UWC honours Fr Alan Michael Lapsley for his contribution to social justice
The world seems to be an increasingly divided place at times, with enough trouble and corruption to go around. But we all have a choice when it comes to how we respond to it - and those choices can make all the difference.
That was the message delivered by Anglican priest and social justice activist, Father Alan Michael Lapsley, to University of the Western Cape graduates at the University’s Autumn Graduation Ceremony on Monday, 10 April 2017 - at this ceremony he received an honorary doctorate for his many contributions to society.
Father Lapsley is living proof of the power of choice to change the world. His life and achievements are a reflection of values, attributes and virtues aligned to UWC’s institutional aims in being both an example and a metaphor for community engagement and transformation through institutional practice.
New Zealand-born and Australian-educated, Lapsley arrived in Durban, South Africa, as an undergraduate student in 1973. He became chaplain to students at both black and white universities in Durban.
“I often say that the day I arrived in South Africa I stopped being human and became a white man,” Lapsley said. “As a white person I could enjoy the highest standard of living in the world - all I needed to do was kill my conscience.”
Instead, he began to speak out on behalf of schoolchildren who were being shot, detained and tortured, and took a stand against apartheid in his role as national chaplain to Anglican students. In September 1976 he was expelled from the country. He moved to Lesotho, continued his studies and became a member of the African National Congress and a chaplain to the organisation while in exile.
“I chose to join the liberation struggle and to join the ANC,” he explained. “I fought for the recovery of my own humanity in solidarity with black people fighting for their basic human rights.”
He paid a high price for his principles.
After a police raid in Maseru in 1982 in which 42 people were killed, he moved to Zimbabwe. It was here that in 1990, three months after ANC leader Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, he was sent a letter bomb by the Civil Cooperation Bureau - a covert outfit of the apartheid security forces. He lost both hands and the sight in one eye in the blast, and was seriously burnt.
“The apartheid regime tried to kill me and almost succeeded,” he noted. “My choice was how I responded. When the bomb went off, I knew immediately that the apartheid regime had got to me. I also knew immediately that they had lost and I had won because I was alive. Then began the journey of appropriating that victory, a journey which continues till today.”
A Choice For Positive Change
On his return to South Africa in 1992 he helped to start the association, Friends of Cuba, and later became its first National President. In 1993 he became Chaplain of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town, which assisted the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
This work led to the establishment, in 1998, of the Institute for Healing of Memories (IHOM) in Cape Town, which aims to allow many more South Africans to tell their stories in workshops where they work through their trauma.
Father Lapsley has long been associated with UWC, and, as current Vice President of the South African Council of Churches and Director of IHOM, was also instrumental in organizing the First Annual Healing of Memories Lecture at UWC, Restoring Humanity by Ela Gandhi.
UWC is, naturally, not the only institution that’s seen the wisdom of bestowing honours on Father Lapsley. He has honorary doctorates from the Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, Liverpool Hope University in the United Kingdom, and Virginia Theological Seminary in the USA. He has been awarded the Queen’s Service Medal by the Government of New Zealand for service to Southern African communities. He is also Honorary Consul for New Zealand in Cape Town. During 2014 he was given a Living Heroes Award by the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles and was also honoured by Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. In November 2014, he was given a Living Legends Award by the City of Johannesburg.
And his quest for social justice has never ended. “South Africa has become the most unequal society on Earth,” he said, speaking of the “increasing evidence that the state has been captured by a small corrupt clique surrounding and including the president”.
We are proud and honoured to be associated with Father Michael and believe it is a fitting tribute to confer on him an honorary degree for services rendered, inspiration provided, and unfailing leadership and moral guidance.