South Africa: Together for Justice

Published on 27th March 2018

The ecumenical witness of the world-wide Church of God had a profound influence on the theological and political fight for justice against apartheid in South Africa.  In particular, we celebrate  our longstanding links with the Church in Germany, which has been an overwhelmingly positive influence for good among the Christian churches of South Africa.

Although on the one hand, the development of the theology of apartheid was influenced by South African theologians who studied in Germany in the 1930s, in later years opposition to apartheid was profoundly influenced by the church struggle against totalitarianism in Germany, especially by examples such as the Barmen Declaration affirming the sovereignty of God in Christ over all other claims to authority.

The EKD gave magnificent support to the South African Council of Churches during the darkest days of our struggle, when my predecessor, Archbishop Tutu, was the council's general secretary. It has also given significant support to the All Africa Conference of Churches. As a young person, my university education was financed largely by donations from overseas to the council's African Bursary Fund. In exchange, I worked in the SACC's photocopy room during university holidays. I must have copied many documents from the EKD in my time there, and perhaps also shredded those we did not want the apartheid government to see!

 Reformed theology also generated confessional documents rejecting apartheid. Led by people such as the late Dr Beyers Naude and Dr Allan Boesak, the ecumenical movement, through the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, played an important role in rejecting apartheid as a heresy. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church – now part of the Uniting Reformed Church – developed the Belhar Confession, which resembles the Barmen Confession in that both asserted God's authority over the dominant political ideology. Later, theologians of all denominations responded to the South African crisis of the mid 1980s by adopting the Kairos Document.

 Of course I am an Anglican and, as Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury once said, “Modern Anglican theology owes many of its  characteristics to the central place held within it by the Incarnation.” When I was installed as Archbishop 10 years ago, I spoke of the need to “seek afresh to discover what it is to be the body of Christ in our time, and who God is in Jesus Christ, for us here and now.” Since then I have come to realise the centrality of the doctrine of the Incarnation for me, and have returned to it again and again as a lens through which to explore both theology and politics and theology and economics.

As I said when I addressed the last meeting of our church's ruling Synod, “Simply put, by incarnation I refer to God in Jesus entering the everyday experience of human living to point us to God’s reign and to prepare and invite us through our everyday lives to enjoy the blessedness of this reign... [M]y writing and advocacy on the theme of the incarnation and politics is born out of the struggle of God’s people with political systems in Southern Africa that demeaned all of us and which were not designed to address the concrete needs and experiences of our daily lives or to respond to God’s call to human flourishing.” The Incarnation, as I have said elsewhere, “communicates to us that God is... on our side. In Christ Jesus, God demonstrates God’s solidarity with the human condition. He is with us, alongside us, and, more than that, one of us – to a degree we probably will never adequately understand this side of heaven.”

 In South Africa, since our liberation in 1994, we have had to ask: what does the incarnate Christ say about the fact that political liberation has not been accompanied by economic liberation? What does the incarnate Christ say about the corruption which has seeped into many levels of government and the private sector? What does the incarnate Christ say about the fact that we  remain one of the most unequal countries in the world. What does the incarnate Christ say about the continuing inequality of opportunity, which determines that those who are likely to flourish in our society are the sons and daughters of the elite, and those who will struggle to break out of a vicious circle of poverty are the daughters and sons of the poor?

 One of the issues we have to face up to is that the Church has failed to act with the courage that people such as Beyers Naude, Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu, the Roman Catholic archbishop, Denis Hurley, and many others showed during the struggle against apartheid. Too often we have not spoken out when our political leaders have failed. As Beyers Naude said as far back as 1996: “People tend to say that now that we have a new government, now that we have a new Constitution, now that we have solved our political problems, for the time being, there is no prophetic role for the Church at the moment. I think such a perception is a very serious mistake.”

In 2003, the National Religious Association for Social Development developed a vision for a new South Africa as a shared agenda between different faith communities. This declared that “we strive to build a just and equitable society, a society that cares for all its citizens, especially for those that are weak and marginalized; a democratic society that respects our constitution, the rule of law, that guards against the misuse of power, that fosters our diversity and plurality, and that fosters the role of civil society. Such a society can only be built on the shared moral values within our diverse traditions, in order to build a wholesome society.” This formed the basis for a collaborative approach between faith communities and government under President Mbeki to fight poverty. Because we were now a democracy, we would adopt a position of critical solidarity with our government. But there was too much solidarity and too little criticism.

 Twenty years after our transition to democracy, the National Church Leaders’ Consultation – a gathering of 35 senior church leaders from different denominations – declared in a joint statement:

“As church leaders we confess to the brokenness and pain of our society – we have a crisis of hope and an urgency to respond. We have seen and heard the plight of the poor. We confess that we were not conduits of creating a just and peaceful society. We should speak boldly about the challenges and issues confronting us.”

My own response to the challenges that we have faced in recent years has been to promote what I call the New Struggle. The old struggle, of course, was that against apartheid. I have argued that the New Struggle is needed because- “It sometimes feels as if some of our leaders stopped their fight for a new South Africa at the point at which they joined the ranks of those who corruptly and immorally amassed wealth under colonialism and apartheid. Our struggle now should not be for the new, multiracial middle class to live as the white elite lived under apartheid: it should be for a new society, a more equal society, a society of equality of opportunity in which the wealth that comes from new economic growth is shared equitably among all.”

 The replacement of President Jacob Zuma by our new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, does not take away the need for this New Struggle. As I said in my Christmas sermon in 2015: “[L]et us not make the mistake of thinking that the solution to our problems lies simply in replacing one leader with another. The new struggle is about values and institutions rather than about personalities.... [W]hether or not [President Zuma] is replaced before his term ends, we need to build strong systems and institutions which cannot be undermined by one party or person’s whim.”

 Theology is what God is up to in God’s creation. Economics is how God’s household organises itself in response to God’s creative love. What does looking at the economy through the lens of the Incarnation say to us? The economic ordering of society and the question of how we develop our material resources is central to the crises that afflict us, both in South Africa and the world. In South Africa I have said that the old economic order must go. But inequality is not confined to South Africa, or Brazil, or the United States – it affects us all. Two years ago, I attended the first Ecumenical School on Governance, Economics and Management in Hong Kong. There theologians, economists, students and senior church officials from across the world resolved to become advocates of a new form of global governance and a new economic model, pledging to seek practical ways to transform the market economy from a self-serving mechanism for elites to one which serves our environment and all the world's people.

 When we look at not only the South African economy but the world economy, in an era in where there is growing xenophobic nationalism and resurgent racism in many places, we again face a kairos moment. We have a shared responsibility - across the regions of the world, across political divisions, across cultural and religious diversity, across economic and social differences – to ensure a future for the coming generations. The challenges we face on a global, regional and local level are similar and related: poverty and inequality; rapid technological changes; protection of the environment and natural resources; interfaith and inter-cultural cooperation; strengthening democracy and social justice, addressing the causes of migration and refugees. Through dialogue and conversations with leading religious, political, business and civil society leaders, we must strive to foster better understanding of the complexity of the challenges we face, strengthen mutual cooperation and trust and facilitate common action through partnerships.

 Our task as the heralds of Good News is to remember, as God's people did in times past, to remember what God has done for us and to consciously allow God's great deeds in history to continue to empower us. We must rekindle our own hope and the hope of our people.

By Thabo Makgoba

South African Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.


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