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Wednesday, 25 May, 2005
Black Brazilians learn from Biko
By Alejandra Martins

Steve Biko sought to set black South Africans free from oppression and he died for it.

He probably never imagined that 30 years on, his message would be setting free the minds of young men and women thousands of kilometres away, in Brazil.
Lazaro Passos
Lazaro Passos: Studying is important, but so is black pride

The Steve Biko Institute in Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, aims to help black Brazilians achieve what many never dared to dream of — to enter university.

Brazil boasts some of the best universities in Latin America, but passing the country's tough university entrance exam, the vestibular, is not an option for most black Brazilians.

They make up almost half the country's population — far more than that in Bahia state — and the majority live in poverty.

"Here in Bahia, 70% of the population is of African descent, but more than 80% of those who graduate from university are white, so you can see clearly there is a situation of exclusion, "explains Lazaro Passos, a young mechanical engineer who is the institute's project co-ordinator.

Redressing the balance

Mr Passos says the poor quality of state primary and secondary schools means black students end up with only a remote chance of passing the vestibular.

Many white students, on the other hand, not only grow up in the private school system, but can also afford expensive one-year courses that prepare them for the exam.
Map of Brazil

Paradoxically, it is mostly these students who secure the coveted places in Brazil's federal universities, which are funded by the federal government and charge no fees.

The Biko institute aims to redress the balance, offering cheap courses to prepare black students.

"Biko is a reference for us because of his activism as a student, and above all, because he saw education as a weapon against oppression", explains Mr Passos.

The institute's T-shirts bear Biko's words: "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

The message has changed the lives of hundreds of students, like young mother Karina de Souza, who attended a course at the institute and is now a university student specialising inliterature.

"We grow up seeing only white people having success as professionals. We learn at history lessons in school that black people were brought as slaves, and all they left as a legacy is traditional foods, and dances like samba or capoeira," she says.

"Here at the Biko institute we learn about many blacks who succeeded through education."

Salvador, the capital of Bahia, was at the heart of the slave trade

All the students at the Biko institute attend lessons in"citizenship and black consciousness", where they learn about great black Brazilian engineers such as Andre Rebouca or Teodoro Sampaio.

"Black people need to learn about these figures and many others. It is part of the process of raising their self-esteem," says Mr Passos.

"We realised if we don't work at this very deep level, students never aim to be doctors, or engineers, because they believe they can only apply for less prestigious courses."

Bahia was at the heart of the slave trade that shaped Brazilian history. It is estimated that four million slaves were sent across the Atlantic to shed their sweat and blood in the fields of Brazil, eight times the number of slaves shipped to the US. Their legacy is alive in every corner of Bahia.


"Brazil was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1888 — you can imagine how this system moulded society. Even now,the black population is suffering the consequences," says Mr Passos.
George Oliveira, Karina de Souza and friend
Changed lives: George (centre), Karina (right) and friend, Janete

Students at the institute come from poor backgrounds and most of them are the first ever in their family to aim for university.

"My mother worked very hard washing clothes, selling food on the street. She couldn't finish primary school, but made sure all her kids completed secondary education. I was working from an early age, helping my mother," says Karina.

George Oliveira's future also changed thanks to the Biko institute. When he arrived there he had abandoned his studies and was working, like everyone else in his family, as a cook.

Today he is studying economics at university. He is convinced his country has to overcome what he says is a disguised form of apartheid.

"There are no laws here saying this place is for whites only and that place is for blacks only, but if you go to the rich neighbourhoods you see whites and if you go to the slums you see mainly blacks.

"Even in the media, the soap operas seem to depict life in Europe rather than Brazil."

The education ministry acknowledges that the exclusion of black students is a serious problem in Brazil.

Eliezer Pacheco, president of the National Institute of Educational Research, says: "Poverty in Brazil has a colour, and that colour is black. That´s why the Ministry of Education has been strongly defending the introduction of quotas for black students at university. Even though universities are autonomous according to the constitution and there is a lot of resistance, some universities have started adopting this system."


The Biko institute enrols about 300 students a year, of whom about 35% enter university.

Deep down the message remains like a delayed time bomb: education is the answer
Lazaro Passos

I put it to Lazaro Passos that this is a low success rate.

"Students come here after 11 years of bad schooling, often with their self-esteem at rock bottom. We reach out to human beings and that's what matters. We always leave our mark.

"Often we meet former students who after many years are back at their studies. Deep down the message remained like a delayed time bomb: education is the answer".

The legacy of Steve Biko has empowered people like Karina and George.

Karina is making sure her five-year-old son grows up proud of being black.

George, the first of his family to enter university, wants to become a professor.

For Lazaro Passos, what is at stake is not only the future of students such as George, but the development of Brazil.

"If there are no black students at university then we are excluding minds that could be thinking up a new and more competitive Brazil," he says.

"It's not only a loss for the black population, but for the whole of this country. If blacks don't have access to university then Brazil is excluding 45% of its own people."

Brazil's Lula 'sorry' for slavery
14 Apr 05 | Americas
Black judge for top Brazil court
08 May 03 | Americas
Country profile: Brazil
05 Jul 03 | Country profiles


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June 11, 2004
Allied with Apartheid: Reagan Supported Racist South African Government

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Former South African President Nelson Mandela recently announced that he was retiring from public life.   And Mandela will not be among the foreign dignitaries attending services for Ronald Reagan.   After all, Mandela was languishing in a South African prison throughout the duration of Reagan's presidency.

But this history has been effectively re-written in the US.

The dominant view is that the US was on the right side in South Africa, that it opposed apartheid.

Nothing could be further from the truth

But nothing could be further from the truth, particularly when Reagan was president.   Reagan labeled Mandela's African National Congress a notorious terrorist organization, while continuing Washington's support for the apartheid regime.

In 1981, Reagan explained to CBS that he was loyal to the South African regime because it was "a country that has stood by us in every war we've ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals."

But even as the majority of the American people came to oppose South Africa's apartheid regime, Reagan stood by his friend.

African American leaders and organizations pressured Congress to take action and ultimately it passed sanctions against South Africa.

True to form, Reagan vetoed the bill.

But to Reagan's shame, Congress overrode the veto.

Today, we are going to look at Reagan's support for apartheid South Africa with one of the victim's of that regime-Father Michael Lapsley.

Highly sophisticated bomb

In 1990, three months after the release of Nelson Mandela, the De Klerk Government sent Father Lapsley a package containing two magazines.   Inside one of them was a highly sophisticated bomb.

When Lapsley opened the magazine, the explosion brought down ceilings in the house and blew a hole in the floors and shattered windows.   It also blew off both of the priest's hands, blew out one of his eyes and burned him severely.

He flew in from South Africa last night and now joins us in our firehouse studio.

AMY GOODMAN:    We speak with South African activist Father Michael Lapsley who lost his hands, one eye and was burned severely in an assassination attempt under the De Klerk government.   How did you survive?  Most people did not think you were alive after you opened that magazine.

Michael Lapsley:    Well, I think it was a miracle to survive.   Clearly it was a bomb that was supposed to kill not simply to damage.   I suppose that in a way it was my faith saw me through, and somehow I even experienced God being with me in that experience of being bombed.

But of course it was a long journey personally coming to terms with having no hands.

AMY GOODMAN:    I wanted to talk to you about those years as we wrap up our week, remembering the dead, as we look at the history of the Reagan years.   And then to end by talking about restorative justice, and issue that you take around the world.   Can you talk about those years:  1981 to 1989 in South Africa.

Michael Lapsley:    Yes, I think it's good to think about what South Africa was like inside the country as well as what was happening in the front line states at that time.

During those years there were two states of emergency.   Vast numbers of people were imprisoned.   It was during those years - and this is a salient point for people in this country at this time - torture became normative, became a principle weapon used by the Apartheid regime.

Against people, particularly against black children during that period.

It was also a period where there were a vast number of people on death row in South Africa.   Every Thursday up to seven people at a time were executed.

But it was also a time when the Apartheid regime was on a rampage against the front-line states.   Attacking Botswana, Lesuto, [Lesotho as called inside the country], Mozambique, Zimbabwe.   There were a number of massacres of refugees that took place.   It was also a time of civil war in Angola and it was the Reagan administration that was supporting Unita bandits in Angola and fermenting war.

And it was very clear to the people of South Africa during those years that whilst there were a vast number of ordinary people in the United States, particularly Africa Americans who stood with us, the Reagan administration was on the side of Apartheid, and it was Reagan and Thatcher who were giving succour to the Apartheid regime.

And in a sense prolonging out struggle.   More people had to die in South Africa because of the support that came from Western government, particularly from Washington and London at that period.

AMY GOODMAN:    Ummm.   What about this quote from former President Reagan talking about the Apartheid regime as quote "A country that stood by us in every war we've ever fought.   A country that strategically is essential to the free world and its production of minerals."

Michael Lapsley:    I think the interesting thing about that comment is that is focuses upon profit.   It doesn't focus on what happens to people.

And of course, remembering that regime that Reagan was supporting, was a regime in which the majority of the people were voteless.   The majority of the people had no legitimate way of removing an illegitimate regime.

AMY GOODMAN:    This was a time in the United States in its policy towards South Africa when the term was coined "constructive engagement."

Michael Lapsley:    And it was constructive for death.    That's the real point.   It was not constructive with the people of South Africa, who were living and dying for basic fundamental human rights.   Rights that people all over the world take for granted.

That we had to die in great numbers to achieve.   Simply the right to go to the poles to choose a government for ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN:    What difference did it make what role the US played within South Africa or in the front-line states?

Michael Lapsley:    Well, the African National Congress of South Africa, leading the struggle in South Africa, was saying to the world:  "We will free South Africa.   We ask the world to be in solidarity with us."

So the role the international community had to play was to shorten that struggle.   To mean that we would die less.   And so in a way the support, the economic support to Apartheid, meant the struggle lasted longer.   It took us longer to achieve those fundamental rights.   To achieve democratic freedoms.

AMY GOODMAN:    You focus on restorative justice.  Before I talk about that, have you even learned who it was that put this, was it plastique?  in the magazine.

Michael Lapsley:    It was some kind of substance certainly that caused that explosion.   I don't know who individually was responsible.   I know that deKlerk was politically and morally responsible

AMY GOODMAN:    Where were you when this happened?

Michael Lapsley:    I was in Harare, Zimbabwe.   The point was the death squads, even though negotiations were about to begin, they were still in operation.   And the Apartheid regime said, "We will talk."   But they were still killing at night and so it was in that context that this letter bomb went off.

And it's also worth saying that "Yes, I was a militant of the African National Congress."   But you know the only automatic weapon I have ever used in my life is the one I am using now, my tongue.   And the regime in their stupidity took away my hands, which I didn't need to shoot, and left my weapon working reasonably well.

AMY GOODMAN:    How long did it take you to recover?

Michael Lapsley:    I was in hospital for about seven months.   That's the physical journey, but there's another kind of journey of coming to terms with having no hands.   But I was very fortunate in that my pain, and what happened to me, was acknowledged and recognized by people around the world.    That enabled me to travel a journey from victim to survivor to victor.

And that's in a way why I do the work I do now.   To seek to walk beside others who have not had their pain acknowledged. And I think one of the very wonderful things you are doing in this program today is not simply acknowledging Reagan.   Every body is doing that, but you are acknowledging the poor of the world who suffered under Reagan.

And this great knowledge of what happened to unemployed, poor, homeless, African American, Hispanic people, but by this very program we are moving from knowledge to acknowledgment.   I think that it itself is one step on the journey to healing.

Acknowledging what happened to the ordinary people in those years, and lifting up their stories, their pain, but also their faith and endurance and hope and commitment.   In giving it its rightful place at this time.

AMY GOODMAN:    We spent the week…we spoke with Noam Chomsky about Central America policy, Allan Nairn about what happened in Guatemala, the investigative journalist, about the more than hundred thousand Guatemalans who died during this period of the eighties with the US supporting the success of military regimes.   We spoke with Fr. Miguel D'Escoto a former Foreign Minister of Nicaragua about the thousands of Nicaraguans who died with the US supporting the Contras.   We talked about El Salvador, the tens of thousands of Salvadorian civilians who died there.

Michael Lapsley:    That's part of the acknowledgment.   That's part of the journey to healing.   Those stories are not forgotten, but the individual lives are recognized.

AMY GOODMAN:    You are part of the whole truth and reconciliation process in South Africa led by Bishop Tutu.   Did you testify before the commission?

Michael Lapsley:    Yes, I gave evidence to the commission, and whilst I have told my story many times, speaking to the commission was a very particular moral significance, because in a way I felt that my own story was becoming an indelible part of that great patchwork of the journey of the people of South Africa.   And, in a way I would say, although I lost hands that I will always grieve for, the greatest privilege of my life was to be a part of perhaps the greatest struggle of the twentieth century, of the struggle against Apartheid.

AMY GOODMAN:    What do you mean by 'Restorative Justice?'

Michael Lapsley:    Well it's interesting, when we say the word justice, in most countries, especially the United States, people mean retribution, or in fact sometimes they mean revenge.   Restorative Justice asks a different kind of question.   It doesn't say, 'How can the State punish the offender?'   It says, 'How can we restore the relationships that have been broken?'   And of course a country where you have two million of your citizens in prison?  that's retributive justice at its worst.   And of course the rampant use of the death penalty.

Restorative Justice seeks to restore relationships that have been broken.   It seeks to provide opportunities where victim and offender can meet each other, and people can explore the journey they need to travel to make it up to those who have..

So for example if I were to meet the person who sent me the letter bomb, and they asked for my forgiveness, I would be happy to forgive them.   And I would prefer that they spent their lives, for example working in a hospital, rather than be locked up in prison, but I might say to them, of course, you would also be willing to help assist me with my needs for the rest of my life as a form of restorative justice.   A form of making it up in the ways that are possible.

So that is what I think I mean by restorative justice, which is a justice that gives hope, where often retributive justice simply continues cycles where victims become victimizers.

AMY GOODMAN:    Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, who on another September 11th, September 11, 1977 was being beaten to death by US backed Apartheid forces, died in the early hours of September 12th, 1977, his family did not support just the idea of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that if people came forward and they revealed what they had done, who was involved in Steve Biko's death, that that would be enough.   That they should not be granted amnesty.

Michael Lapsley:    Of course I know Nkosinathi Biko, Steve Biko's son.

They were not opposed to the truth commission.   They supported the truth commission, but they had very specific opposition to amnesty because they said it would violate their right to a form of justice.

The response of our constitutional court was to say however, if there were reparations it would be a form or restorative justice, and that was in fact what won the day.

Amnesty is a bitter pill to swallow, but the alternative to amnesty, in the South African context, was an escalating civil war that would have taken millions of lives.

So we did make a compromise, but it is a compromise that opened a democratic space for us to know struggle to a way to a more just society.

AMY GOODMAN:    We have been speaking with Father Michael Lapsley, Director of The Institute of Healing of Memories.

If people want to get in touch with you where can they write.

Michael Lapsley:    The triple w. Healing of memories, one word

AMY GOODMAN:    Thank you very much Father Michael Lapsley.

The audio and video of this interview with Amy Goodman can be found at

At their website, to find audio and video interviews, in search, type Lapsley


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For archive purposes, this article is being stored on website.
The purpose is to advance understandings of environmental, political,
human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues.