension, if by spirituality we mean connectedness with oneself, with the community and with the cosmos. She then said in spite of the pain and the loss I caused her, she forgave me. No words can describe how I felt at that time. The moment defies description in words.

I felt my humanity being restored by someone who I had identified as a legitimate target of the armed struggle.

Earlier on charges of terrorism and murder were withdrawn against me by the court of law. But there's no law, that I know of, which says people must forgive the killers of their children. When charges were withdrawn, I felt nothing compared to when Ginn, unasked, uttered words of forgiveness. The feeling of gratitude was deep and intense. To date I'm still thankful to Ginn for the gift of forgiveness.

Beyond prejudices we inherited from our forebears, across the fences and walls we erect around ourselves, across doctrines and dogmas we uphold, perhaps it helps to acknowledge that there's a thread that runs through all the ideologies and all the schools of thought: common humanity. And if we recognise humanity in others, no matter how different from us they look and dress and talk and worship, we'll be nourishing and watering the roots of our own humanity.

Even as we draw battle lines, we ought to recall that among people we designate as enemies, there are Ginns and Charls. If only we can magnify our common humanity. Is this a vision that can unite atheists like myself with a variety of religious believers where we come together for a greater "Yes" - the reality of a shared humanity.

A longer version of this blog was first published in 2018 in Progressive Voices, the publication of the Progressive Christianity Network Britain.

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