6th January 2021

Letlapa Mphahlele on prejudice, apartheid and the burden of being forgiven

Marina Cantacuzino talks to Letlapa Mphahlele about his role in the struggle against apartheid and how he came to meet the mother of one of his victims. Ginn Fourie’s daughter was killed in 1993 at a massacre in a Cape Town bar. Nine years later she met Letlapa, the former Director of Operations for the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, who had ordered the attack.

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Show Notes

Letlapa, a South African, left the country aged 17 in 1978 in the wake of the Soweto student uprisings. In exile he joined the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and its armed wing, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA). He rose through the ranks of the guerrilla army until he became its director of operations. Following a democratic election in SA, he embarked on a forgiveness journey with some of the people who have lost their loved ones, and with those who were hurt as a result of his orders. Letlapa lives in Johannesburg.

Read Letlapa’s story

Letlapa’s journey of forgiveness is captured in the award-winning film Beyond Forgiving, produced by Imad Karam and Initiatives of Change. Thank you to Initiatives of Change for allowing us to use a clip in this episode.

Letlapa is also an author of several books, including Child of this Soil – My Life as a Freedom Fighter, which is presently being developed into a film.

Transcript

Marina: Welcome to the F Word Podcast – a podcast series which examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through. I will be talking fortnightly to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.

“I am now coming face to face with the person who was responsible for Lyndi’s death. I had this perception of an evil person”

“For the first time I met someone whose daughter died as a result of my commandment”

So what you heard there were a few clips from the award winning film, “Beyond Forgiving” which tells the story of how my guest today, Letlapa Mphahele, came to meet Ginn Fourie, the mother of one of his victims.

Letlapa was once the Commander of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army in South Africa during the bitter and brutal years of Apartheid and he planned and ordered the attack which in 1993 saw student, Lyndi Fourie, gunned down and murdered in a bar in Cape Town.

Five years later, Letlapa, having avoided both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and prison was promoting his memoir at a book launch in Cape Town when Ginn turned up to confront him. So this is very much a shared narrative and one that I think beautifully represents a model for repairing broken communities and mending broken hearts.

Letlapa it is an incredibly moving difficult story.

Letlapa: Yes

Marina: But you choose to go public with, to choose to tell in many different ways.

Letlapa: Indeed.

Marina: I think it would be useful perhaps to start with this hatred that you must have experienced every day of your life, perhaps. You, yourself was demonised as a black, young man growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era. How did that rub off on you in the sense of the way how you treated others during those years of Apartheid?

Letlapa: It is a common thing that once you have a master lording over you, you aspire to be one and obviously you cannot be a master of your master. You look at all human beings who look inferior to you and these are some of the negative traits that I had imbued from the master race, the white people.

For instance when we were in exile in Botswana there was a time when we had to play people in the neighbouring village and those people happened to be the Khoesans, commonly known as the Bushmen.

Maria: By the way he is referring here to playing a game of football. Football being one of Letlapa’s greatest passions.

Letlapa. They outplayed us but we won the game because the referee was one of us and at the end of the game we all summed it up in one phrase, “We could not let the Bushmen beat us”. So we had superior airs too, people who are different to us, so it is easy to see the oppressor next door and ignore the oppressor in oneself.

Marina: Did you recognise that about yourself at the time or is it something now that looking back you see those tendencies in you to actually look down on others as you were looked down on?

Letlapa: Well, at the time I saw nothing wrong and I am not trying to say I have outlived that. I think the damage is indelible. I still have hell over that but they manifest themselves differently. For instance, one time I was flying and to my shock and horror the pilot was a black man and I felt as if the plane was going to crash. Now, then I ask myself am I liberated. Certainly not.

Marina: So, Letlapa, a very famous quote by Gandhi is

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”

And you once said something which really made an impression on me, actually, made this quote very real for me.

I don’t know if you remember but you said and I am quoting you here, you said,

“I believed then that terror had to be answered with terror and I authorised high profile massacres on white civilians in the same way that the whites did on us. At the time it seemed the only valid response but where would it have ended if my enemy had been cannibals, would I have eaten white flesh? If my enemy had raped black women, would I have raped white women?”

How does that thinking start to change? Where does it lead this cycle of revenge? It escalates and it ends in terror and appalling acts of harm and atrocities so was it gradual that change of thinking away from an eye for an eye?

Letlapa: Yes, indeed. Because people who I regarded as enemies I had demonised them. It was gradual, indeed, and still is a journey. I wouldn’t say I have reached it. Sometimes if somebody doesn’t greet me, I don’t greet them.

Marina: So just to repeat that Letlapa is saying that sometimes if somebody doesn’t greet him, he won’t greet them back.

Letlapa: So those people have set standards for me which are very low standards. It’s an inner struggle. It was gradual in the sense that, credit to Ginn as well, because we discussed at length violence, anger and the implications and I literally realised that I was a coward because if the enemy punches you, you punch back but I discovered this but if you disarm you need to call the enemy by not stooping to their level. I admired those people who in the face of provocation, they don’t stoop to the methods of those people who have provoked them.

So, it was very gradual and it is still is gradual for me. I wouldn’t say I am there yet.

Marina: Are there examples, Letlapa, of things today that in many ways should have changed and your feelings should have changed but you’re just stuck into an old way of thinking and feeling?

Letlapa: Yes, the struggle I am going through and many times I had found that my heart is not aligned to my head. For instance, many years after South Africa attained freedom and normalised sport and other cultural codes I find it very, very hard to support the Springboks.

Marina: Even though it is a black and white team, now?

Letlapa: Well, even though the captain sometimes is a black person but I haven’t moved with times and I support anyone who plays against them and I get disappointed when the Springboks win! However, to challenge my heart I had to summon my head and I bought a Springbok jersey and a cap.

Marina: Jersey and a cap?

Letlapa: Jersey and a cap, so whenever Springboks play an away game and the warmth, the friendship and reception that I get especially from white people who see me as a fellow compatriot, supporting the national team and while they do that I feel that I should reciprocate. I should return their warmth, their greetings you know and even their well wishes. But, at that level I enjoy their warmth but my heart will be different from what my head is saying. It’s an inner struggle.

Marina: I love that example of a jumper and a cap being a sort of an instrument to building shared humanity.

Letlapa: Yes, which means I am doing something unique and letting the past take hold of me. Sometimes I make small, little attempts at normalising myself.

Marina: You said once that you had demonised people you were fighting against but when people started to reach out to you like Ginn, it was like an opening of a world that was until then closed to you and you said it was one of the most profound and humbling experiences of your life.

Letlapa: Yes, indeed.

Marina: So, Letlapa, you have spoken your story with Ginn a lot but now Ginn has moved to be with her son in Australia so I presume you see much less of her and yet it is a shared narrative. How does it feel talking about this thing and this relationship and friendship that developed? How does it feel doing it on your own without Ginn by your side?

Letlapa: I feel inadequate. This story is incomplete without Ginn on the stage with me because she is the initiator of this journey and whilst we might communicate frequently but her kind of presence in the telling of this story is highly desirable.

Marina: It is very useful to have the film, Beyond Forgiving, isn’t it which tells your story and has a lot of interview footage with Ginn so people at least have a real sense of who she is and where she is coming from.

Letlapa: True.

Marina: What about the sort of cathartic nature of sharing your story? I imagine you wouldn’t do it if it didn’t serve you as well. There is an altruistic element and a form of meaning-making and wanting to help people understand the context and how people can recover and heal after violence but it is not just that is it, it must help you as well to talk about what happened and why you were involved in the violence struggle.

Letlapa: I think the journey that Ginn and I embarked on is part of story-telling because we made every book launch and what was that book about it tells about a story and even the reason I wrote the book, because I wrote a book when I was underground. I had foreseen my death and I did not want to die. I felt I wanted to leave something that would outlive me and what would be that something, it would be a story.

So, story-telling is a releasing and whilst people have time to tell their story they feel better. I feel that with me especially if that person could listen and those people who had reached out to me they did not reach out to me over a cup of tea and a pipe, they had their story and I had my story and so we could tell our stories.

Marina: Ginn is a white, Christian woman. You are a black, atheist man. You come from incredibly different backgrounds, different stories, different history and I have seen you together many times, there is a real connection between you which it sounds to me you didn’t have to work very hard at. Is that right or is that wrong?

Letlapa: Well I didn’t have to work very hard at that and thanks to Ginn she carried a lot of the weight that I was supposed to carry and as you said the contrast is massive, one atheist, one Christian and I have learnt to appreciate the fact that forgiveness has little if not nothing to do with one’s beliefs or the absence of them.

Marina: She was very open always wasn’t she to including you in her life.

You first met Ginn Fourie in 2002 when she turned up at your book launch in Cape Town. She confronted you from the audience but afterwards when you went up to her she described seeing remorse in your eyes and she said to me about that moment. She said, “It would have been so much easier if he had been a monster with horns and a tail”.

I think she meant it would have been so much easier to hate you and yet, she came to forgive you and I am really interested to know how that happened and what effect this gift of forgiveness had on you, Letlapa.

Letlapa: On my side, I thought or I wished she didn’t forgive me because as soon as she forgave me I felt a burden of responsibility weighing down my shoulders. It is easy to be unforgiven because you don’t have to prove anything but to be forgiven you get your humanity restored and at the same time you have to reciprocate that. And, that becomes a debt, there needs to be payment for the rest of one’s life, daily you have to prove that you are worthy of forgiving or you are worthy of forgiveness. It is not easy to be forgiven because you have to rise to the occasion.

Marina: Have you been challenged with it?

Letlapa: Seriously challenged. For instance, I always ask myself if I were to be in Ginn’s position of losing a close relative and I know who the killers are would I forgive? I don’t find it easy but then there will be a reminder. You have been forgiven.

Marina: How did she come to forgive you? Was it Instantaneous or was it a long process. When I say instantaneous from that moment of her meeting you and seeing you as a human being, seeing your humanity?

Letlapa: According to her the first time we met at the Cape Town book launch she saw remorsefulness in my eyes.

Marina: Remorsefulness?

Letlapa: That is what she said and when we had the second meeting and she looked me in the eye then she offered me that gift of forgiveness but she was honest to say, if she had met me immediately after the incident she could have throttled my throat, but there was a time lapse of 9 years. I first met her 9 years after the incident. I did not ask forgiveness from Ginn but all I wanted her to do was to listen to my story and it came upon us unexpectedly the gift of forgiveness.

Marina: How did that forgiveness affect you in the sense of how you viewed the world, how you felt about yourself? People talk about forgiveness being liberating both for the person who has been harmed but also for the person who is being forgiven. They talk about it as an opening, as a lightness. How did it actually feel for you?

Letlapa: Forgiveness goes straight to the heart, the heart of the forgiven and it was hugely liberating. Just before she forgave me I was pardoned by the State but I felt nothing and later on a journalist wrote that after Ginn had forgiven me I was released from prison – literally so, and Ginn wanted to take up this story with a journalist and I said, no, actually that is how I felt. I felt like being released from prison and when you are forgiven you regret what you have done but at the same time you imagine in the event of no forgiveness, how would that feel. But, if you are forgiven you feel liberated. At least it was the case in my situation.

Marina: I can’t let what Letlapa said there pass without referring to Nelson Mandela’s famous statement from release from prison following decades behind bars. In an astonishingly encyclical moment and knowing his work to unite the country meant he would have to reach out to people on all sides, he declared, “as I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I would still be in prison”.

Another moment of catharsis that has been described in your story. Ginn talks about it and you refer to it often, is when you invited Ginn to your home coming. This was after you met her at the book launch. It was your homecoming in the village and it was an extraordinary, brave thing for you to do in a way. It could have backfired terribly to invite a white woman just shortly after the end of Apartheid to your home. What motivated you to do that and what happened at that event?

Letlapa: Because Ginn had given me that gift of forgiveness and that was a small token of appreciation to invite her to my homecoming ceremony and later on of course there was a time when she spent a few weeks in my village and we had a line up of speakers, but the speaker of the day – even by the response of the audience – was Ginn for obvious reasons.

She wasn’t a politician and no one could have misinterpreted her speech to be a vote catcher. She was speaking form the heart and what she said was moving to the audience, especially when she acknowledged the painful history of the African people and not only that went on to apologise on behalf of her ancestors. I think it was at that moment when the hall exploded, there were more people outside than there was inside.

Marina: She apologised for slavery, for colonialism

Letlapa: And for Apartheid.

Marina: And for Apartheid, yes. A very powerful moment and a very unusual moment, Letlapa. People don’t do that. White people don’t do that.

Letlapa: Until then I hadn’t heard a white person doing it. It was the first time I heard a white person apologising. Yes, politicians when they need the votes they can go an extra mile but normally there wouldn’t be any meaning but with her she was meaning every word she was saying. And, what struck me even white on white violence she had on many occasions apologised to the Afrikaans, to the Boers for the concentration camps that the English had and I’ve seen people tearful when she did that.

And part of this storytelling – no compensation in terms of money, nothing material, but it performs magic in the eyes of people that here is a person who wasn’t even born during these atrocities but on behalf of her ascendants she is apologising.

Marina: Incredibly powerful. When an apology is sincere and it comes from the heart it can move things along, cant it. The recognition and the acknowledgement.

She says a very powerful moving story in the film, “Beyond Forgiving” which I recently re-watched and she describes the moment at that ceremony where a young black man comes up to her and wants a photograph taken with her. He says, “I have to have a photograph to take it back to my home and my family, my village, to show them that a white person understands.”

It’s moving. It’s horrifying. That was and I think in many cases still is so unusual, that response, Ginn’s response.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission I recently heard someone say something interesting which I had never heard before. It’s an expert, it’s a man who runs the Restitution Institute in South Africa and he was saying that he felt one of the shortfalls of the Commission was that they only looked at extreme atrocities, extreme violations, that they didn’t look at the everyday humiliation and for that reason white South Africans to day do not see themselves as complicit. This was a white man himself speaking. It is a strong, bold statement and obviously there are exceptions.

Do you recognise that?

Letlapa: Yes, indeed, because judges or the judiciary during Apartheid were asked to appear before the TRC.

Marina: So he is talking here about how judges and the judiciary were not forced to testify in front of The TRC, the TRC stands for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was a court-like Restorative Justice body assembled in South Africa after the end of Apartheid. For the first time victims and perpetrators of gross human rights abuses came face to face testifying in an attempt to heal wounds and to move forward.

Letlapa: Yes, judges were asked to appear before the TRC and they refused because there were four categories under which a person was supposed to appear before the TRC. I think its murder, abduction, torture and excessive violence, not necessarily in that order, but not only that I had a problem when this white business fraternity refused to go to the TRC and they never appeared before the TRC. Now this business, this sector, they are the biggest benefactors of Apartheid and colonialism because they got the cheapest labour imaginable based on race, but not all those things were considered because they were not “extreme” and yes, even at the time of the TRC I had a problem when we confined these to extreme violence and other forms of extremisms.

Marina: Yes and the impact remains today.

So I want to thank you, Letlapa, for talking to me today. The work that you and Ginn are doing together to promote peace is such a powerful example of reconciliation. You once described your connection with Ginn as “meeting soul to soul person to person” and I think this makes possibly the greatest catalyst for change so I really want to thank you, Letlapa, for talking to me on the FWord Podcast. Thank you.

Letlapa: Thanks so much.

Marina: Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.

I also want to invite you to join the F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast and finally, all these podcasts have grown out of years of trying to shift the narrative of our time away from one of hate and division towards empathy and understanding.

So, if you have enjoyed this podcast please do consider donating even just the smallest amount to help us to continue our wok. All details of how to do this again are on the show notes page of our website.

But, most of all, I hope you will join me again when next time on the F Word Podcast I will be talking to Azim Khamisa, an American Sufi Muslim whose only son was gunned down by a pizza delivery boy in Santiago in 1995. Azim has since reached out to support his son’s killer and he works relentlessly to prevent further youth violence.

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