The Art of Peace
It was unusual for a New Zealand priest to minister in South Africa and it was only through his order’s bureaucratic stolidity that Fr. Michael went there at all. As he told us: “’Where would you like to go?’ they asked me after ordination, to which I replied ‘Japan’. So they sent me to South Africa”. Not quite logical but it allowed him to flourish in very different ways.
He arrived in Durban in 1973 and became immediately involved in the struggle against apartheid. Very soon, he had to change the way he looked at the world: “I stopped being a human being and became a white man; I decided to join the liberation struggle to become a human being again”. His active stance in providing education for black and white children alike and his forceful opposition to the regime itself meant that he was expelled from South Africa and forced into exile, first in Lesotho and then Zimbabwe. In 1990, after the release of Nelson Mandela when everyone thought that the struggle was almost over, he was sent a letter bomb. It blew off both his hands, blinded him on one eye and damaged an eardrum.
When he visited AUR last week, he spoke on “Young people and the art of peace”; in practice, this meant weaving his own story into a seamless narrative with the wider history of the anti-apartheid movement first and healing and reconciliation process in South Africa. The audience was moved by his account of his awakening during the Soweto protests “which shook my faith. Those who shot children read the Bible every day and went to Church on Sundays. How could I accept that they and I both called ourselves Christians”.
After the terrorist attack, he used his own experience to help others who had also been traumatized by terrorism and torture. He became chaplain for the trauma centre for violence and torture in Capetown and then worked closely with Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He founded the Insitute for Healing of Memories in Capetown because, as he told us “healing of memory is the key to peace” and is “the only way to break the cycle of one war which leads to another”. It was an inspiring experience for all of us to listen to an exceptional man on a vital mission.
The South African ambassador, Thenjiwe Mtintso, gave her own tribute to Fr. Michael who she had known for many years. She also spoke of the African National Council’s centenary this year and promised to return to AUR to celebrate both the ANC and her country.