Volume 16 Number 4
The Hands That Unleashed Thunder
01 August 2003
Brutal honesty and an unswerving commitment to his ideals have driven Letlapa Mphahlele into areas most people would turn away from in horror—and onto an extraordinary journey of reconciliation. He talks to Anthony Duigan.
When he smiles, his whole face lights up and you feel an immediate connection, a warmth of one human being to another. Open. Charming. Easy to like. But behind this, Letlapa Mphahlele, South African liberation fighter, carries the shattering consequences of terrible decisions.
It started a long time ago, in August 1978. Then only 17 years of age, Letlapa slipped out of his home village of Manaleng in the north of South Africa early one morning without telling his parents and fled to Botswana. He had lived through the Soweto riots of 1976, albeit at a distance, and was radicalized by a deep feeling for the dispossession and violence his people had suffered over many generations.
One thought buzzed in his head: ‘I have to leave the country to study and train as a soldier, and return to fight the whites.’
His single-mindedness and uncompromising commitment drove him into the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the most radical of the South African liberation movements that were then in exile. The intensity of his desire to liberate his country projected him above the ordinary and he quickly rose to become Director of Operations in the PAC’s armed wing, the Azanian Peoples’ Liberation Army (Apla).
By 1993 he had flitted back into South Africa. In July, armed Apla cadres under his command stormed into St James’s Church in Cape Town during the evening service and killed 11 people, maiming many others. Five months later, another group of Apla fighters targeted a popular tavern in Cape Town. Five people died, including Lyndi, the only daughter of a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, Ginn Fourie.
The horror of these attacks burnt itself into the imagination of South Africa, and the Apla soldiers who carried them out were hunted down and prosecuted. The man who commanded them could have stayed beyond prosecution since he flitted in and out of South Africa and was not present during the attacks. But this did not fit the mould of Letlapa Mphahlele.
‘I’ve never shied away from taking responsibility for Apla activities at the time I was Director of Operations,’ he says in his quiet but decisive voice. ‘At the time the Heidelberg Tavern was attacked I had issued an order suspending attacks on civilian targets. I waived this order after the murder of five schoolchildren by the South African Defence Force in Umtata (in the Eastern Cape).
‘I also believed that the foot soldiers who carried out the attacks should not shoulder the blame. They did not do it without my say-so. I authorized the targets.’ All said without emotion, quietly, firmly.
He appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established by Nelson Mandela’s government to uncover the truth of the past and heal the wounds. He was urged to ‘make full disclosure of my crimes’, the rider being that he could be granted amnesty if he did so. He refused, insisting he had waged ‘a just war that shouldn’t be treated as a crime’. Charged in the Supreme Court, he was finally acquitted on a technicality last year.
Meanwhile, deep change was taking place within Mphahlele and many of the people deeply affected by his orders. Two people in particular were to have a profound effect on him.
In 1998 Mphahlele met Charl van Wyk, one of the survivors of the St James’s Church massacre. ‘Charl was the man who returned fire and wounded one of the Apla cadres in the church,’ says Mphahlele. ‘My meeting with Charl was facilitated by journalists who had interviewed us separately and so before TV cameras we shook hands and shared our experiences from different viewpoints. This was the beginning of an exciting journey I was to travel.’
On that journey he has also linked up with Ginn Fourie. Struggling to come to terms with the violent death of her only daughter, she had met the killers who were seeking amnesty before the TRC and forgiven them.
‘We met last year and it has been a profound and humbling experience for me to be with Ginn,’ Mphahlele says. ‘I am an atheist but I believe absolutely in reconciliation. Meeting soul to soul, person to person.’
The seeds of the journey he has undertaken were sown some years ago when Mphahlele faced both the past and the future with the tough-minded scrutiny he has used to test all his assumptions throughout his 42 years.
‘No conflict should be forever,’ he says. ‘What happened was the result of history and once the page was turned I knew that it was not enough to have legislation to put reconciliation in place. As human beings we have to face each other and mend relationships.
‘I had to face the fact that people were killed and harmed because of my orders and that I had to sit down with those who were prepared to do so and pour out our hearts to each other.
‘In doing this I am not undertaking a party political task. It is an intense human mission. The people we had fought and harmed and caused grief to were never our direct enemies. But they suffered. My job is to reach out to those who survived. By meeting together we are able to restore each other’s humanity.’
Not everybody who was affected by the attacks has accepted the hand extended by Mphahlele—and he does not condemn them. ‘Some people have decided not to forgive me for what I have done. I know it’s not easy to forgive and I understand them. But to those who do forgive me, it is the start of rebuilding our communities.’
Mphahlele says he draws his strength from the journey he has undertaken and the response of those who have joined him despite the suffering he has caused them. ‘It is my mission. I am seeking as many of those left poorer by my judgement as I can find and asking their forgiveness,’ he says. ‘At the same time I know that they have every reason to seek legal recourse against me and feel bitter.’
The strength of purpose and mission that drove him into exile and onto a path of confrontation with injustice has not been dampened. Transformed, yes; but unchanged in its determination to make a difference. ‘I am a rebel and have always been one,’ he explains. ‘I have resisted the hypocrisy of political structures and never held political office.’ This despite inducements from leaders within the PAC which he still loyally supports—and just as loyally criticizes for its shortcomings.
‘I am proud to be part of the PAC, an organization that once strode centre stage of South African politics with confidence,’ he writes in his autobiography, Child of this Soil (Kwela, 2002). ‘The PAC is now reduced to a shadow, thanks to its unusual birth and other self-inflicted ills.’
But Mphahlele is too tough-minded and visionary to get stuck in mere criticism. ‘The fuel that keeps me running now is community involvement,’ he says. And the smile takes over and lights up his being. ‘Out of the gift of forgiveness which so many black and white people have given me I am regenerating community development.’
PROCESS NOT EVENT
On 2 December last year, Mphahlele was formally welcomed back into his village in Limpopo Province. Guests of honour at this occasion were Ginn Fourie and Charl van Wyk. He spoke of his philosophy of reconciliation and read a poem he had written the year before for Fourie’s daughter, Lyndi (see end of this article).
‘We should not congratulate ourselves for achieving reconciliation,’ he said bluntly to the masses that gathered to meet him, the exile returned. ‘What we are doing today is a mere attempt at it. Reconciliation is holistic. A process, not an event. True reconciliation cannot be blind to history and the injustices of the past. We must go beyond preaching reconciliation and start practising it in the thirsty villages and hungry townships.
‘Colonial land dispossession left the indigenous Africans with no choice but war. Without addressing the land question and just redistribution of wealth, our efforts to reconcile will be undermined. True reconciliation addresses economic realities and redresses socio-economic injustices.’
At the same time, he added, violence and reconciliation are incompatible. ‘In the past apartheid divided us racially and ethnically. Generations that lie ahead won’t forgive us if we continue to stay apart out of our own choice.’
He then turned to Fourie and van Wyk, ‘people who had every reason to hate but who chose to understand and forgive’. ‘Thank you for your gift of forgiveness,’ he said softly.
For Lyndi Fourie
Forgive our deafness
Our ears are modulated
To hear voices of the dead
Counselling us from your tomb
We leap at your still commands
Hands that unleashed thunder on you
Nine summers ago
This summer tremble before your throne
In the twilight of our age
The angry soldier breezed from the bush
Tried in vain to hate
Succeeded in hurting
Today the guerrilla is foraging in the bush
To heal hearts swollen with grief
How to muffle the roars of our rage
How to dam the rivers of our tears
How to share laughter and land
Land and laughter
Forgive our idiocy
Our souls are tuned
To heed prophecy
By the graveside of the prophet
Whose blood we spilt
Whose teachings we ridiculed
While he walked among us