Howard Grace
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11 August, 2017

Beyond ‘them and us’ - towards a common humanity

It is natural for all of us to gravitate towards people who are similar to ourselves in terms of culture, religion, nationality etc. It is amazing though how some come to support sports teams, or similar, that sometimes seem to have little to do with their own identity. Many Africans, for instance, support Liverpool, Arsenal or Man United football teams for no obvious reason!

One ardent Liverpool supporter is my friend, Letlapa Mphahlele. But he has had deeper allegiances. Letlapa had been commander of a liberation army in South Africa during the time of apartheid. At one point, he ordered massacres on white civilians in retaliation to black school children being killed by the government forces. I first got to know him 13 years ago at a conference on reconciliation in Switzerland. Letlapa was speaking side by side with Ginn Fourie, the mother of one of his victims, a young woman student from Cape Town university.

They formed an unlikely team: a white Christian woman and a black atheist man, especially after such a terrible and divisive experience. What brings them together is a profound story of tragedy and hope. The story they shared, and subsequent outreach together as peacemakers made a deep impact on the audience.

This led to my inviting Letlapa to come to the UK, where I took him to 36 Sixth Forms in six weeks to share his experience of oppression and of why he took up the armed struggle. Students were absorbed by living into the frustrations and humiliation that led to his radicalisation.

Seeing the impact on young people developed a conviction in me to make a documentary film about the journey of Ginn and Letlapa. So, with a professional director and cameraman, we went to South Africa to do the filming. The award-winning film, Beyond Forgiving is the result. It has been widely used internationally to stimulate deeper thought on issues related to conflict, injustice, extremism and forgiveness.

The film's director Imad Karam says: ‘As a Palestinian Muslim from Gaza it is a privilege for me to work on this story because I can draw a parallel between apartheid and the current situation in my country. To see that there was an end to apartheid and to see that people who used to be completely at odds in extreme positions are now actually able to look back and feel how horrible it was, it just gives me hope that one day in Palestine we could see a peaceful coexistence.’

I invited Letlapa to return to the UK in June this year for speaking engagements with the film, under the auspices of the NGO Initiatives of Change. Events were arranged in London, Reading, Winchester, Oxford, Coventry and Newbury, my home town. Letlapa's experience is particularly poignant following the recent terrible events in Manchester and London. Our theme for these occasions was 'Beyond Group Allegiances - Towards a Common Humanity' aimed to give perspective on the way forward from extremism.

When he was commander in the South African liberation struggle Letlapa was very focussed on black people being 'My people'. But since his subsequent transformation, the whole of humanity has become 'My people'. Having this perspective is a much better foundation to address conflicts from, for all of us.

Unfortunately, due to visa problems Letlapa was unable to join us. But the events went ahead as planned.

After screening the film in the different venues, a message from Letlapa was shared with the participants.

It stated:

Dear friends, colleagues and guests.

This day, this time, and at this venue, I was looking forward to being with you. Needless-to-say I couldn't make it due to some visa complications. I profoundly apologise for not showing up.

Although I failed to arrive in person: my mind and heart are with you as you explore the possibilities to outgrow group allegiances and to strive towards a common humanity. This is a hugely important exploration. More so as we daily witness our world degenerating into bloodbaths. Armed men and women unleashing violence on the people who are punished for being 'the other' instead of 'us'.

As an explorer among explorers, I'm aware that some of you have been exploring long before I was born. For me it took a handshake and a frank talk with Ginn Fourie, to embark on a never-ending struggle for fostering a common humanity. In this march, no step is too small; and no initiative is too little, too late. In these endeavours, personal responsibility is more important than hiding behind the veil of group allegiance. After all, groups consist of individuals and are influenced by individuals.

Building a common humanity needs the bricks and mortar of integration. If we are committed to walk the talk towards a common humanity, we should personally take the initiative to reach out to the people who are different from us. People who, loosely speaking, come from other groups. We should listen with empathy why people hold sacred things we view as ordinary, and treat as ordinary things we glorify.

I thank you and wish you all the best in your collective exploration.

Letlapa Mphahlele

The structure of events varied. In London, the audience interacted with Imad Karam, director of the film, and Marina Cantacuzino, founder of the internationally acclaimed Forgiveness Project.

The searching discussion quickly evolved beyond South Africa and black and white to wider issues of conflict, including more personal relationships between individuals. One young Muslim woman spoke about herself being demonized, and how 20 days ago her cousin had been stabbed to death by a 16-year-old boy. She related the challenge and encouragement she felt from the Qu’ran to see a common humanity, and shared that she sees everyone in this room to be ‘My People’. That is what gives her strength at this difficult time.

There were many audience comments such as ‘Even people I hate are human beings.’ ‘We need to go from “Why me?’” to “Why not me?.’ ‘We can choose the path we take.’ ‘If we take on something together the differences fall away.’ But clearly people were relating the wider discussion to their personal situations. Several talked about bad personal relationships which this meeting had inspired them to address. ‘If Letlapa and Ginn can take such steps, after such a terrible situation, that really challenges me.’

There was a general feeling that at a time when many are retreating into identity groups, and in many cases ceasing to talk to ‘the other’, it is necessary to build trust with those on other sides of the fault lines, and make this a priority in our daily commitment? The important thing to take away is to consider the personal steps which any of us can take.

However; I once heard it said that we are closer to God when asking questions than when we think we know the answers. So, I’d like to finish this article with the questions which were addressed in group discussion in our various sessions:

  1. What were the key steps for Letlapa from (in the liberation struggle) just thinking of black people as ‘My People’, to now thinking of the whole of humanity as 'My People'?
  2. Letlapa said, ‘I used to demonise those I was fighting against.’ Is there an alternative to this?
  3. Imad Karam, director of Beyond Forgiving says, ‘The Israelis, and we Palestinians, are trapped in our own narratives.’ This is often true of many situations in the world, including on the family relationship level, such as between husbands and wives. What steps can be taken to move beyond this entrapment?
  4. a.  If a frog hops into a bowl of boiling water it immediately jumps out. But if the frog is placed in a bowl of cold water that is slowly brought to a boil it just stays there with inevitable consequences! What are the implications for us human beings?
    b.  We are largely moulded by cultural conditioning, by groups that we have identified with, either from birth or encounter later in life. On balance, is this good or bad, for ourselves and for society as a whole? What is (or should be) the role of education in fostering a common humanity?
  5. Should (or should not) our common humanity override all other group allegiances, be they national, cultural, political or religious? 
  6. Letlapa having the courage to reach out to Ginn following the press club event has had far reaching and unplanned for consequences. On a less dramatic level might you reach out to someone you know, or don’t know, but have enmity with, to start building a new relationship? And a common humanity!

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