Hearing Reverend Frank Chikane talking incisively and authoritatively on the Defend Our Democracy platform (which he co-convenes) on 30 July 2021 brought a host of memories flooding back to me.
In March 1988, Dominee Nico Smith, the only white Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), or Dutch Reformed Church, minister living in a township, Mamelodi (near Pretoria/Tshwane), co-organised a “mass sleepover” – the “Mamelodi Encounter” – during which 215 “white” people were hosted by residents of Mamelodi (meaning “mother of melody” in Sepedi) for a weekend. The idea was radically grassroots – South Africans needed to experience one another’s lives in an era of near-total separation.
This was where I first encountered Frank Chikane. Here was a man who spoke eloquently and uncompromisingly in a way that we could hear. He was steeped in the biblical ethos of liberation, but managed to reach this predominantly white audience across the divide.
And he was to pay a profound price for his commitment. The following year, 1989, he almost died after being poisoned by the security forces under Adriaan Vlok (who, it must be noted, sought forgiveness from him in 2006 in a celebrated foot-washing ceremony at the Union Buildings).
His career has since been illustrious, serving in and consulting to successive governments in our democratic era. And if there ever was a time that we needed him, we “sure do need him now”, to paraphrase the classic American spiritual. In the context of the need for a concerted effort by South Africans to root out the corruptions blocking our path to a free and fair society that are now being so painfully exposed, Chikane said last week:
“The message is that we must organise ourselves even more, and be more deliberate about it, because if those who were trained to neutralise the security forces make sure that criminals govern us, we must make sure that they are never able to do so.”
In retrospect, the Mamelodi Encounter was a subversive Ubuntu-fest in the midst of brutal repression at the height of apartheid. Mamelodians were generous, open and hospitable, and the event proved a massive success. My own “Johweto” community (Alexander and Gill Venter, Edgar Molefe (RIP) and others) took full part.
As part of this recollection, I penned these lyrics immediately after the weekend: Mamelodi, feel the comfort of her song/Mamelodi, I hear a tune fresh and strong/Mamelodi, singing through the pain and fear/Mamelodi, raise your voice loud and clear…
But this optimism and openness did not stop the security forces from entering the home of my host, Eunice Serudu, at 3am, and interrogating me in her living room: “What are you doing here? Who sent you?” Compared to many, this was an easy let-off. But we are left to compare the paranoid arrogance of the apartheid state with the trusting sincerity of ordinary people.
Amazingly, 33 years later, with apartheid long banished, rights enshrined in a world-leading Constitution, three Rugby World Cups to our name and progress in many areas of South African life, we could probably do with going back to square one of “encounter culture”.
My experiences in the current interfaith movement have strong parallels to the ethos of anti-apartheid culture. Both acknowledge the “problem of the other” and prescribe actions and attitudes to remedy the blight of our separateness.
In the religious sphere, tremendous strides are being made in these times between traditionally opposed systems of belonging and belief, between religious traditions and world-views. This fragile but growing unity is not simply a matter of dogma or theology, but must extend to the whole of life.
But most South Africans remain unaware of one another, especially their home spaces, as well as culturally and in terms of world-view. This is despite our apparent unity and relative lack of religious tension.
And economically, our rich-poor gap is perilously close to imploding our society, as demonstrated by the unprecedented mayhem and mass lootings of July 2021, symptomatic of a deeper and more insidious ill. Chikane sums this up:
“The looting now was not started by ordinary poor people… it was people who were in positions of authority, who were elected, and entrusted with the interests of this country.”
While SADF army roadblocks “welcomed” us into Mamelodi in 1988, it remains to be asked: where were the police and army during these 2021 events? Referring to the fact that many malls that were looted in Soweto (for example, Jabulani) were literally across the street from police stations, Chikane points out that it took up to 48 hours for them to respond.
In Mamelodi, we were experiencing coordinated attempts to undermine civil society. And Chikane, responding to events in July 2021, said “there is no explanation for why the police were not there in the first place”.
It appears that only explicit orders NOT to do your job could explain a two-day gap of response.
The people of this country are asking why.
And as Chikane said on 30 July, “the world was shocked, but they ended up respecting the people of South Africa, that they didn’t allow this to happen. The state is still intact… [but] the masterminds are still at large… the country is not yet safe… That is why Defend Our Democracy is critical.”
Let us heed this clarion call – support Defend Our Democracy and let us force an acceptable reply from our leaders.
Reverend Frank, we saluted you then, and we salute you now. DM