The Christian scriptures tell us that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census. One of the reasons for a census was for the Roman authorities to establish how many men were available for conscription so that they could ensure there was peace in the territories they controlled, the Pax Romana as it was called. Of course, it was not the real peace that was born of justice, it was an assertion of power through bullying and war, a peace enforced militarily from the top. The other reason for the census was to bolster an economy that benefitted a very few, and exploited masses of people on the margins.
The lessons to be drawn from the Christmas story are particularly apt for contemporary South Africa. There can be no dispute that our economy benefits very few, with the disparity between the rich and the powerful and those on the margins among the worst, if not the worst in the world. The consequences can be seen in the results of a recent report from Afrobarometer, the leading African opinion pollster.
A survey that Afrobarometer conducted in May and June of this year illustrates starkly how distrustful South Africans have become of their politicians. It found that whereas 10 years ago, 61% of South Africans had trust in our governing party, by this year this had dropped to 27%. Trust in opposition parties also declined, from 40% a decade ago to 24% this year. Parliament and provincial premiers suffer the same lack of trust – 28 and 27% respectively – and although by this year our current president enjoyed a little more trust, it was still limited to fewer than four in 10 South Africans (38%).
Many factors contributed to the rioting and looting that swept KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July. But can there be any doubt that the lack of trust in state institutions has undermined the authority and legitimacy of our government? In fact, the only institutions which enjoyed the trust of most South Africans were the media – which has distinguished itself in recent years by exposing public and private sector corruption – and the Department of Health – which has engendered trust by its handling of the pandemic. More than 60% trust the media, and 56% trust the Health Department.
This year’s local election results bear out the conclusions of the Afrobarometer survey. We face difficult times ahead, especially if political parties cannot succeed in working together in coalitions. One of the other findings of the Afrobarometer survey was that two-thirds of South Africans would be willing to sacrifice regular elections if a non-elected government or leader could impose law and order, and deliver houses and jobs; moreover, the most trusted government institution after the Department of Health was the army. The message is clear: if coalition politics do not improve people’s lives, then there is a real danger that South Africans will turn away from democracy to authoritarian rule. That has never ended well – ask those of our fellow Africans who have lived under an authoritarian regime.
But there is another side to the story of Christmas, and that is that we are not helpless in the face of the manipulations of politicians and profiteers who run society in order to enrich themselves. It is significant that the coming of Christ, he who proclaimed the revolutionary message that all are equal in the sight of God, was announced not to the powerful. It was announced to shepherds, people who lived on the margins of an already marginalised community. They were people regarded as so low in status that they were not even allowed to participate in or give evidence in court proceedings. It was not the powerful in Jerusalem who first heard the Christmas message, no it was a shepherd, those on the margins, people who were counted as nothing, who first received a message that inspired them, enhanced their confidence, upheld their dignity and built their agency.
A close reading of the Gospels also shows that the God who enters our fragile world does so as a vulnerable baby, on the very periphery of society, far away from the places of power and institutional religion in Jerusalem. The Christmas story reminds us that peace and prosperity are not the playthings of the rich and powerful, not a commodity for politicians and profiteers; no, the realisation of true peace and prosperity are in our hands. Like the shepherds in the biblical accounts of the first Christmas, of the birth of Jesus, we have agency, we are empowered to articulate a new narrative, a different course of action, to speak hope where until now despair and fear of the authorities has dominated.
We need to take inspiration from the Christmas story, and use our agency to build back trust in government, and to realise the promise of democracy. DM
Thabo Makgoba is the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and president of the South African Council of Churches.