South Africa: Mission in social context

There are regular stories of racism in the media: insults, violence, discrimination… This is especially true between Blacks (80.2% of the population, especially in the East) and Whites (8.4%) but also with Métis (8.9%, located mainly in the West) and Asians (2.5%). The Catholic bishops distributed questionnaires to be discussed in small groups in all the parishes of the country. One of us printed anti-racist images.

Since 1652 white people have settled in South Africa. It is the only white population in Africa to have developed into a nation with a distinct language, culture and faith. Their population peaked at 5 million in 1990. In 2011 they were 4.5 million for a population of about 55 million. Since the fall of apartheid, there has been a brain drain abroad. This is partly due to the government’s “Black Economic Empowerment” program, which promotes black employment at the expense of skills. We see more and more white beggars.

Most of the land belonged to the whites, land their ancestors had confiscated from the blacks. Nowadays, white farmers are regularly murdered. Their isolation makes them vulnerable. During the struggle against apartheid, churches, mosques and temples were united against the common enemy. They have contributed greatly to its downfall through their networks, from the grassroots to the highest international level. After the first democratic elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela became president. Religious groups have withdrawn from the political sphere to give the new government a chance, trusting it. As a result, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue have diminished. Mandela has worked with relative success on reconciliation between whites and blacks. In Pretoria, there are two neighbouring hills. On each one there is a memorial: on one the Boers and on the other the fighters against colonialism, segregation and apartheid. Between them, a path has been traced to symbolize reconciliation. This road is in bad condition because there is no agreement on who should pay for its maintenance… The Boers say that the road is longer on the side of the Fighters, the Blacks say that the Boers have more money…

At the end of his mandate, Nelson Mandela handed over to Thabo Mbeki. Jacob Zuma then succeeded him despite his reputation for corruption. But it allowed Zulus to feel more South African and to forget their desire for secession. Unfortunately, under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, corruption has reached alarming proportions and the country’s economy has suffered. As a result, last year the religious groups decided to return to the political game to try to remedy the situation. They organized a National Convention to which I was invited. The convention was divided into 5 themes: politics, economics, the environment, education and the national novel. Follow-up was planned to ensure that it would bear fruit.

As by coincidence, at the same time, Jacob Zuma was dismissed before the end of his mandate and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa who thus inherits a bad situation. He had been Nelson Mandela’s favourite. A former trade unionist and wealthy businessman, he was born in Soweto, a Venda, whose land is in the north near Zimbabwe. It is also the tribe of Blessed Benoît Daswa who was martyred in 1994 for refusing to pay the 5 rands for a witch hunt following a fire caused by lightning in his village. Ramaphosa has a good reputation in both business and popular circles, as well as in different regions of the country. As a mine owner, he was accused of contributing to the massacre of 34 miners in Marikana. In fact, this was due to an incompetent woman put at the head of the police. With him, hope returns but corruption has taken root at all levels of government and it will be very difficult to get rid of it. It is more necessary than ever that all religious groups get involved for a better South Africa.

In his inaugural speech, Cyril Ramaphosa promised much to unite the nation around a better future. In particular, he promised the return of the land from the Whites to the Blacks without compensation. This allows him to keep in respect Julius Malema the boiling left-wing leader of the “Economic Freedom Fighters”. Given the failure of this kind of programme in Zimbabwe, one can be sure that Ramaphosa will seek a pragmatic and progressive solution to limit the possible damage to agricultural production capacity. Mandela has begun the reconciliation of whites and blacks. With Ramaphosa it is a question of starting an effective reparation of past injustices.

The Bishops’ Conference is setting up a Caritas network to address the most serious social cases. Families had been dispersed by the apartheid system, allowing only men to work in the mines. Women, children and the elderly were to remain in the Bantustans. So there is no tradition of united families. Most kids don’t know their dad.

There is an educational problem. Under apartheid, whites had an excellent network of schools and universities, while blacks had to make it with a cheap education. Too often we see violent demonstrations on television for free access to university. Schools or faculties are burned by angry students. They imitate their parents who burn government buildings if corruption prevents them from accessing public services. We, the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) have a house of formation in theology in KwaZulu-Natal. Of our 30 students, none are South African. Young black South Africans dream of catching up economically with white people. Becoming a priest or religious, even worse missionary in countries poorer than South Africa, does not meet this objective. Black South African students very often have a lower academic level than their counterparts in other African countries.

Unemployment, especially among youth, is a time bomb. As a result, the population has a negative view of the millions of legal and illegal immigrants they accuse of stealing their jobs. From time to time there are species of pogroms against small businesses of foreigners under the pretext of human trafficking and drugs. Following the first Missionaries from Africa who came here to serve minors from Malawi, we are sensitive to the issues of the vulnerability of immigrants, especially women and children. Religious leaders call for the fight against this chronic xenophobia. The Justice and Peace Commission has from time to time spoken out against this scourge.

There are many missionaries in South Africa. The older ones are white, the younger ones are black from all over Africa, especially Nigeria. They strengthen the Catholic Church which was only legalized and established 200 years ago. The Calvinist church was for a long time the only authorized church. Islam arrived with the Indonesian political prisoners. Our confreres in KwaZulu-Natal have two parishes. They promote small Christian communities and “Justice and Peace” groups that are not very developed here. In the early twentieth century missionaries from the United States established independent churches like the Zionist Church. Together, they have become the most numerous among blacks. They suffer from a lack of doctrinal clarity. I have been in contact with the Coptic church in South Africa since the 1990s. Founded by St Mark, it is the oldest African church and it can help those independent churches, which want to distinguish themselves from churches brought by Europeans and find African roots that go back long before Islam or Western churches.

Catholics are only 15% but they form the most united and powerful church. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference participates in the South African Council of Churches and interfaith dialogue platforms. This cooperation allows us to have enough weight to speak out for the protection of the environment and the most vulnerable, for example. An expensive nuclear power plant project is thus delayed in favour of renewable energy equipment that is more beneficial for the environment, budget balance and job creation.

On the interreligious side, I develop relations with Muslims, especially academics such as the liberation theologian Farid Essack, the Turks of the Gulenist movement and the Sufis of Middle Eastern origin. They are Muslims who are open to dialogue and can possibly open up other Muslim communities that are too withdrawn or too aggressive. The Kingdom of God is like a tapestry whose beauty depends on each thread that constitutes it. Every human relationship counts to reveal it better.

Father Christophe Boyer, M. Afr
Voix d’Afrique nr. 119 – June 2018


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