Letter #12

March 29, 2011 — Home to muse

My trip’s grand finale. Nine days isn’t all that long to learn about a country as complex and diverse as South Africa, and a city so rich in history and interest as Cape Town. It feels as if I’m just getting going here and it’s time to go home. I call up KLM to see what it would cost to extend, and it’s not prohibitive.

But, consistent with my intention to live in the present, I keep waiting for a clear signal to leave on schedule or postpone. That clarity is what I wake up with Tuesday morning: Time to go home. I leave just after midnight—42 hours from now.

I still have a few copies left of How to Forgive When You Don’t Know How, and I decide to call everyone on my list to see who might be interested in meeting with me on one of the two days left before I depart. I get a surprising number of yesses, a couple of reluctant declines, and my calendar is pretty much filled up.

My first date is with Mary Bock, who I met on Sunday at St. George Cathedral. She analyzes tapes and transcripts of Truth and Reconciliation Commission sessions. Mary is a linguistic analyst who looks at verbal patterns such as “the gun went off”—which is the way one shooter (who was holding the gun, took aim at a person, and pulled its trigger) described what happened that killed a person. That linguistic pattern implies volition on the part of the gun, which creates distance from the act itself and from responsibility for it. Other linguistic patterns may give clues as to the person’s motive for such distancing, e.g., shame or intent to deceive.

I go to the cheerful house and garden she and her physician husband Artie have occupied for decades in Rosebank, a suburb about 20 minutes out of central Cape Town. What Mary speaks at some length about is not just apartheid and the ensuing years; what she speaks of is the many years of oppression and terror that paved the way for such a radical policy as apartheid to be accepted in the society.

As I struggle to follow her proliferating account of South Africa’s complicated history, I feel myself starting to spin in the morass of it all. Each new piece of information opens up yet another huge issue, each with its own roots, consequences, and different takes on the ever-repeating question, Where is justice? The history defies sorting through. And if those who have lived it still struggle in its coils, who am I to imagine I can even begin to dope it all out?

Stretched to the limit, my mind leaps to the Gordian Knot. Like Alexander, I imagine, my only option is to chop through its impossible tangle. Is there such a thing as a sword of peace? Instead of a sword of war, the instrument undoing the tangle of apartheid may be a different kind of blade. One forged in the fire of grief, cooled in the water of compassion, and finally, polished to a mirror finish by the healing balm of forgiveness.

Of course, people will have to tell their own stories to let go of personal agonies and regrets. But ultimately, forgiveness and somehow starting anew from this moment is the only path visible to me that offers any hope at all.

From Mary’s home, I make my way to Cape Town’s National Archives where I am to lunch with the Wilsons. On the way, I drop off a copy of the book to a shelter and training center for battered women. Jacqui Appleseed, I think. I’ll probably never see if it sprouts or not—it isn’t as if women’s shelters have any extra minutes in the day. If I remember correctly, South Africa has the continent’s highest rate of rape—one in four women. It’s also true that forgiveness is not the first item on the agenda for women who are recovering from violence. Too often what they think of as forgiveness has simply led them into greater distress. True forgiveness usually can come only after a woman and her children can feel safe. Until then, they need their anger to keep them from falling back into old patterns.

Clare and Rory Wilson look like the outdoor version of the AARP poster couple for successful retirement. I’ve been introduced to Clare because she developed something called the Reconciliation Labyrinth in the course of her own personal healing journey. The Reconciliation Labyrinth is a variation on the standard version in that it has two entrances, and two people walk it simultaneously, but people use it in all different ways at all kinds of events. Her website gives a little more detail: http://reconciliationlabyrinth.withtank.com/about/

Clare’s husband, Rory, served until his recent retirement, as editor of most of the English newspapers in Cape Town. Previously, during the last years of apartheid, in the 90s, he was editorial director of the largest black newspaper in Johannesburg. He reminisces about what it was like to have the next day’s headlines walk into his office several mornings a week.

Later, packing for my trip back at St. Paul’s, I find myself musing about those years and the extraordinary velocity of events. It reminds me of my first time sailing a large sloop into a dockside some years ago. The boat seemed to be traveling at a glacial pace, inches a minute, until the power and speed of its momentum became clear so suddenly that I spent the last moments with my heart in my mouth, praying that I wouldn’t miscalculate and splinter the dock—or the boat.

I imagine South Africa like that over the last 20 years on its journey toward peace. What must it have been like to be a Mandela or Tutu, piloting the country over a heaving ocean of human history, trying to discern how fast things are moving and in what direction, straining to see any hidden shoals that could smash the ark to splinters, all the while striving to fairly and with wisdom, work the lines of justice and pardon.

From what I can see, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission was a brilliant and courageous way to channel those potentially oppositional forces into a single direction. It opened a space for remarkable truth telling on both sides. It produced miracles of healing between victims and perpetrators. It stood as evidence that the new government was committed to hearing the whole truth, not just the truth of one side or another. And it raised hopes that the lot of the township residents would truly improve.

That’s the upside. The downside is that to a large degree, the children still wait and wait, and the seeds of an enormous backlash are germinating.




That is the position and the plea issued by this man, Deon Snyman (pronounced snay’ man) who started an NGO (non-governmental organization or charity) called the Foundation for Church-led Restitution. He arrived mid-morning of my last day to exchange ideas about forgiveness. He hastened to assure me that while “church-led” might suggest to some people that the Foundation takes an extremist or judgmental approach to restitution, that is far from the case. He was written up as part of a piece National Geographic did on South Africa after apartheid in June of 2010. Here’s the link: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/06/south-africa/fuller-text

His group sees restitution as the very heart of Christianity—to make whole what has been broken—and along those lines, his foundation creates opportunities for dialogues about restoration of the balance between those who suffered injustices and those who benefited from those injustices. Because the forced removals amounted to stealing from one group to benefit another, and because properties have been bought and sold in good faith by parties since then, the process of restoring stolen property rights can be pretty complex. But not always. What Deon’s foundation does is study the process of working it out, and do their best to facilitate such working out in specific instances.

One such instance was the St. Stevens Anglican Church in Paarl, a congregation that lost their church building because it was situated in an area classified white. The church building was eventually sold to the nearby white Dutch Reformed Church Paarl-Berg. After 1994, the Anglican congregation filed a restitution claim, and the Dutch Reformed Church decided to settle for compensation from the government. But the healing process was still incomplete, especially for the Anglicans. Something more was needed. What was needed, it turned out, was dialogue between the two congregations. For more on this, which is really kind of cool, go to his 2008 Annual Report. There’s also an interesting interview with Deon at http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/


Alphonse Niyodos of Rwanda arrived next. Alphonse has been working for a number of years as a workshop leader with the Institute for Healing of Memories. The Institute was founded by Michael Lapsley, who has an extraordinary story. Michael was acting as chaplain to the ANC (African National Congress), which was Mandela’s political party.

when he learned he was top-ranked on the Apartheid government’s hit list. Not too long afterward, he received a letter bomb that blew off both his hands, blinded him in one eye, and left him partially deaf. From that nadir, he has forgiven his perpetrators and gone on to become an extraordinarily effective teacher of forgiveness all over the world. I missed seeing Michael by a day, but exchanged some emails and sent off a copy of our book for him. Perhaps we’ll meet down the road. Alphonse and I had an intense, too short conversation, with me doing more of the talking than I had hoped, but I hope to hear more of his story in the future. In the meantime, it was a pleasure to bask in his company. I can imagine that people would feel safe telling him anything. This letter is a little dense now, so I’ll end here and save the last two personalities for my final, thirteenth letter (traditionally a lucky number for me).

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