Photography by Louise Gubb
In 1993 Lyndi Fourie was killed in the Heidelberg Tavern Massacre in Cape Town, aged 23. Nine years later, her mother, Ginn Fourie, heard a radio interview with the man who had ordered the attack. Letlapa Mphahlele, the former Director of Operations of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA), the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), was in Cape Town to promote his biography, Child of this Soil.
On the evening of 30 December 1993, a hail of AK-47 gunfire ended our daughter’s life and dreams. Lyndi had no time to debate why the PAC wanted white people to suffer as black people had suffered under apartheid, even though she had often wept at the many injustices that black people had endured.
As parents, we struggled to come to terms with our loss. It was a time of deep agony for me, my husband and our son, Anthony. At the funeral my eldest brother, who conducted the service, recommended that the most appropriate Christian response to violence is to absorb it, just as Lyndi’s soft body had done on that fateful day.
Within a week of the Heidelberg Massacre three young men were detained, and in November 1994 they stood trial. I sat in the Supreme Court in Cape Town, looking at them in the dock: Humphrey Gqomfa, vuyisile Madasi and Zola Mabala. As I did so, I was confronted by my own feelings of anger and sadness, but somehow I could engender no hate. During the trial I sent a message to them via the interpreter which said, ‘If they are guilty or feel guilty, I forgive them.’
However, I also depended on the law to avenge my loss, and I was relieved when all three were convicted of murder and sent to prison for an average of 25 years each. The Judge described them as puppets: puppets who had carried out a violent crime which had been orchestrated by more cunning and intelligent people than themselves.
Many could not countenance my forgiveness for Lyndi’s killers, but as a Christian I cherished the memory of Christ forgiving his murderers. Since then I have come to understand forgiveness as a process which involves the principled decision to give up your justifiable right to revenge. Because to accept violation is a devaluation of the self.
At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in October 1997, I learnt that Lyndi’s killers were likely to be granted amnesty, and I did not oppose this. At the conclusion of the hearings the three young men asked to speak to me. They thanked me and said that they would take my message of forgiveness and hope to their communities and to their graves, whether they received amnesty or not.
Then, in October 2002, I turned on my car radio and heard an interview with Letlapa Mphahlele – the man who had masterminded the Heidelberg massacre. I knew he had been dodging the public prosecutor and had not applied for amnesty, and so with a sense of anger and righteous indignation I took myself down to his book launch.
During the event I stood up and asked him whether he was trivializing the TRC process by not taking part in it. To my surprise, he responded in a very positive way. He said he could understand why people might think this, but that in his view the TRC had trivialized the fact that APLA were fighting a just war. And why, he asked, while his soldiers were being held in prison, had the apartheid defence forces been spared? I hadn’t thought of it like this before, and I welled up with tears. Then Letlapa came straight from the podium to where I was sitting and said, ‘I’ll do anything if you’ll meet with me this week.’ In that moment I saw remorse in his eyes. It would have been so much easier if he had been a monster with horns and a tail.
People said he was unapologetic, but I soon discovered that for Letlapa saying ‘sorry’ is too easy. He wants to build bridges between our communities to bring conciliation. That October he invited me to his homecoming ceremony and asked me to make a speech. It was here that I was able to apologize to his people for the shame and humiliation which my ancestors had brought on them through slavery, colonialism and apartheid.
Letlapa’s name means ‘man of stone’ and I feel that he has been weathered by a formidable struggle to become a ‘child of this soil’. I too am a child of this soil. I know his comrades’ bullets killed my daughter, and that terrible pain will always be with me. But I have forgiven the man who gave the command. I feel his humanity.
I am an atheist but I believe absolutely in reconciliation, meeting soul to soul, person to person. As human beings, we have to face each other and mend relationships. Getting to know Ginn has been a profound and humbling experience for me. From our first meeting in 2002, Ginn understood me. While others couldn’t understand why these terrorists were still unapologetic, Ginn said that she detected remorse in me. By this time all the charges against me had been withdrawn, but still I felt nothing inside. It was only when people extended gifts of forgiveness that the roots of my heart were shaken, and something was restored inside me.
Since meeting Ginn, I’ve had to face the fact that people were killed because of my orders. I’ve also had to acknowledge that the people we fought and harmed and caused to grieve were never our direct enemies. I believed that terror had to be answered with terror, and I authorized high-profile massacres on white civilians in the same way that our oppressors had done to us. At the time it seemed the only valid response. But where would it have ended? If my enemies had been cannibals, would I have eaten white flesh? If my enemies had raped black women, would I have raped white women?
I have changed since that time and I no longer believe you should meet violence with violence. I now think you can deal with oppression in a more creative way. I believe what Ginn says, that even if violence comes your way, you should ‘absorb it’. And that is not the coward’s way; it’s extremely difficult to do.
My mission now is to reach out to those who survived, because by meeting together we are able to restore each other’s humanity. When Ginn attended my homecoming, she delivered the most moving speech of the day. She stood up and asked for forgiveness on behalf of her ancestors. She also got the loudest applause – louder than I got after nearly two decades in exile.
Some people have decided not to forgive me for what I have done, and I understand that. It’s not easy to forgive, but to those who have forgiven I believe that this is how we start to rebuild our communities. This is an intense human mission. People sometimes ask me if I have also killed people myself, with my own hands. When I am asked this, I never answer. Not because I am afraid of speaking the truth, but because I believe that every foot soldier who killed at my command is less guilty than me, because I authorized the targets. I exonerate those who pulled the trigger. It is I who should shoulder the blame.