In my own reflection, I came to believe that, while there are indeed cultural differences among people, human beings are human beings everywhere in the world. People know when they are being treated with the love and respect accorded a child of God, whether it is articulated in those words or not. The workshop is a sort of open container into which people are free to place their unique and valued personal and cultural contributions.
In 2005 we started offering Healing of Memories workshops to prison inmates. Despite having done terrible things to others, most inmates have themselves been victims of serious abuse. The public sees only the present-day perpetrator, but deep inside these people there are early wounds that had festered and eventually emerged in the criminal behaviour that brought them to prison. Healing of Memories workshops seek to break the chain of victim becoming perpetrator by acknowledging the pain of the past and helping inmates to see the connection between their own mistreatment and their victimisation of others. In our experience it is not uncommon for inmates to report in follow-up interviews that they have contacted those they have harmed to make an apology or amends. On the occasions when our Healing of Memories workshop has been offered as a part of a course on restorative justice, this outcome has been even more evident.
Unless we bind up the wounds of the broken-hearted, we cannot hope to create a just society where everyone has a place under the sun, for the victims of the past too easily become the victimisers of the future. As the world prayed for me on my healing journey and supported the struggle of South Africa’s people, the Institute for Healing of Memories, which I set up as a vehicle to run workshops, now attempts to return the compliment by offering healing in other countries recovering from wars and conflicts.
We work with people experiencing discrimination and injustice in its many forms: victims of violence (whether domestic, criminal or political), war veterans and prison inmates, many of whom are deeply traumatised themselves and who may also need to face the burden of culpability and guilt in order to heal. We also work with members of the faith community, especially those engaged in social justice issues, who carry their own burdens. I believe that spiritually grounded, culturally sensitive, community-based methods of healing like ours are the way of the future.
Do you consider yourself to be a role model?
People tend to say very kind things about me and hold me up as a role model. Part of it is appropriate and part of it, although well meant, is dehumanizing. I couldn’t be who I am now without the support of the many, many people who have loved and cared about me. So it was not only my victory but also theirs. I think we often do that to people whom we admire. We turn them into unrealistic plastic figures. But I am not a plastic saint. If you asked someone living with me, they would say that there is nothing saintly about me. I can be more of an example to others with my many human weaknesses than as a plastic saint who has overcome it all, free of distortions and contradictions.
Why has fighting for injustice been important to you?
First and foremost, I have been shaped by my faith, specifically my Christian faith, although I have a deep commitment to interfaith work and the wisdom of other faiths. Similarly, fighting for justice has been important to me because of the journey I underwent and the experiences I faced, which substantially contributed to my life mission.
I have been profoundly affected by the experience of coming to South Africa, living in this society during the years of apartheid, and then being expelled from South Africa and becoming part of the liberation movement. And, of course, since 1990 my life journey has been changed irreversibly by the letter bomb I received. After I was attacked, I said to myself that the struggle for me now is the struggle to get well. Then, the struggle to live my life as fully, joyfully and completely as possible and walk with others on their journey towards healing – this would be part of my victory.
Beyond your global mission, what else are you currently involved in?
I was the director of the South African programme at the Institute for Healing of Memories, based in Cape Town, until the end of 2019, but now I’ve become the President of the Healing of Memories Global Network. I came to the conclusion it was time to step aside from running the institute in South Africa and start focusing on training and international work across the world, which is what I currently do. Together with the like-minded people we are step by step setting up a global structure for healing, which I primarily focus on. We have launched an annual introduction to Healing of Memories, which received participants from many countries. During 2019, I was doing healing of memories workshops in Lebanon, Germany, Luxemburg, Belgium, Myanmar, Thailand and Timor-Leste (East Timor) in a variety of contexts. A great number of people who came to those sessions were refugees.
I hope that I can enable the institute and my colleagues to continue doing the work in creative and effective ways, so I could support them in ensuring economic sustainability for this work in the long term.
When you visit other countries, what kind of people come to your workshops?
Most people who are drawn to healing work have their own pain and trauma as part of their lives. Often it has to do with what happened to them in the past and they seek to heal from it, which results in them becoming the healers of others. In my own experience, people do not tend to think ‘I would like to be a healer’ but end up on this path after going through the healing process.
What are the most important things or values for you in your life?
I think the most important thing is the sense of the divine in all of us. I am becoming more and more conscious that the divine is not only in human beings but in mother nature as well, so even when it comes to healing, I’m conscious that not only the human family needs healing but mother Earth is also crying out for healing.
Is there any fear that you still have?
There is a prayer that I say to myself frequently for guidance, wisdom and courage. For courage particularly, I ask to follow my conscience. And where I have acted contrary to my conscience, I ask to be able to face that and change it. During the struggle, when I found out that I was on a hit list and would feel fear, I would say a prayer for myself not to be controlled by my fear but be led by my deepest beliefs.
What was the biggest risk that you have ever taken?
I suppose, in retrospect, the biggest risk I took was to join the liberation movement at a time when we were in a life and death struggle, and recognising that it could cost me my life. But I have no regrets about that. So if I could turn time back, I would do exactly the same. Although perhaps I would be slightly cleverer and recognise it was a letter bomb and not open it (smiling).