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Triumph Over Torture

The Second Michael Hirschfeld Memorial Address
Aotearoa/New Zealand
December 4, 2000
By Father Michael Lapsley,S.S.M.
Institute for Healing of Memories
Cape Town
South Africa

Dear Friends, Fellow survivors of human rights violations, Fellow activists for human rights.

I would like to dedicate this speech to a group of Timorese women from Liquica – a small town in East Timor who call themselves Widows without Graves. Their husbands were massacred inside a church and the nearby priest’s house in April last year by the militia supported by the Indonesian military. To this day they do not know where the bodies are

For me it is a deep honour to give this Second Michael Hirschfeld Memorial Address. Let me also express my congratulations to the Freedom Foundation of Amnesty International in New Zealand for honouring the memory and the immense contribution of Michael Hirschfeld to the international struggle for human rights. His vision and hard work together with other colleagues gave birth to the Freedom Foundation thus ensuring the ongoing economic viability and sustainability of Amnesty’s work both here and abroad.

I am also delighted to be asked to come and speak in the land of my birth. The invitation comes as a surprise as I have always taken the Biblical dictum seriously, that a prophet is not without honour except in her or his own country and among her or his own people.

May I also congratulate Amnesty International for its outstanding work as a watchdog, as campaigners and defenders of human rights and as part of our collective and individual consciences as an international community.

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Most importantly, I speak in the context of Amnesty’s recent launch of its worldwide campaign for all of us to take a step to stamp out torture.

Indeed I have been asked to speak to you today on the theme of torture.

Personal Background

In 1993 I became one of the first two employees of a Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture. In April of 1990, 3 months after the release of Nelson Mandela, I became the victim of a letter bomb sent to me at my home in Zimbabwe by the De Klerk Government As a result I lost both hands and an eye together with other injuries. After a month in a Zimbabwean hospital, I spent 6 months in 2 Sydney hospitals (I shouldn’t forget to mention that you as NZ taxpayers paid the bill!) Whilst I was in hospital, a South African friend of mine phoned me from London. People had been trying to prepare me for a life of disability by telling me all the things I would no longer be able to do. My friend phoned me in my hospital bed to say that he had just been visiting Cape Town and heard that there were plans to start a center for victims of violence and torture. He told me "I think that is a job which you can do. You will be better qualified now" That was my first inkling that my loss might also be a gain.

From 1993 to 1998, I worked as a chaplain to a Trauma center for Victims of Violence and Torture. During the 1980s a group of mental health workers who were themselves part of the struggle against apartheid sought to provide services to people who were in and out of detention, to people on the run, to people coming out of prison. They dreamed of the day when there would be a center dedicated to healing the emotional, psychological and spiritual wounds of the victims of apartheid.

First Experience of Torture

In 1975, I was a student in Durban. The brother of a friend of mine was detained . He was physically tortured including electric shocks to the genitals. Another woman was detained with the brother of my friend. In her case her parents were brought to see her in detention. The parents told me what considerate and kind people the security police are. As soon as the parents left, the security police told the daughter that if she did not tell all, she would not see her parents again. She did tell all and they did not lay a finger on her.

Torture in South Africa

Sad to say torture became a normative part of the South African way of life especially during the 1980s when repression and resistance was at its strongest.

Like so many other struggles, as the years passed, we kept crossing thresh holds of what we were prepared to do to each other. Those involved in the struggle against apartheid became progressively younger as the years passed.

In the late 80s estimates of numbers in detention reached more than 80,000 with more than 10,000 under the age of 18. Evidence suggested that more than 90% had been tortured. Detention, unlike imprisonment, exposed the detainee to a range of horrendous uncertainties:

For how long will I be detained? (Under apartheid legislation detention without trial was unlimited in duration). Will I be tortured, how long will it last? Will I be able to endure? Will I betray my comrades? Will I die? Wouldn’t it be better to die than to survive?
Although many have written and spoken about their experience of torture, I am not sure that anyone who has not had the experience knows the full horror and terror experienced by a torture survivor.

The torturer would say: “Scream for all you like, no-one can hear. Don’t worry we wont leave marks so no one will believe you.”

During countless numbers of political trials the accused would tell the courts that they had been tortured, often giving names, dates and detailed descriptions of the kinds of torture. The English speaking press recorded these details for the public to know.

Torture and the Truth Commission

In his recently published book on the truth commission, its Deputy Chairperson, Alex Boraine writes:

“From June to August 1997, the TRC analysed a large amount of evidence presented to it concerning allegations of torture committed by the security forces. Our information indicated that the rate of torture increased more than ten-fold after the declaration of the state of emergency in 1986. Furthermore the TRC had received statements alleging that the security forces had been involved in almost 2000 acts of torture in more than 200 different venues around that time.”

“Torture was not something that took place in a handful of prisons, performed by perverted warders. Torture was endemic. There was no place we visited, no hearing we conducted , which did not contain stories of torture. Thousands were killed, not merely at roadblocks, in ambushes and raids, but also by abduction and design. Those who were seen as a threat to the apartheid regime were in many instances summarily executed”

Boraine,A. A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Oxford 2000 p.131


(Earlier this year, I made a brief visit to New Zealand. Whilst I was here a friend of mine told me about a conversation he had with a South African woman who was visiting her son here. My friend mentioned to her that I would be visiting and that I worked with victims of violence and torture. Her response was to state unequivocally that there had been no torture in South Africa although she conceded that some people were killed. My friend promised to tell me that I was wasting my time since noone had been tortured in South Africa. I could not help wondering how many ostriches New Zealand has imported from South Africa.)

Why Torture

Why torture? What is the point? People are tortured in order to extract information. It is used as a form of punishment and also to intimidate. One person is tortured to terrorize others and prevent them from following the same course of action.

During the struggle for liberation in South Africa torture was part of the arsenal of state terrorism. It became an instrument with the primary purpose of breaking the will of the people to resist and to be free. The only way the regime could try and crush the spirit of the people was by physically crushing their bodies.

Neck lacing

The mid-eighties was also the period during which the horrific form of killing known as “neck lacing” became common. It involved the placing of
a tyre over the head of a victim, which was then doused in petrol and set alight. This was particularly used in black townships against those who were believed to be collaborators with the apartheid regime.

Often I have been asked: How could this happen? How could a group of human beings do this to another human being? Often young people would be in the forefront of calling for the neck lacing of another alleged collaborator. My question was: What had been done to these young people that they should relish this option?

Under apartheid the moral order was inverted. Torturers and assassins were respected members of the community, although they may have never told their children how they passed their days. They were rewarded and promoted and given golden handshakes when they retired.

Survivors of torture were portrayed by the state as lying criminals who deserved to be disbelieved and punished. Because of their degrading and humiliating experiences, torture victims often speak of their own sense of shame at what has happened to them. Survivors sometimes wait for many years, even for decades before they speak of what has been done to them. “Will I be believed? What will people think of me if they know what has happened to me?” This is particularly true of sexual torture and of rape especially of women but also of men. In the recesses of the human heart the victim sometimes blames her or himself for being a victim. Not long after I had survived the attempt to kill me, I apologized to a friend for having survived whilst her own son had been killed. For both perpetrator and victim, there is a need to restore a moral order in which good is called good and evil is called evil.

There is a consensus in the international community that apartheid was morally evil. Indeed the family of nations asserted that apartheid was a crime against humanity. Ironically, inside South Africa, it was the liberation movement that was first called to account for its transgressions of human rights not the apartheid regime.

ANC Human Rights Violations

After the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1990, accusations began to surface of abuses that had taken place especially in ANC detention camps in Angola. For the first time in history, a liberation movement set up three separate commissions which confirmed that indeed human rights abuses had taken place. The ANC leadership responded by accepting collective responsibility for gross violations of human rights which were contrary to the ANC’s own moral values. At the same time the ANC leadership signaled that there would be a need to place these violations in the much broader context of all that had happened during the apartheid years. A new government would need to set up a truth commission.

It is now a matter of history that South Africa established a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. To this Commission, relatives of victims and survivors were invited to recount their stories of gross violations of human rights. Gross human rights violations were defined as murder, attempted murder, torture, abduction and severe maltreatment. In the eyes of the Commission all people who appeared before the commission were treated with the same dignity and respect regardless of whether the perpetrator was the apartheid state or the liberation movement.

The ANC insisted that there could be no moral equivalence between the just struggle to end apartheid and the injustice of defending apartheid. However with great importance both for the individuals concerned and for the establishment of a moral order, the truth commission asserted the moral unacceptability of gross violations of human rights regardless of who carried them out. In the eyes of the Truth Commission torture was torture was torture. The ends did not justify the means.

Reparations are a Right

Amnesty International correctly asserts that all torture victims have a right to reparation. More than two years ago, the Truth Commission presented its report to President Mandela including its recommendations for Reparations for the 18,800 people officially declared to be victims.

So far the state has implemented only extremely limited Urgent Interim Reparations. It is a moral tragedy that a process which was correctly heralded around the world is in danger of going down in history as a perpetrator friendly exercise. The world-wide network of Amnesty International needs to be mobilized to join the chorus of South African survivors and the human rights community which is calling for the immediate implementation of Final Reparations as recommended by the Truth Commission.

It has to be said that apartheid was itself based on a lie about the human person. i.e. the false claim that human value comes from the colour of our skin rather than the fact that we are all human. It was this lie about the value of the human person which provided the milieu in which all forms of torture could flourish. Apartheid in South Africa and racism around the world have provided the context in which discrimination, violence and torture has been carried out against people of colour.

The United States is a bad example

Today the United States is a dramatic example of the relationship between racial discrimination, torture and death. A vastly disproportionate number of Latino, African and Native Americans occupy the more than ten thousand cells on death row along with world reknowned Abu Jamal. Jamal has already spent more than eighteen years on Death Row. He and his growing number of supporters around the world continue to demand a retrial to avoid the ultimate form of state torture, judicial execution. How many times does a death row inmate die before the actual moment of execution?

In South Africa our Constitutional Court ruled that the death penalty is incompatible with a clause guaranteeing all our people the right to life.

Economic Torture Against Cuba

The forty-one year blockade against Cuba by the United States, which has been condemned by the community of nations, is an attempt by the most powerful nation in the world to torture the tiny island of Cuba into ideological submission.

Torture is a World Problem

However when it comes to questions of torture, a very large number of countries stand in the dock. Amnesty’s research between 1997 and 2000 reports cases of torture or ill treatment by state officials in more than 150 countries. “In more than seventy they were widespread or persistent. The evidence suggests that most of the victims were people suspected or convicted of criminal offences. Most of the torturers were police officers”
Amnesty International
Take a Step to Stamp out Torture

Torture continues in South Africa

Since the demise of the apartheid state, torture has not disappeared. As in many other countries allegations of torture come from criminal suspects. Because of the scale of violent crime in South Africa the public often lacks sympathy with the torture victim. There have been exceptional cases which have been captured on camera and have received widespread local and international media attention.

In the face of growing unemployment and widespread poverty, xenophobia has become a feature of the South African landscape. Recent television footage of illegal job seekers being set on by police dogs caused a huge outcry. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation said that the nation had been traumatized by what they witnessed.

In many countries of the world the undocumented migrant, the asylum seeker and the refugee are subject to ill treatment and torture. Frequently these categories of people are not afforded most or any of the basic rights and protection which are enjoyed by citizens.

Indefinite Detention in New Zealand

I note that here in New Zealand a number of asylum seekers complained that they were assaulted by other prisoners and were held for several months last year until the courts ordered their release. I hope Amnesty in New Zealand will raise very sharply with the Government its opposition to laws, policies and regulations which allow for indefinite detention of people arriving in the country without travel documents, including asylum seekers
Torture of Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered People

Amnesty International’s Stamp out Torture Campaign has also highlighted the torture of gay, lesbian and transgendered persons which arises out of both homophobic prejudice and laws against homosexuality in some countries.

In South Africa the constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Recently allegations have been made by the victims against a psychiatrist who performed sex change and other experiments on gay & lesbians conscripts in the apartheid army during the 1970s and 1980s.

Torture of Women and Children

Women and children are often the targets of torture. They are most often the victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Sad to say, South Africa is reported to have the highest number of rapes in the world. “It is estimated that a woman is raped every 23 seconds in South Africa, that between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2 women or girls will be raped in her lifetime, and that most will know her attacker.
Pacsa Fact Sheet No 44 June 1998.

Of some encouragement is that we have begun to see men organizing and joining marches of men against violence against women.

Healing of Memories

My own work is in the field of the healing of memories. Our experience has convinced us that all human beings are capable of being both victim and victimizer and sometimes at the same time. One of our wise and great leaders once said “Those who think of themselves as victims eventually become the vicimizers of others.” Often someone who has been badly treated is not able to get at the perpetrator. Instead they take it out on those who are close to them and weaker than them whether in the form of emotional, physical or sexual abuse .

This cycle of victims becoming victimizers is true of individuals, communities, and nations. At the individual level it is important to create spaces where individuals are able to have what has happened to them, acknowledged, reverenced and recognized so that victims can begin to traverse the journey away from victimhood, through survival and eventually to become victorious. This is also true for all communities of people who have suffered oppression in the recent or the distant past. National leaders who carry within them unfinished business from the past at a psychological, emotional and spiritual level are precisely the ones who will help lead their people to become perpetrators.

We are all Responsible for the Past

It is tempting to focus solely on the individual torturers and individual victims, to make moral condemnations and to let ourselves off the hook.
The German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, writing shortly after the second world war spoke of four kinds of guilt: criminal, political, moral, and metaphysical. If I can illustrate from my own life. Somebody made and sent me a letter bomb. They are criminally guilty together with the chain of command. South Africa’s political leaders passed unjust laws and created the environment in which torture, murder and mayhem flourished. They are politically guilty. The majority of white people voted for apartheid. They are morally guilty. All white people, even those who fought against it, benefited from it. Jaspers speaks also of the metaphysical guilt which we all share because we are part of the same human family.

The last night that it was possible to get amnesty under the Truth Commission process, a small group of young people approached the Commission. They asked that they should be given amnesty for apathy. They made the point that all black people suffered under apartheid and struggled to endure it. It was left to a minority to fight against it. As Edmund Burke said: “For evil to prosper all it needs is for good people to do nothing.”

All people share responsibility for the past of their countries and all people have a responsibility for creating a different kind of future.

The Role of the Faith Community

The many different faith communities have a particular responsibility to be in the forefront of the fight against torture. We are the ones who assert in a particularly definite way the sacredness of the human person. In the Judaeo Christian tradition we go so far as to make the bold claim that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. Furthermore, for those of us who are Christians, we are the followers of the tortured one. We follow Jesus who said “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me”

The World fails to stop Genocide

In 1994 the world was told that genocide was about to happen in Rwanda. After it happened we said we were sorry. Last year I was in East Timor a week before the referendum concerning independence. The militia supported by the Indonesian military made it clear that if the people voted for independence, all hell would break loose and they would raze the capital to the ground. Already the Indonesians had successfully killed a third of the population. After Dili was razed to the ground, with many thousands of people fleeing and countless people dead, the international community began to insist on a peacekeeping force.

The international human rights community has to insist on the development of regional and international rapid reaction peace keeping forces by the United Nations.

What is to be done?

What is to be done? In the face of the scale of torture worldwide, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, downcast and hopeless. It is important for us to recall the lessons of history. Last century women and men of goodwill mounted a campaign against slavery until it was outlawed and abolished.

In our lifetime all people of goodwill throughout the world, including
the majority of New Zealanders, came to the conclusion that apartheid was a crime against humanity. Constitutionalised apartheid has gone for ever.

During the campaign for peace in Vietnam we learnt that one and one make a million.

Landmines - originally developed to "protect", anti-tank mines soon became
the weapons of choice to torture individuals and communities - being
designed to maim rather than kill; being produced to look like toys for
children to pick up and play with.

Rae McGrath, who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the
International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1997, notes that in Cambodian
Buddhist society, those that are "unwhole" are normally not allowed to be
monks - a denial which strikes at the very heart of their culture - a form
of torture not usually associated with a landmine explosion

Another brief example. A particularly obscene use of landmines by the
apartheid State was revealed during the TRC hearings when members of the
Northern Transvaal security branch applied for amnesty for the torture,
death and subsequent blowing up with the use of landmines of anti-apartheid
activists in the 1980s. Thus, to torture the families, by ensuring that
these victims are never found.

Although the victory is not yet complete, we can all rejoice in the achievements which resulted in the Treaty to Ban Landmines. In a major way this was a victory for civil society who mobilized public opinion until governments were forced to respond.

Helen Clark opposes Torture

In relation to torture it was here in New Zealand on October 18, Prime Minister Helen Clark lead from the front by asserting: "I, Helen Clark, Prime Minister hereby affirm that the New Zealand Government does not tolerate torture within New Zealand and is committed to working for the eradication of torture everywhere".

We must all commit ourselves to helping to shape a world in which every human being is treated with dignity and respect. We must join the struggle against all forms of prejudice and discrimination which will help prevent violence against, and the torture of children, women, people of colour and indigenous people, gay and lesbian people, the disabled, asylum seekers and refugees, prisoners and criminals.

We are the leaders of humanity
Human rights activists are on the frontiers of the greatest human advances.
It is now time for every New Zealander to join the worldwide campaign to stamp out torture. It is the right thing to do.


Forgive me if I end with reference to my own journey. I often asked myself, why did I survive while so many others survived. It was important that some of us should survive so that no-one could say that these things did not happen. Much more importantly, I think in a small way I can be a sign that the forces of God, of life, of justice, love and gentleness are stronger than the forces of death, of violence, torture and hatred. Victory is inevitable!

Viva Amnesty International! Viva!

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