Letter #13

September30, 2011

I havenít told you about my meeting with missionary Marie Van Nieuwenhuisen (pronounced NeevenHighzen), who joined me for breakfast. Marie, a short, sturdy woman with a no-nonsense air, works in the prisons to promulgate her deeply held beliefs in the transformative power of the Bible and the message of love and salvation it contains. A woman of enormous faith and fire, Marie has just recently made the decision to move to Cape Town to pursue her ministry.

We hit a few bumps, Marie and I. I mistakenly thought she was interested in knowing about the forgiveness processes that have worked for me, but she asserts that only the saving power of the Holy Spirit will free us and she scrupulously avoids anything that smacks of psychology, such as inner children, parts, and the like.

Once we understand each other on that score, the conversation turns to the radical transformation that has occurred for one of the previously violent young men she has worked with. His history and subsequent conversion have been in the press and lent some notice for her work. Marie urges me to extend my stay in order to hear Adriaan Vlok (pronounced ďflockĒ).

The former Minister of Law and Order under the apartheid regime, Adriaan Vlok headed all the security forces that implemented countless repressive strategies for keeping apartheid in place, including the bombing of theatres that screened the film, ďCry Freedom.Ē He was, along with Eugene de Kock (Prime Evil), the archetypal villain during apartheid.

But his life changed radically when the apartheid regime was replaced in 1994. His wifeís suicide in 1995 precipitated a profound soul searching that culminated, in 1997, in his appearance before the TRC.

He didnít tell all at that time, but did receive amnesty for his part in the bombing of Khotso House, then the Johannesburg HQ of the South African Council of Churches. A few years later, he revealed his part in some other crimes which the TRC amnesty didnít apply to and for which he could have been prosecuted. He was handed a 10-year suspended sentence.

Even more dramatic was the story of his washing the feet of Frank Chikane, an anti-apartheid activist who Vlok had planned to assassinate. Hereís a very interesting article on this happening, ďThe Curious Conversion of Adriaan VlokĒ available on line at http://www.religionconflictpeace.org/ He also washed the feet of and of ten mothers whose sons he had killed. He seems to have a strong belief in the healing power of this act as a sacrament.

Marie is convinced that the change of heart that Adriaan Vlok has undergone is the real deal. She is also convinced that no such change of heart has occurred for Eugene de Kock, the death squad leader, who has asked current president Zuma for amnesty for over 100 specific crimes. He remains in prison at this point as far as I can tell. A number of people are pressing for his pardon, including Pumla Gobodo-Madakizela whose book, A Human Being Died That Night I mentioned in an earlier letter, but Marie feels strongly that he has fooled Gobodo-Madakizela into thinking he is repentant, but is the same human who murdered and tortured hundreds of people and should not be released.

My last day in Cape Town is filled with departure details that seemed to multiply exponentially, it seemed: forms, confirmations, gratuities, mailing. And of course there's the crucial task of packing my carry-on, not just for including emergency stuff and documents, but for my magical sleep strategies. Iíve perfected an odd-looking combination of eyeshades, noise canceling headphones, blowup collar to keep my head supported, travel pillow, and microfiber wrap that has enabled me to sleep deeply through most of my long trips. That plus staying up till 11 pm the day I arrive makes jet lag a very minimal problem, although the oddity of my appearance on the plane may keep others awake.

 

 

For my last engagement before leaving for the airport, I am lucky enough to arrange dinner with Shirley Gunn, referred to me by film festival guru cousin Nodi Murphy and also by Rory and Clare Wilson. Shirley is founder and executive director of a nonprofit called the Human Rights Media Center (HRMC). The purpose of HRMC is to advance an awareness and activism about human rights for those with faint voices through documenting and disseminating oral histories using all kinds of media. Originally begun with seed money provided by the Ford Foundation, HRMC is now funded by a long list of foundations.

My impression of Shirley, who is a lean, graceful, no-frills woman with sandy hair, is that she, more than anyone else Iíve spoken with directly, continues to wrestle with the legacy of apartheid. Her work brings her face-to-face with the unhealed, the shattered, on a daily basis.

 

Throughout our conversation, when I report an impression or something someone has said, she fills in backstory that reveals other agendas operating. This, clearly, is a woman who has been in the trenches for a very long time.

But I donít know any of the details until now when, finishing these letters many months later, I learn much more. When I google Shirley Gunn just now for the exact name of her organization, I discover that as an ANC activist, her own life was threatened. First she was imprisoned without charges for 3-1/2 months in solitary. Later, her name was smeared and she was falsely accused of the bombing of the South African Council of Churches headquarters, which Adriaan Vlok himself had masterminded. She was imprisoned with her 16-month-old nursing son who was taken from her. She was tortured with tapes of his crying and when he was finally returned, he was obviously starving. See http://www.witness.co.za/ for more of her story.

Today, in addition to the Human Rights Media Center, Shirley Gunn serves on the Board of Directors of The Khulumani Support Group, which was formed in 1995 in response to the pending Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The founders were victims of the political conflict of South Africa's apartheid past who felt the Commission should be used to speak out about the past to ensure that such violations never occur again. Khulumani means "Speaking out" in isiZulu.

Today, with a membership 50,000 strong nationwide, itís a huge project, a crucial focus of which is to get the actual payment of reparations to take place for those whose lives were destroyed by apartheid and have simply not been able to get on their feet as a result. My understanding is that South Africa has the money, has earmarked the money, but refuses to pay it out. More on Khylumani at: http://www.khulumani.net/.

Shirley, as much as anyone Iíve met in Cape Town, stands right on the fault line between mercy and justice, and continues to call the nation to resolve the mismatch between the two. When push comes to shove, can mercy stand when the devastation of generations remains unaddressed? Shirley Gunn calls for justice as a condition of healing. Itís hard to argue with this courageous, indomitable woman. I feel very lucky to have met her.

Shortly after I return to St. Paulís, Bazil with a Z arrives, looking a little weary at this late hour. He has kindly offered to run me to the airport for the midnight flight to Amsterdam I was lucky enough to get a seat on. (Most flights go through Johannesburg which usually tacks on 3 to 5 hours to an already lengthy trip. As it is, it will be 15 hours door to door.)
Thank you so much for making sure my stay ends so well, Bazil. How generous.
Goodbye, Africa. Thank you for this deep, wide, space youíve opened up in my mind and heart.

* * *

On the way across the Atlantic after my Amsterdam stopover, my eyes start tearing, my throat and sinuses become inflamed, and I feel as if Iíve been hit by a train. By the time I land, Iím in the grip of a full-blown bug of some kind, which has remained in my system into the fall, reigniting whenever I fail to get enough sleep, take my vitamins, or control my sweet tooth. Diagnosed at one point as pseudomonas, it has now been downgraded to a common type of sinus-related staph infection. I remind myself that Iím gaining a bit of ground every day.

Whenever I think of the next trip, I remind myself to prepare defensively to encounter microbes that are completely new and for which I have no antibodies. Not that that will stop me.

Discovering the wonders of Africa has whetted my appetite for more. That said, I am grateful to be on U.S. soil again, safe and blessed by the kindness of friends. I am fortunate indeed.

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