‘There is a saying in Africa – ‘He who is last is the King or Queen’. You are the Kings and Queens’. This is how Letlapa Mphahlele started his talk at the Al Nagashi Centre in South London. This was to be his last talk in his Common Humanity speaking tour of the UK in October 2019.
Al Nagashi Centre and the Eritrean Muslim Community Association (EMCA) were honoured to host Letlapa as he spoke to the audience about his journey through forgiveness and reconciliation.
The Al Nagashi Centre was named after the great King of Abyssinia – current day Ethiopia. This King stood for justice and peace that even the people of Medina (in Saudi Arabia) during the early days of Islam, migrated to Abyssinia to seek refuge under him. Having Letlapa speak at this venue was rather significant as he too stood for justice and peace.
As Letlapa spoke, the small room full of Eritreans, Somalis, some of Arab descent and others from parts of the Horn of Africa, sat and listened carefully to his story, relating to the incidents which he described.
At the age of 17, Letlapa left his school and family in South Africa and later became the director of operations of APLA (Azanian People’s Liberation Army) – the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). He wrote a book called Child of this soil – My life as a freedom fighter so he could tell people his story.
In 1976, hundreds of school children were killed by the South African Defense force after conflict broke out when the white majority wanted the Afrikaans language to be spoken across all schools. Many students did not know this language as they came from more rural villages. The deaths of the students provoked something inside of Letlapa and he felt something had to be done.
In 1993 when he was the director of operations for APLA, five black students were killed. This is when Letlapa ordered the APLA attacks to take place murdering several white students.
If you met Letlapa in person, the thought of him making such commands would not cross your mind. Little did Letlapa know, when he commanded the APLA attacks to take place, he would come face-to-face with the mother of one of the young women who was killed.
Ginn Fourie, was anxious to meet the man who commanded the attacks that killed her daughter Lyndi. She was a White South African who sympathised with native South Africans who faced injustice in their homeland.
She had many questions for Letlapa and took the opportunity to meet with him at one of his book launches which was held when charges against him were withdrawn after his arrest in 1994. His book was read throughout South Africa.
‘For the first time I was meeting the mother of someone who was killed on my command’, he told the audience.
As the evening progressed, people in the room were intrigued with what was going through Letlapa’s mind. He was asked ‘Not knowing the other side, was this something that effected your actions and behaviour?’ He responded: ‘I believed these were not people. I thought white people were near to God because they had everything. From near to Holiness they became Pagans and I did not see them as humanity. They justified in my mind to be destroyed. It was a mixture of ignorance and inadequate knowledge of them being human.’
When asked ‘Have you been able to forgive yourself?’ he said: ‘I am trying to forgive myself because this is a journey. Outside, forgiveness wouldn’t be operational if you didn’t try to forgive yourself first’.
Letlapa ended the evening with a line which will stay with me forever. ‘Acts of mercy are always better than acts of retributions’. People may harm us but we have a choice to choose revenge or understanding and forgiveness.
The event was organised by The Sustainable Communities Programme of Initiatives of Change UK, in partnership with International Centre for Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers (ICERAS) and hosted by Eritrean Muslim Community Association (EMCA) with members from the Horn of Africa and the host community.