“The law is crystal clear: torture can never be used at any time or under any circumstances, including during conflict or when national security is under threat. On this International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, we express our solidarity with and support for the hundreds of thousands of victims of torture and their family members throughout the world.”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
The terrible reality is that torture happens in many, many countries of the world: north, south, east and west.
As we know this year is the 40th anniversary of the SOWETO uprising. As that year progressed one of the characteristics was the number of young people who were detained, imprisoned and totureed. There was a particular point in the middle of the 80s when it was estimated that there were ten thousand young people under the age of 18 in detention, and at least 90% of whom were tortured.
I cannot help wondering 40 years later how many still bare the scars in their souls because of what happened to them at that time. But that was in the apartheid era.
Now 40 years later we live in the age of democracy and torture has been officially outlawed in South Africa. All countries which are members of the United Nations are bound by conventions against torture.
In terms of today’s politics, from today’s vantage point, those who who were tortured then can be called “popular” victims. But when it comes to this point in our democratic era, and not just in South Africa, but in many countries of the world, the people who are tortured are often “unpopular” victims.
When people were tortured in that era, the majority of society were sympathetic to the victims. But who is it that are tortured today in our society? It is people who are in police cells, people, people who are seen as criminals. So torture still happens in police statons, it still happens in prisons, ….again unpopular victims, people who don’t have peope to shout out for them to say: This is wrong.
Another group of people in many places in the world, who get subjected to torture are undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Again often regarded as unpopular victims.
Now we all know that South Africa was the first country in the world to write into its constitution its illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, disability and the unique addition in our constitution was sexual orientation. Yet particularly black lesbians get tortured and killed.in our society. Again they are often regarded as unpopular victims.
Just to give you some idea of whar is happening here in South Africa I refer you to the report of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. They reported in the 2014/15 period reported 244 deaths in custody. They also reported 145 cases of torture, 34 cases of rape and 3,711 cases of assault by police officers in the same period.
Now we have to ask ourselves, what is our role as a faith community in relation to the struggle against torture?
I want to suggest that common especially to the 3 great Abarahamic faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism is a fundamental belief that all human beings are made in God’s image and likeness. There is something of the divine in all of us. So when another human being is tortured we are attackjng the divine in the other and of course the perpetrator is also morally transgressing the divine in him or herself.
Many of you know of or knew the late Johnny Issel. He was regarded as a great hero of the struggle against apartheid especially here in the Western Cape. He was badly tortured. Before he passed away, one of Johnny’s desire was to meet again face to face his torturer. This did indeed take place and I listened to Johnny talking about that conversation and also from someone else who was also a witness. By this time Johnny was celebrated as a hero, venerated almost in this part of South Africa. Johnny asked the torturer, “And how is your life?” The person who was the perpetrator had to confess that he no longer had a life. Hia life had beendestroyed.by what he had done as a torturer. But in that moment Johnny’s response, extraordinarily was one of compassion. He saw the humanity of the one who had been his victimizer. He saw that in fact he was ok and the perpetrator had lost everything.
Johnny said to those of us who were involved in the Institute for Healing of Memories and the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture with grear urgency that we needed to reach out to those in our society who had been perpetrators……recognizing that one who oppreses others is also oppressed and in need of liberation.
This day provides a particular challenge to all of us in faith communities because all of us belong to faith traditions, Christian, Moslem. Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu where our faith has been used to justify violence, to justify torture.
The slippery slope towards torture begins with prejudice, with “othering”, of seeing a category of human being, as not being people like us. Once we do that, we begin to develop a mindset that gives permission for people to do terrible things to the “other”. And the people who do the terrible things were brought up in our communities. whether they became prison officers, or police or responsible for refugees and asylum seekers. They felt they had permission from us to do those terrible things.
I was very struck by some right wing evanagelicals in the US who after the terrible killings in Orlando, said: We have to examine our own consciences and see if some of the things we said gave permission for pain and oppression of others.
We must end with the words of the Secretary General of the UN that torture is never justified.
Part of our role as faith communities is to pray for people who are victims of torture for whatever reason. Let’s also pray for people who are torturers, that they will change.
We need to remind ourselces is not something which is only done by state officials, it can happen anywhere as for ecample with gender based violence.
As I travel the world I hsve learnt that actually there is only one human family and all of have within us the capability, the possibility of being perpetrators, of doing terrible things to other human beings. But all of us have that God given ability to be tender, loving, kind, generous and compassionate.
As an ignorant Christian I suspect that is part of what the holy month of Ramadan is about, developing that capacity for goodness, for kindness, for solidarity.
Institute for Healing of Memories
Director: Father. Michael Lapsley SSM
Vice President South African Council of Churches
5 Eastry Rd,
Republic of South Africa