This last week saw the Parliament of the World’s Religions (PoWR) hold its 8th global meeting as a cornucopia of virtual spiritual connection.
First held in 1893 in Chicago USA, it was followed there a full century later to launch the modern meeting, and its next congress was to be in 1999 in Cape Town in the newly democratic South Africa. It was shortly thereafter that the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative (CTII) was born, spearheaded by the Anglican Father John Oliver.
This year, the 8th Parliament was a 48-hour, non-stop virtual world circumnavigation, giving Africa’s interfaith two two-hour windows. Locally curated by the CTII under its chairperson Rev Berry Behr, it showcased a wide diversity of African interfaith organisations and personalities, from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Liberia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda and across South Africa.
As Behr put it, “the overall theme of this year’s PoWR was ‘Opening our hearts to the world: Compassion in Action’. We chose to focus on drawing from our roots – from our indigenous wisdoms – to find our own solutions to the challenges of today, and we find these answers in the everyday heroes who are working tirelessly for the greater good.”
But while Cape Town was honoured to host this on the global stage, the more remarkable story lies locally, in grassroots connections and energised, engaged activism. The culture that has been emerging for some years has in the last two taken on a new dynamism as groups, communities and individuals relate with a new level of depth.
For example, on 12 October 2021, the Catholic Church under Archbishop Stephen Brislin gathered with Islamic scholars convened by local Shia leader Maulana Aftab Haider to explore the Document on Human Fraternity (a joint statement signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar) in a fully attended event with a remote keynote address from Fr Chis Clohessy, a Vatican-based Islamic scholar from Cape Town.
Much of this new dynamism is due to the formation of the Cape Flats Anti-Crime Interfaith Declaration, launched in August 2019 by the late trade unionist Wilfred Alcock of Sawusa in Athlone, Cape Town. In the wake of this short but hard-hitting community document, a network of pastors, imams and other faith practitioners galvanised to fill the gaps that politicians were not: uniting on crime, service delivery and ecological clean-up projects.
The declaration starts:
“We believe and declare, as united Religious Leaders, free from any form of prejudice and bias, that:
- We are united in aspiring and collaborating to eradicate the social ills on the Cape Flats and the broader South African society.
- We will experience, practice and pursue community with one another, across our religious divide, around the common goals and objectives in the fight against gangsterism, crime and violence.”
See the full text here.
As Pastor Gerhardus de Vries Bock of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and a founding member of the declaration said, “During the height of apartheid, people of different faiths respected and embraced each other’s cultural and religious beliefs. The Interfaith declaration today embraces our commonalities, restores dignity, and protects our interconnectedness in the spirit of faith, hope and love.”
The new movement caught the attention of the CTII, who ever since have been forming closer ties, meeting often, working together to help communities in need, building friendships both online and off, blurring organisational boundaries and even attending religious ceremonies together.
Imam Salieg Isaacs of Manenberg, a community leader and activist, reports that “after starting outside dhikrs (Islamic devotional community ceremonies) in the streets on the Cape Flats to cleanse and heal our communities from gang violence, there was an amazing welcoming from the community. We invited pastors, priests and rabbis to speak… This brotherhood and sisterhood of believers has connected many faith leaders who realise that we all need to work side by side.”
Numerous other events and gatherings, both online and off, have taken place in 2021, including a Defend Our Democracy People’s Assembly at the Groote Kerk, an interfaith hike on Table Mountain and a Human Rights Day gathering.
But while this movement grows apace, questions have arisen over what the City of Cape Town’s vision might be. Traditionally supportive, with those such as former mayor Gordon Oliver being key drivers, these last few years have seen a narrowing of the City’s focus.
Outgoing mayor Dan Plato has created a “Religious Leaders Task Team” (RLTT), a functionally effective organisation, but with members appointed exclusively from the evangelical sector of the Christian church. Given the presence of the long-standing Interfaith community, not to mention the broader society, this name is disingenuous, misleading and prejudicial.
While the RLTT has a right to define its own mission, it cannot (by its own admission) claim to represent all religious leaders.
Furthermore, in 2014 the City became a signatory to the highly influential “Charter For Compassion”, a global project devised under the guidance of world acclaimed religious scholar Karen Armstrong. Then, during Plato’s tenure in March 2020, this commitment was terminated by the City. The RLTT, when asked, was not aware of this pledge, or of the Charter and its work.
These and other indicators are a worrying narrowing of the City’s view. It would be hoped that the incoming mayor would recognise this and reinstate the pledge, as well as broaden their engagement with the interfaith communities.
A considerable history
Dr Rashied Omar is the Imam of Claremont Main Road Mosque, a progressive masjid (community) with a long history of commitment to the Struggle against apartheid and for justice in all its forms. He reminds us that while there is a newfound vigor in interreligious activity in Cape Town, it does have a solid precedent.
Omar names key points in recent times, from Rabbi David Rosen’s 1977 initiative, the Cape Town Interfaith Forum, to the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religions for Peace inspired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1984, through to the formation of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum in 2008, (under then premier Ebrahim Rasool), and onwards.
And going still further back, we need to appreciate our unique interfaith heritage: during colonial times, slaves, indigenes and those outside power structures practiced mutual respect for one another’s traditions, especially between Christian and Muslim. This Interfaith – shared everyday life – far predates even the more lofty, theological 1893 events in Chicago and evolved despite active discouragement from the authorities of the day. (Catholic priests were at one time banned from holding mass on the shore, for instance.)
Ubuntu for the 21st century
As we approach local elections on 1 November, we should keep a keen awareness of the real forces holding this city together in the face of a range of scourges – gender violence, gangsterism and uncontrolled influx among them. These forces for good are not merely economic, or even ideological, but rather a function of deeply held Ubuntu values. If religion means “to bind back”, then these forces are deeply religious, for they hold communities together and remind us of how life could be more shared.
Cecil Plaatjies, a Blackheath resident and member of the local Nichiren Daishōnin Buddhist community, says “our power lies in faith, courage in our convictions and a willingness to take action for the good of everyone. We build our communities from the ground up. This is the dharma”.
And Mfuleni-based Bishop Thembekile Gqwaka of the United Methodist Church says, “as interfaith we need to be exemplary to all, to pray for all political parties to have compassion instead of campaigning just to get votes, also to listen attentively to the needs of the people with a pure heart.”
But of course, much harm also follows in “lesser” religion with other than this “pure heart” – it can exacerbate factionalism, even sanction war and murder, and in its milder forms causes suspicion and prejudice.
Thankfully, really bad religion in Cape Town is rare, and extremism has never truly found a foothold. It could be posited that, despite the deep fractures marring our society, three centuries of interfaith have created a backdrop of trust that has been forged in the ovens of colonialism, slavery and apartheid.
The centuries-old Cape Town interfaith experiment is in full flow.
This is a time to seek out the humanity of those apparently not like ourselves, as the individualism and materialism of the colonial era reveals its bankruptcy. It is an opportunity to realise this new, universal Ubuntu and relatedness, and to reawaken to the indigenous, ecologically attuned wisdoms that have been so foolishly tossed aside by the savagery of the modern era.
One thing, above all, that interfaith teaches us, is to countenance “the other” – to love those unlike us. If we can overcome our deeply held religious (or spiritual/worldview) bias, then surely it is possible to overcome all forms of prejudice?
The question remains: Will our new, elected City of Cape Town officials be willing to embrace this vibrant and grassroots interfaith ethos to fashion a more compassionate City of Cape Town? DM