Bishop Vusi Dube in the ANC rally in Nquthu, KwaZulu-Natal assured the president that the clergy pray for him. He then continued to say that it would seem that some clergy are entering into areas that have nothing to do with them. He also proceeded to say that according to him the President should throw that report by the South Africa Council of Churches into the bin because it is created by people who are not interested in taking South Africa forward.
It would seem therefore that Dube would prefer that the church’s engagement with the governance of South Africa should be based on the church praying for the country and its leaders and that is all. Indeed, the church has a duty to pray for the country and its leaders. However, he is completely mistaken if he thinks that the church does not have a duty to speak out on issues of social justice and the attainment of the common good.
He and many others who share his views should be reminded that that they would have thrived if they were religious leaders in the apartheid regime because that is exactly what that evil regime wanted the churches to do. There is a serious ignorance about why it is that the church bothers itself about the state of the country.
This has nothing to with who governs; rather it is about the enhancement of the quality of life for all South Africans. Anything that seems to work against the common good is in fact working against God. It was that same moral witness that prompted the SACC in 1968 to reject apartheid, and especially the so-called theological foundations of apartheid, in their “Message to the People of South Africa.” It was the same agency that later propelled theologians to put together the Kairos Document in 1985. The full scale of the role of the church in the anti-apartheid movement is yet to be really fully detailed. It is these efforts of the social justice that led to Khotso House, which was the headquarters of the SACC, to be bombed in 1988. In the same year the offices of the South African Bishops Conference (Khanya House) were bombed by the apartheid regime.
At the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994, Cyril Kitchener Harris, the then Chief Rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa, read from the book of the prophet Isaiah; “Justice shall make its home even in the wilderness and righteousness dwell in the land, and the works of righteousness shall be peace and the fruit thereof quietness and confidence forever.”
If therefore this has been and is the prayer of religious leaders and the entire church, then the church is compelled to raise its voice when there is an absence of justice, peace, right conduct and trust. What propelled the church to make the declarations it made in the past is the same urgency that is making it today to see this moment as another Kairos moment which the church cannot and should not ignore.
Although the scope of the 1985 Kairos was broad because it included the state of theology in the country, its motivation was to make clear the injustices of the day should not be ignored and to call all sectors of society, especially the church, to be even more active in the Struggle.
In the opening lines of the 1985 Kairos document is the declaration that;
“The time has come. The moment of truth has arrived. South Africa has been plunged into a crisis that is shaking the foundations and there is every indication that the crisis has only just begun and that it will deepen and become even more threatening in the months to come.”
This same declaration is as true today as it was in 1985. In our democratic dispensation there has never been a greater crisis than the one we find ourselves in.
The religious leaders in the Kairos document were activists trying to do away with the rule of the minority, which had reserved for itself only the best, and the majority (being the black population) were left to live in complete squallor. They noted that;
“On the one hand we have the interests of those who benefit from the status quo and who are determined to maintain it at any cost, even at the cost of millions of lives. It is in their interests to introduce a number of reforms in order to ensure that the system is not radically changed and that they can continue to benefit from the system because it favours them and enables them to accumulate a great deal of wealth and to maintain an exceptionally high standard of living.”
They continued that on the other hand there are those who do not benefit in any way from the system as it is now,
“… they are treated as mere labour units, paid starvation wages, separated from their families by migratory labour… and all for the benefit of a privileged minority.”
That was at the worst time of the series of states of emergency in the 1980s. Fast-forward to 2017 and the SACC in its Unburdening Panels report draws attention to there being a new minority, “A Power Elite Anchored at the Top”, which is:
- Securing control over state wealth, through the capture of state-owned companies by chronically weakening their governance and operational structures;
- Securing control over the public service by weeding out skilled professionals;
- Securing access to rent-seeking opportunities by shaking down regulations to their advantage, and to the disadvantage of South Africans;
- Securing control over the country’s fiscal sovereignty;
- Securing control over strategic procurement opportunities by intentionally weakening key technical institutions and formal executive processes;
- Securing a loyal intelligence and security apparatus; and
- Securing parallel governance and decision-making structures that undermine the executive.
It is perhaps one of the most disheartening realities of our post-apartheid dispensation that the same reality which the majority fought against, lost their lives, were exiled for, tortured for, and were imprisoned for, the gross disparities which benefited the few, are now happening to our people again yet at the hands of their very own. This is painful.
The approach of the SACC is based on principle and is not this personality-based nonsense of people liking or not liking the ANC nor the president. It would seem that their primary concern is that the people who have entrusted the ANC-led government with the interests of their country should not be undermined. If the revelations of State Capture are as they appear to be, then the government that the people have voted for is a shadow government for a cruel Mafia scheme. If this is the case then Bishop Mpumlwana is absolutely correct in uttering that South Africa is headed towards being a Mafia state. With the input that the SACC has received the method that they have employed is also correct. They have taken to using the pastoral method of see, judge and act. This is not a political method but a pastoral method because it is interested in the restoration of principles, not in the personalities of government.
The Kairos document placed a challenge to action and pointed out one of the backbones of the social teaching of the church and that is that the church has a preference for the poor and the oppressed. The document is clear that,
“By far the greater part of the church in South Africa is poor and oppressed… Nevertheless, it remains true that the church is already on the side of the oppressed because that is where the majority of its members are to be found. This fact needs to be appropriated and confirmed by the church as a whole.”
It is for this reason that it comes as a surprise that some members of the clergy can be so narrow-minded that they cannot see that those that suffer because of all these injustices are in fact the poor who stand in front of us every day. No amount of money or prestige can surpass the suffering of the people. That is why even neutrality is not an option. The church has a duty to “read the signs of the times” in the light of the Gospels.
In contributing to the national conversation and reflection the SACC is not saying that the church does not have problems of its own, or its own injustices. However, organisational problems have never meant that issues of social justice must subordinated. What the SACC has done and other interfaith initiatives is to offer moral guidance when it is obviously most needed. The Kairos document sums up this role of the church well that;
“The people look to the church, especially in the midst of our present crisis, for moral guidance. In order to provide this the church must first make its stand absolutely clear and never tire of explaining and dialoguing about it. It must then help people to understand their rights and their duties. There must be no misunderstanding about the moral duty of all who are oppressed to resist oppression and to struggle for liberation and justice. The church will also find that at times it does need to curb excesses and to appeal to the consciences of those who act thoughtlessly and wildly. But the Church of Jesus Christ is not called to be a bastion of caution and moderation. The church should challenge, inspire and motivate people. It has a message of the cross that inspires us to make sacrifices for justice and liberation.” DM