South Africa

South Africa

Maverick interview: Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

Six years ago, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba became the youngest ever head of the Anglican Church. In a wide-ranging interview at Bishopscourt, he spoke about the challenges of his job, his relationship with President Jacob Zuma and his respect for Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He also shared some of his concerns about South Africa today. By RYLAND FISHER.

Still only 52, Makgoba has a Bachelor of Science degree and a Masters in Educational Psychology from Wits University, and a PhD from the University of Cape Town.

Looking at your CV it appears that you could have chosen a career in education, academia or science. When and how did you know that your future was in the church?

When I was young, I felt called, like so many youngsters at the time, to join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the ANC’s military wing) and bring about change in that way. A group of us within the Anglican Church went to the then Bishop of Lesotho, Desmond Tutu, and told him of our intentions. He said that there were many other ways to express how we felt, one being working as a strong youth in the church and conscientising others about our pains and struggles.

I approached my bishop who said I’m too young at 18 to offer myself to the ordained ministry. He said I must finish matric and study anything other than theology. Once I have completed that I should come back. He was afraid that I was running away from the pressures of our community, by wanting to be cleric at a young age. I’m glad he did that. I then went and studied science.

At what age did you enter the church?

I entered the church at the age of 19. After being told that I can’t be in the ordination streams because I was too young, I became the chairperson of the local Anglican student society at the University of the North and then the regional chairperson of the Anglican Student Federation.

Throughout that time there was a strong sense of vocation, but I was doing a science degree. In 1986 I went back to the Archbishop Tutu who was then the Bishop of Johannesburg, and offered myself to the ordained ministry. He said: “Well, my son, you have proved that you are not running away from your issues and you still have a strong calling. Let us send you to college to test your vocation.”

I was sent to Grahamstown for training and I was ordained after my training.

In 2007 you became the youngest Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. Almost six years later, can you reflect on some of the major challenges you faced at the beginning?

As you can see, all around this boardroom are pictures of quite older men and they came with an established pattern of public ministry. I was really at the beginning of finding what was congruent with me and what God wanted me to do through the church. The major challenge was realising that maybe God was calling me not to have major themes but to be a pastor to the nation, to look at the challenges that the nation is facing and to try and respond in a godly way.

For some of our fellow primates up north, age was indeed an issue. “Ah, you’re young, you’re young” became a greeting. When somebody would say, “Ah Archbishop of Cape Town, you are young,” I would say, “Good morning!” (laughs) I didn’t take it personally. I just created it into a positive energy.

The other thing is the enormity of this office. My daughter is 13, she was seven when I was elected. My son is 19 and he was 13. They were really young. Also, my wife is 10 years younger than me, so this young family had to deal with the enormous position previously filled by great people such as Desmond Tutu and Njongonkulu Ndungane, who had a lot of energy and a lot experience.

I had the challenge of having to say in a boardroom: “Hey, I need to go and supervise my daughter’s homework,” because she was very attached to Dad.

The other challenge was to be Thabo and not necessarily to copy what others had done before me, but just to hear what God was calling me to be and to do in my time.

What have been some of the highlights during your term as Archbishop so far?

One of my highlights was being asked by the previous Archbishop of Canterbury to be a part of the organising team of Lambert’s Conference. This conference takes place once in 10 years and brings together all the archbishops and bishops. It’s a big thing within the Anglican Church and it was during a very difficult time.

We thought the Anglican Church was going to split because of the issue of sexuality. In a meeting, I contributed what I thought was a normal thing in South Africa, the concept of imbizo or indaba.

I said to them: “Why don’t we do away with this Westminster type of conference and just have a lekgotla or imbizo, where we just talk over these issues rather than be bound by resolutions?” The committee agreed and now throughout the Anglican community, people are talking about indaba and they are attributing it to Archbishop Thabo of Cape Town who has saved the Anglican community from splitting.

I normally don’t talk about things in those terms, because I work in teams, but it was very humbling for me. I was given the St Augustine’s Cross, the second highest order that the Archbishop of Canterbury can give to any person. I wear it in a representative capacity because that term comes from South Africa and I was very proud.

The other highlight back home was the whole issue of Makhaza and the toilet saga. Through the Social Justice Coalition, I found myself taking all religious leaders in Cape Town to Makhaza for a walk of witness.

The political backlash and criticism that it provoked showed me that God was calling me to come alongside God’s people and not to be shy and to speak out vocally against the inhumane treatment that the sanitation issue was creating.

And some of the low points?

I recently had to fire two bishops. I still have turmoil within myself because we’re supposed to be loving and kind with one another. You have to say, “Look at how these Christians love one another.”

However, one has to deal with the hard management issues. After a series of interventions I had to ask the former Bishop of George to retire because of the poor governance and management and stewardship around money and resources. I also had to ask the Bishop of Swaziland to retire.

I currently have difficulties with two bishops who are very able, including the Bishop of Pretoria. However, there are tensions within his diocese and they took each other to court. The other one is the Bishop of Kokstad. I have suspended him pending an investigation.

As clerics we want to motivate people and be salesmen for hope and faith, for all that is good. But we have to realise that we are not only spiritual leaders and have to deal with management.

You have to realise you are a manager; you’re an accounting officer. I have to chair the pensions’ board and I have to know how the finances are doing. I have to understand the investment managers who are investing the clergy’s pensions. These are some of the things that I didn’t anticipate in this office.

You followed in the footsteps of two people with huge public profiles in Archbishop Tutu and Archbishop Ndungane. Has this been a help or hindrance in establishing your own stamp as Archbishop?

You’re right. They continue to be excellent people with an impeccable footprint in terms of ministry and their involvement with the world. It has really been helpful to have both of them because there are issues, given my nature and temperament, that I would have dealt with quite differently and where I was so happy that it was Desmond Tutu and not me saying certain things.

On the whole really, it has been very helpful because I see myself building on what all the archbishops have done before me. I take from what they’ve built and I build more. They have given me a foundation and it’s very helpful for me going forward.

I’ve noticed that you are quite active on social media. Do you think the church has to embrace social media to deal with the changing relationship that people have with God, which leads to dwindling attendances at services?

Communication is very important. When God revealed himself to people, it was probably the highest technology at the time, when God was all over. It was really the basis and emergence of IT and communication.

I am on Facebook, I blog and I send tweets from time to time. I distribute a monthly letter and, from time to time, I write letters to the newspapers to express my opinion. I think communication is very important. It goes beyond the 300 or the 500 people that attend the service on Sunday.

You became archbishop at about the same time that Jacob Zuma became ANC president. I think there was a week or two in between. How is your relationship with the President?

The President is a very charming person. He is a very smart politician. If you judge him of the basis of academic or scholastic achievement, you will miss a whole host of innate intelligence that was nurtured by his leadership in the ANC and his military and his political astuteness.

His relationship could be better with me. Immediately after he was elected, we invited him to Bishopscourt. He came and stayed. When we meet one on one, which is not too frequent, we greet each other. I have written a couple of open letters, some criticising him, some affirming him. His office staff will acknowledge some and won’t acknowledge some.

But I long for a deeper engagement between church and state in both our representative capacities, not as Thabo and President Zuma. He occupies a very significant office and, as we nurture our democracy and make it more mature, our two offices really need to engage more.

Deputy President (Kgalema) Motlanthe paid us a courtesy call a few days ago and I invited a number of people. One could say at least there is a relationship with the Presidency, but we could make it better and more robust like it was with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, and with Thabo Mbeki and me.

I remember us arguing about the Zimbabwe issue and I said, “well, I hold this point of view” and he said, “well, I hold this point of view”. But it wasn’t a matter of because we hold different viewpoints that we won’t meet frequently. That relationship is very important.

What is your diagnosis of South Africa at this point, almost 20 years into our democracy? Do you think we’ve done well? Where do you think we can improve?

I am a hopeless optimist. I grew up in Alexandra township, probably among the worst squalor and the most gangsters. When I go to Alex today, I see that some aspects of the township have become worse than they were in the Sixties, but they’ve also built some parts that are really state of the art.

I can’t ignore the backlog, but we need to look at the quality of the output more than the quantity. Some of the RDP houses that were built in democracy are, quite frankly, appalling. The four-roomed house that we got through the pain of forced removal is probably more intact than some of the houses now.

The toilet saga, really, is also very appalling. We have half a million people without proper sanitation and toilets in the Western Cape alone. We have Andries Tatane in the Free State who was killed for raising community issues. There are areas where we can improve and there are areas where we are doing well. In education we are doing badly. But there are roads where there were no roads and there are stadia where there were no stadia.

In terms of the MDG (Millennium Development Goals) we are told that at least 97% of the children who ought to be at school are at school. So we are making slow inroads.

Cyril Ramaphosa said the other day that South Africans are good at whining, so I don’t want to whine. But this is the reality of the people to whom we minister. There’s a growing sense of impatience, particularly among the poorest of the poor who don’t see any change but a decline in their living conditions and standards, while the connected and the wealthy are becoming wealthier and wealthier.

What in your opinion are the major challenges facing our country?

The major challenge is youth unemployment, with all its resultant ills. It leads to drug abuse, to thieving. It leads to all sorts of things.

The second one is HIV and Aids. As much as we are no longer putting it in the headlines, Aids and HIV are still ravaging communities quietly.

Lastly, there are a few individuals with so much wealth and yet the majority has nothing to live on. We don’t seem to be finding a way to uplift those that are in the majority in this debilitating state while the minority is in this very luxurious state. I hope that the NDP (National Development Plan) will help us with those building blocks of achieving that. But I’m not sure.

You were recently part of a delegation that visited schools in the Eastern Cape. Can you tell us a bit about your findings?

I should have mentioned education as a key challenge. We had gone to the Eastern Cape and I’m glad that the minister of education also recently said, in a television interview, that they are working on eradicating mud schools. There is no excuse for South Africa to continue to have mud schools.  Although the minister said there are not as many mud schools as we claim, they are in the Eastern Cape and all over the country.

When Mbeki was President, he said, “In my time I will eradicate mud schools in South Africa”. DGs and Ministers of Education have said that they would eradicate mud schools, but there are still mud schools. They are not in our townships or in towns. They are where people do not have anything. They hit the poorest of the poor.

Some of the schools we went to are quite shabby, some had cracked walls, some should not be called classrooms and some were overcrowded. They lacked basic things such as desks. The children were sitting on concrete blocks that pose a danger. We found that there was a degree of poverty that really demeaned those that worked in that situation.

But on the other hand, everyone was keen to learn. There was a strong spirit that, in spite of the squalor, in spite of the poor conditions, in spite of not having sanitation, we want to learn. We want to make it. We want to overcome this.

My plea is that the minister could really promulgate practical norms and standards for school infrastructure so that we could hold the provincial government accountable when the budget is allocated. We must be able to say to them, “why do you still have mud schools?” And when there is a delay with public works, then they should use the villagers to help with building.

What did you expect to happen after your visit?

I expected at least a comment from the highest office in the country, the Presidency, that they have noted our visit; that they would do something about it and that heads would roll.

We have had two reactions. The Premier was quoted in one of the daily newspapers as saying “people can’t just come into my province and highlight these problems. We know about these problems and we will deal with those”. That’s fine. South Africa is a free country. But even today she’s not dealing with it.


However, the Presidency issued a statement saying they have noted our visit and they have asked Collins Chabane, the Minister in the Presidency, to look at the schools that had been highlighted and report back to the President.

Because Minister (Angie) Motshekga was also going to present the norms and standards for education, we had hoped that it would put pressure on her to realise that we’re not just barking, but there is a reality on the ground.

We really wanted to impact on policy but also plead to South Africans and others to help.

Chabane has not met Equal Education but he has apparently asked the superintendent and people who are responsible for infrastructure in the Eastern Cape to give an account of their plan and what is happening.

South Africa will be having national general elections next year and already there are indications that the 2014 campaign will be dirty. Is there anything that you as a religious leader can do to ensure that the politicians behave with some sense of decorum?

That is very important. This thing of throwing faeces at others, without demeaning the fact that people still live in squalor in Khayelitsha, is already indicating that we might have a very rough election next year.

As religious leaders, we will again, through the IEC (Independent Electoral Commission) convene ECCOC (Electoral Code of Conduct Observer Commission) and start speaking into the public space, appealing for decorum and respect.

I need to be careful here, but we don’t want a situation where we have a free for all and God’s people are maimed and killed in order for a political party to win an election. We will be shouting out loud, calling for the dignity of all people to be respected. We will be talking about the importance of social cohesion and nation building to say we are all on the same side.

Through ECCOC, we will be monitoring the content of the message that some of the politicians will be uttering and highlight where we feel that it is inciting violence.

From the religious sector, we believe we are all God’s children. We need to prevail on all political parties to really play the ball and not play each other.

Do you get a sense that politicians listen to religious leaders?

The ruling party has realised that religious leaders are very forceful and can’t just be wished away. They’ve been trying to break the back of this thing called religious leaders.

It started under President Mandela with the National Religious Leaders Forum. It was working well, but it was just working too well for government to really agree to work with. We had a memorandum of understanding and tackled a range of issues, such as HIV and Aids and housing.

(ANC Chief Whip) Mathole Motshekga then mooted the idea of National Leaders Consultation, which was meant to signal that Mandela and Mbeki were gone and President Zuma was going to interact with religious leaders in a different way.

Leaders were handpicked from congregations. Some of them were renegades from our congregations, which was unfortunate. But they said that they could not just take the established leaders.

Instead of saying, “You religious leaders do what you do best and organise yourself,” we are now being organised politically. The resources are being shifted to those who will probably listen more to what the political leadership is saying. We are in a state of flux. If we did not yield the power that we have, I don’t think that there could have been that move. But we are resisting the move and saying to politicians, “Back off from the religious leaders’ space. We can organise ourselves.”

Going back to your question, they don’t want to listen to religious leaders, but they want religious leaders to listen and do as they are told. We’re saying we are in it together. It’s not about resources. It’s not about political affiliation. It’s about making South Africa work.

Obviously the big story at the moment is the health of former president, Nelson Mandela. What is your comment on this?

Madiba has been an outstanding and an exemplary leader, not only for South Africa, but for the continent. We love Madiba and as Anglican Archbishop, I’m really also speaking to the Anglicans. I hope that each one of us will try to embody the values that Madiba imprinted on our country, because those are really biblical gospel values. I wish him well and I also pray for his family at this time.

When we pray, that’s when I tremble. When we pray we actually say, “Lord we are seeking meaning about what is happening to Madiba” and we ask that he help us to transcend the pain and anxiety that we have about Madiba.

The Good Lord might say, “I hear you, my nation, I will heal Madiba and he will be okay. He will walk with you daily and you will see him in front of you.” But the Good Lord might also say, “I hear you, my children, and my child Madiba has served you well, you have eternalised his values, his selflessness and his love. I need Madiba to return to me so that he no longer suffers pain, because I am the God of the living and the dead.”

Each time I am asked to pray for Madiba, I try to put that statement quickly. Prayer is a very revolutionary tool that says “heal this bodily form or heal the soul”. When you heal the bodily entity, the person will be here, but when you heal the body and soul, the Good Lord could place his hand upon Madiba and take him away.

After all, Madiba is about to turn 95. From an Archbishop’s perspective, I want to say, instead of us panicking, let’s spend every moment giving thanks for Madiba’s life as if he is with us or as if he is no longer with us.

As the leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa, you are obviously an inspiration to many young people. Who are the people who inspired you and why?

Desmond Tutu really inspired me with his sense of God and his sense of fearlessness when it came to anybody being demeaned. He sort of lost a sense of who he is, in order to help others to be acknowledged for their dignity.

His deep faith and his prayer life continue to sustain me. I do follow his pattern every morning: chapel, morning prayers and Eucharist with the staff. Every Friday I don’t see anybody, it’s my day of reflection. I just walk around the gardens to nurture myself. He has really been a strong pillar.

The other person who I have not met is Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury. He said, and I paraphrase, “God is God of everything or no God at all.” He was trying to say that you couldn’t separate the life of the church from the political context in which the church runs itself. That separation is too narrow.

Coming from where I had the vocation to serve God while my friends were joining Umkhonto we Sizwe and political parties, I could have felt alienated in my spirituality had I entered a church that said, “It is only the bible and the bible does not apply in people’s life and in social context.”

I enjoy academia, I enjoy challenging text and I enjoy writing. So his reading even today provides a context for me in saying, “God is God of all or no God at all.”

The other person for me is Nelson Mandela. Every time we went to student meetings, somebody would say, “Revolutionary greeting, comrades. I’ve got a message from Lusaka.”

We never really checked whether the message came from Lusaka or not. But we all just listened to them. It was a sense of awe, of common good, that Mandela and Oliver Tambo, who is an Anglican, really embodied. Those are some of the things that I try to do today; to protect the dignity of each person in what I say and do. Am I serving the greater and common good?

Lastly, my father died when I was 18 and my mother never married, she stayed with us all along. She died a couple of years ago. She was not educated and has really been a very profound person. She raised us by every day lighting a candle to say, “Your father is not gone, he is here.” Every morning we would pray for him and every night she would light a candle.

This gave me a sense of rhythm in what I do. I know that when I do something it is not a hit-and-run, and I am in it for a long haul. It gave me a sense of contentment in who I am and what I am doing. I don’t feel a sense of wanting to rush.

If you had a lesson for the youth of today, what would it be?

If I had a lesson for the youth of today it would be to be in it for the long haul. Don’t lose hope. Don’t rush into trying to achieve what Juju achieved in no time. You will achieve in your time.

Work hard and think about the consequences of tomorrow today. Carve your path but don’t do it alone. There are people who have walked before you. Try to learn from the experiences of others. They will help you to get what you want to achieve.

I am a perpetual student. So, study, even if it’s not for a degree. I’ve got a holy Quran. I read what it says. Read what the other religions say. Read the newspaper. Listen to the radio. Be inquisitive and never lose hope, even If you are surrounded in a sea of hopelessness. You are never alone. There are others who are struggling. There are others who are achieving.

Does a priest have any spare time?


Or is it a 24/7 job?

I was very fortunate. Right from the beginning, I had a young family. They have helped me through it. They have helped me to say, “Sorry, I’ve got your time, but I’ve also got my children’s time.”

They’ve really accompanied me throughout my ministry because I could actually say, “I can’t come because I have to be with my family. I have a young wife and I have to supervise homework.”

Even now, as Archbishop, I have a daughter who is still in junior school. I’ve made sure that I know what is happening with mathematics and physical science and the rest of those. She helps me create the time.

But I have a day of reflection, which I jealously guard. When I’m not travelling or I’m not abroad, Friday is my day of reflection.

Of course, when the Stormers are playing and I get invited, I do go and watch rugby. It is so easy for us as priests to worry about the work of the Lord instead of worrying about the God of the work. Then we play God and we don’t look after ourselves. DM

Photo: Archbishop Thabo Makgoba (WEF)