Tag Archives: African National Congress

For the Joy of Reading: Inside Apartheid’s Prison

Raymond Suttner is a remarkable, extraordinary man.   He will disagree with me completely about this, and will argue that my analysis is deeply flawed.   But I will stand by what I have said.   He is a white South African.   He could have chosen to live a privileged life.   He could have chosen to ignore the political situation developing around him.   He could have chosen profited from apartheid.   He could have followed the same path as millions of his countrymen, benefitting because of the accident of his birth and the colour of his skin.   He did not choose to do this.

Raymond Suttner will argue that he was one of many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of white South Africans who took the decision to challenge apartheid.   He will argue that the day-to-day suffering of millions of black South Africans were worse than what he went through, because it was their daily experience.   He will argue that he followed the example of men like Denis Goldberg and Albie Sachs, the former spending 22 years in prison and the latter losing his right arm in an assassination attempt.   All this is true.   But it does not make any difference to one fundamental fact – he did not have to choose this path.   He did not have to do it.   He chose to do it.   That is what makes him an extraordinary, remarkable man.

This is a memoir.   It is an account of how he survived two terms in gaol, the first being a set term sentence and the second being detained without trial during the states of emergency in the 1980s.   During his first arrest, Raymond was physically tortured by the security police to get him to reveal information about his comrades.   He did not do this.   But he also deals with the mental torture of incarceration, especially during his second period of imprisonment, when there was no indication of a release date.

For those of us who have never had to endure such a thing, it is extremely instructive.   You simply do not think of the importance of going for a walk or a run, because this is something that you can choose to do at any time.   You do not think of the importance of socialising or choosing to be alone, because this is your choice.   You do not think that seeing a bird, or hearing birdsong, is important because you can hear it all the time.   you do not think that there is a problem in deciding what to have for lunch because, as an adult, it is your choice.   There is so much that you simply do not think about because it is normal.   There is nothing normal about being in prison.   And being a political prisoner in apartheid South Africa meant that your visits were restricted, your letters were censored, your access to news was limited and you had the warders’ taste in music and radio programmes inflicted on you.

I have heard many people talk about the experience of being a political prisoner in South Africa.   Raymond Suttner has made it very real because he deals with the minutiae of daily life in a very small, enclosed community.   And just because you were all political prisoners, it did not mean that you had to get on with each other.   This book makes that very clear without going into the petty details of any disputes between prisoners.

The most moving section is his account of his time in solitary confinement.   This was partly a deliberate decision by the apartheid authorities, and partly the result of his being the only white detainee in the prison.   There was apartheid even in the prisons in South Africa.   White prisoners and black prisoners were not held in the same sections of a prison, even if they did get to meet occasionally because of mistakes by or the laxness of the warders.

This is a remarkable account of the sacrifices that people made in the struggle against apartheid.   It gives you an idea of what the survivors of political imprisonment went though.   Reading it is a salutary experience.

For the Joy of Reading: It’s Me, Marah

For those of us who were there on the day, it was an iconic moment.   It is something that we will never forget.   Indeed, songs have been written about it.   It has entered into the folklore of Glasgow.   Tour guides show people where it happened.   On 9th October 1993, Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedom of 9 cities and boroughs in the UK.   It was pouring with rain.   Marah Louw came onto the stage to sing, and Mandela got up and danced with her.   It was the day Mandela danced in the Square.   It was part of his welcome to Glasgow.   It was extraordinary.   It will never be forgotten.   It was the day that Marah Louw entered into the world’s consciousness.   So who is she?  That is what this book is about.

This is the life story of a remarkable woman.   Growing up black and a woman in apartheid South Africa was a double disadvantage, and it took considerable courage to take on the apartheid state.   Marah chose to do this by making a career for herself as a singer, actor and entertainer, and by challenging the laws that attempted to deny her the career path that she had chosen.   She also challenged the apartheid state at the very heart of its ideology by marrying and living with a white, Scottish man inside the country.

As if all this was not enough to deal with, there is a mystery surrounding her birth, which her family are very unwilling to deal with.   This is a theme that haunts the book from the opening to the closing pages.   Marah puts this down to her family abiding by African custom, which is true but it is not just an African custom.   I can assure her of this.   My mother had the same experience and we are a Welsh family.   The common factor, I think, is the Methodist tradition, but I have no evidence for that.

There is much in this book that is a revelation, even to those of us who are well versed in the horror of apartheid.   It is the telling details about the petty spite that hit home the most.   There is one story about how it was assumed that Marah had to be the maid because she was black and she answered her own door.   By that stage, the Group Areas Act had been abolished and she was living with Bill in a comfortable area.   Marah opens the door and is asked to fetch “the madam”.   When the visitor found out that the “madam” was black, she ran away.   And then there are the insults – calling her a “kaffir”.  [It has always struck me that “Kaffir” is an Arabic word, and was probably introduced to South Africa by Moslem slaves from what is now Indonesia.   It is certainly not a Dutch word.   This is perhaps one of the ironies of history].

As this book reveals, Marah has not had the easiest of lives.   Her personal life has been fraught with difficulties and tragedies, as well as with joy and hope and success.   The point is that she has overcome it all.   She has survived divorce, betrayal, shipwreck (literally) and she has had her triumphs.   She was a friend of the great singer Miriam Makeba.    She has performed on stages across the world.   She has sung at Presidential inaugurations, and she has danced with Nelson Mandela.

This book is a celebration of life.   It tells how she has sweetened the waters of our lives.   It tells the wonderful story of the woman who took Glasgow by storm the day that Mandela danced in the square.

Michael Lapsley: Redeeming the Past

When you lose both hands, an eye, and part of your ability to hear in a letter bomb attack by an agent of the apartheid state, it would be reasonable to assume that you would find it difficult to forgive the people who were responsible for the attack.

Michael Lapsley did not respond in that way.   This is what makes him both remarkable and at the same time deeply human.   To understand what happened, it is necessary to know his story, and that is what this book sets out to do.

He was born in New Zealand, and at a very young age he realised that he had a vocation for the priesthood.   At 17, he went to an Anglican Seminary in Australia and it was there that he was ordained and became a member of the Society of the Sacred Mission   His order sent him to South Africa in 1973, when he was only 24 years of age.   This was the furthest he had ever been from his native New Zealand, and he knew that it was going to be a challenging experience.   What he did not know was how challenging it would be.

[I am of the same age as Michael Lapsley.   At 24 I was actively involved in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, but I was safe.   Events were to show that he was not.   He soon became a target of the apartheid state.]

Michael Lapsley soon found himself involved in two kinds of conflict.   There was the conflict with the apartheid state, which his conscience demanded of him more or less as soon as he set foot in the country.   Then there was the conflict with the members of his own order who wished that he would keep quiet   The only thing that I can find to be said in their defence was that coming into conflict with the apartheid state meant that he was not safe.   The truth is probably closer to their finding his commitment to principle embarrassing.   This was no different to the way in which other Anglican clergy in South Africa were treated if they opposed apartheid.   Trevor Huddleston was called home by his order because Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher was embarrassed by his open opposition to the National Party government.

Michael soon found himself forced out of South Africa by the government, and he continued his ministry in Lesotho and then Zimbabwe.   It was in Lesotho that he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and so attracted the absolute loathing of the apartheid state.   It was this that made him a target.

The ANC was unbanned in February 1990.   The bomb attack on Michael Lapsley took place in April 1990.   It was one of the first signs that the apartheid regime did not intend to go quietly and, in the subsequent four years of negotiations, something like 10,000 people were killed.

For Michael Lapsley this was a new beginning.   He had to learn how to live without his hands.   We take them for granted when we do simple things like go to the toilet, wash, eat, write, shake hands.   All this had to be learned again.   And for a priest there is the whole process of celebrating the Eucharist – making the sign of the cross, elevating the host and distributing the wafers – without hands.   There was the interminable surgery, the physiotherapy, the adapting to life.   It was the discovery of simple things like door handles could be opened but doorknobs could not.

But most of all there was the way in which Michael Lapsley chose to deal with the psychological damage.   He chose not to hate.    He chose to forgive.   Most of the book is about that process of forgiveness, and especially about his new ministry of the healing of memories.   He now spends his life bringing victims and perpetrators together to talk through their brokenness, and to recognise that they are all damaged.   He uses the visibility of his own brokenness to facilitate the process, whether it is in Southern Africa, Rwanda, Latin America or, closer to home, in Northern Ireland.   In  all these places his compassion has made a considerable difference.

Michael Lapsley does however recognise his own needs and limitations.   Adriaan Vlok, the Minister of Law and Order, who probably ordered Michael Lapsley’s bombing and the murders of many others, has had a Road to Damascus experience.   He now recognises that what the apartheid state did to preserve its power was wrong, and has apologised for that.   But he is claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that he did not know what was happening on his watch, and that he was not responsible for it.   [It could be argued that not being in control of his own department means that he was responsible].   Michael Lapsley wants people like this to go much further than they have and to face up to the consequences of what they ordered or let happen.

What we have in this book is an astonishing account of what one person can do if that person sets his or her mind to it.   He says that he is not a saint.   He says that he is very human.   But he has taken the option of not taking the path of hatred.   He has recognised that hatred does not hurt anyone other than himself.   He is trying, through his work at the Centre for the Healing of Memories, to get people to make themselves better, to heal themselves of whatever trauma they have been through.

He is a remarkable man.   His is an astonishing story.   This is a necessary book.