‘I called myself a freedom fighter, and it took a football game to discover that I am an oppressor.’ Letlapa Mphahlele, who commanded South Africa’s Azanian People’s Liberation Army, was speaking in Oxford on the theme, ‘Shared humanity’.
It was not a sentiment or a theme you would expect to hear from a man who ordered his troops to kill white civilians in the struggle to overthrow apartheid. A man who then went on to lead South Africa’s Pan Africanist Congress, and represent his Party in the South African Parliament.
But Letlapa said that ‘he had been given the gift of forgiveness’ by the mother of a young woman killed on his orders. ‘Not everyone can give you such an important gift.’ This had led him to reach out to all races and work for a ‘shared humanity’.
In England, retired teacher Howard Grace knew that this was not just a challenge for South Africa. English audiences could benefit from discussing this quest. Together with Initiatives of Change colleagues he organised a tour for Letlapa to towns and cities widely across England.
The Oxford meeting was held in the Old Library of the University Church – where Oxford University began 800 years ago. ‘I am here in exploration mode,’ Letlapa began. ‘Some of us are struggling to achieve shared humanity. I try but I don’t always succeed. Sometimes my head says one thing but my heart says the opposite.’
Tragic events in South Africa have persuaded him to keep searching. ‘After an outbreak of anti-immigrant violence, I went to a Nigerian friend and told him I condemned this. Many South Africans apologised to their Nigerian friends.’
Letlapa’s honesty moved his audience, and many responded, telling of attempts to reach across social divisions – and the divisions created by Britain’s Brexit debate. ‘How do I have the conversation with a person and not fall back into old habits?’ asked one. ‘What about people who are not prepared to give up their power?’ asked another. ‘Some one has to take a step,’ said a third. ‘We need the courage to be vulnerable. The person in power can take that step, or the person in power can be surprised by his opponent.’
Letlapa responded with his own experience. ‘Today I do not advocate violence even when I think violence is justified. You can achieve a lot by non-violence; it doesn’t mean you are weak, perhaps it means you are stronger.’
And he told of that football game. ‘When I was in Botswana, training to defeat apartheid, we organised a game with the local people, the Khoisan (often called bushmen). They played better than us.’ The South Africans would not tolerate humiliation by their smaller opponents, and the referee was South African. So Khoisan goals were disallowed, and an unjustified free kick ensured a South African victory. ‘That was when I discovered that I was a fake freedom fighter,’ Letlapa said.
It is worth adding that, since apartheid ended, he has been specially active in projects aimed at enabling the Khoisan people to flourish.