Heidelberg massacre: Story of reconciliation

Heidelberg massacre: Story of reconciliation

Posted by ObsLife on Tuesday, December 15, 2009 Under: History

Ginn Fourie's story

On the evening of 30 December 1993 a hale of AK 47 gunfire ended our daughter’s life and dreams. She had no time to debate the reasons for the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) wanting 'Whites' to suffer as 'Blacks' had suffered under Apartheid, even though she had often wept at the injustices against Blacks.

As parents we struggled to come to terms with our loss. It was a time of deep agony for my husband, myself and our son Anthony. At the funeral my eldest brother, who conducted the service, recommended that the most appropriate Christian response to violence is to absorb it; just as Lyndi’s soft body had done on that fateful day.

Within a week of the Heidelberg Massacre, three young men were detained and in November 1994 they stood trial. I sat in the Supreme Court in Cape Town, looking at them in the dock: Humphrey Gqomfa, Vuyisile Madasi and Zola Mabala. As I did so I was confronted by my own feelings of anger and sadness, but somehow I could engender no hate. During the trial I sent a message to them via the interpreter that 'if they are or feel guilty I forgive them'.

However, I also depended on the law to avenge my loss and was relieved when all three were convicted of murder and sent to prison for an average of 25 years each. The Judge described them as puppets who had enacted a violent crime which had been strategised by more cunning and intelligent people than themselves.

Many could not countenance my forgiveness for Lyndi’s killers, but as a Christian I cherished the role-model of Christ forgiving his murderers. Since then I have come to understand forgiveness as a process which involves the principled decision to give up ones justifiable right to revenge - for to accept violation is a devaluation of the self.

At the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) Hearing in October 1997 I learnt that Lyndi’s killers were likely to be granted amnesty and I did not oppose it. At the conclusion of the Hearings the three young men asked to speak to me. They thanked me and said that they would take my message of forgiveness and hope to their communities and to their graves, whether they received amnesty or not.

Then in October 2002 I turned on my car radio and heard an interview with Letlapa Mphahlele – the man who had masterminded the Heildelberg massacre. He was in Cape Town to promote his biography, Child of this Soil. I knew he had been dodging the public prosecutor and had not applied for amnesty and so with a sense of anger and righteous indignation I took myself down to his book launch. It took some courage to stand up and ask him whether he was trivialising the whole TRC process by not participating. To my surprise he responded in a very positive way. He said he could understand why people might think this but from his perspective the TRC had trivialised the fact that Apla were fighting a just war and why, while his soldiers were being held in prison, had the apartheid defence forces been spared? I hadn’t thought of it like this before and tears came to my eyes. Then Letlapa came straight from the podium to where I was sitting and said “I’ll do anything if you’ll meet with me this week.” In that moment I saw remorse in his eyes and body language. It would have been so much easier if he'd been a monster with horns and a tail - if there was something to hate.

People were saying he was unapologetic but I soon discovered that for Letlapa saying ‘sorry’ is too easy. He needs to build bridges between our communities to bring conciliation. That October he invited me to his home-coming ceremony in Seleteng (Limpopo Province) and asked me to speak at the occasion. It was here that I was able to apologise to his people for the shame and humiliation which my ancestors had brought on them through slavery, colonialism and apartheid. Vulnerable feelings when expressed to each other have the potential to establish lasting bonds

Letlapa’s name means a man of stone. I feel he has been weathered by a formidable struggle to become a child of this soil. I too am a child of this soil. I know his comrades' bullets killed my daughter and that terrible pain will always be with me, but I have forgiven this man who gave the command. I feel his humanity.

Letlapa Mphahlele's story

I am an atheist but I believe absolutely in reconciliation, meeting soul to soul, person to person. As human-beings we have to face each other and mend relationships. Meeting Ginn has been a profound and humbling experience for me. From our first meeting in 2002 Ginn understood me and while others couldn't understand why these terrorists were still unapologetic, why they wouldn’t talk in glowing terms about the TRC, Ginn said she detected that this person was remorseful. By this time all the charges against me had been withdrawn, but still I did not feel anything inside me. It was only when people extended gifts of forgiveness that the roots of my hearts were shaken and something was restored inside me.

Since meeting Ginn I have had to face the fact that people were killed because of my orders and acknowledge that the people we fought, harmed and caused grief to were never our direct enemies. I believed that terror had to be answered with terror and I authorized high profile massacres on white civilians in the same way that the whites did on us. At the time it seemed the only valid response - but where would it have ended? If my enemy had been cannibals, would I have eaten white flesh? If my enemy had raped black women, would I have raped white women?

I have changed since then and I no longer believe you should meet violence with violence. I now think you can deal with oppression in a more creative way. I believe what Ginn says, that even if violence comes your way ‘absorb it’. That is not the coward’s way. It’s extremely difficult. My mission now is to reach out to those who survived because by meeting together we are able to restore each other’s humanity. When Ginn attended my homecoming, she delivered the most moving speech of the day. She stood up and asked for forgiveness from the people on behalf of her ancestors. She also got the loudest applause, louder than I got after nearly two decades in exile.

Some people have decided not to forgive me for what I have done and I understand them. It’s not easy to forgive but to those who have forgiven I believe this is the start to rebuilding our communities. This is an intense human mission. People sometimes ask me if I have also killed people face to face. When I am asked this question I never answer - not because I am afraid of speaking the truth but because I believe that every foot soldier who killed at my command is less guilty than me because I authorized the targets. So I exonerate those who pulled the trigger. It is I who should shoulder the blame.

Support South African History Online

Donate and Make African History Matter

South African History Online is a non profit organisation. We depend on public support to build our website into the most comprehensive educational resource and encyclopaedia on African history.

Your support will help us to build and maintain partnerships with educational institutions in order to strengthen teaching, research and free access to our content.