The Common Good

Economic Equity and Gender Equality for South Africa: A New Agenda for a New Generation

In a township called Khayelitsha, a woman wakes well before dawn to catch a bus that will carry her to the beautiful home in Cape Town where her employer/boss/master wants his tea in bed by 7 a.m. That is what “post-apartheid” South Africa still looks like today.

I just returned from a remarkable month in South Africa—the country that changed my life. I’ve often said that I learned my theology of hope from South Africa, during the anti-apartheid struggle I was thrust into as a young man. South African church leaders invited me in years ago. I got to see and experience the costly movement for freedom in the 1980s, witness the miracle of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation in 1994, and later join a wonderful reunion of South African activists, many of whom had been in exile or in prison, along with some of us international allies. So when I set out on a South African speaking and book tour 20 years after the new democracy, I didn’t know what to expect.

This time, I brought my family so they could see the country that had meant so much to me. What I discovered was a new generation of South African leaders ready to define their own vocation and mission as they help build a new nation. I quickly came to understand that making a deep connection with them was the real reason that I had come back. It’s tough to be in the shadow of a heroic generation of leaders like Desmond Tutu whose agenda has been the political liberation of South Africa—accomplished to the amazement of the world. On this trip, 20 years later, I saw the incredible freedom of movement now for all the former racial categories—but also how the systemic geography of apartheid was still painfully evident.

Economic inequality in South Africa is now greater than it was even during the days of apartheid, and gender violence is rampant. So these are the new agendas of a new generation: economic liberation and gender equality, with a commitment to lead on both in the churches. The rainbow of young people who turned up in such great numbers at all of our events truly want a new South Africa— a society yet to emerge.

All along the way of our tour, the youth of South Africa were finding each other and making connections, bringing their friends as the university events were unfolding, asking new questions at old seminaries, sharing media interviews with each other and using social media to spread the word. They are pushing the current church leaders to regain the prophetic voice of the church they feel was lost, to find the church’s voice again after going silent in the initial years of democracy, and reconciling the differences that still keep faith communities divided.

They realize that the ANC (The African National Conference) was once a movement, but is now a government—a very important difference that people of faith need to recognize and respond to differently. Governments are eager to offer access but not influence to faith communities, and are looking for compliance more than challenge from faith leaders—as our meetings with government leaders demonstrated. A new generation wants to change that dynamic with political leaders and develop the capacity to mobilize faith communities to make change.  

They are weary and rejecting of the prosperity gospel, present in  too many churches. Even charismatic churches were responding in great numbers to alter calls on the tour that made the biblical appeal to “Take away from me the noise of your songs … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream mighty river.” New pilot projects in black township churches—in partnership with both government and business—are ready to offer new hope for overcoming poverty in South Africa.

I saw a culture that has unbelievable “rape games” on school playgrounds where 11- and 12-year-old boys chase girls, ending in 10- to 20-second simulated rapes where the girls are then called “out”—a very frightening reflection of a society where gender violence has become epidemic. A new generation realizes that in order to fight this, the church must begin with its own gender equality.

I had conversations late into the night with these young leaders about the meaning of leadership, the need for mentoring, the desire for spiritual formation, and finding the courage to put faith into action again in South Africa.

From game parks and waterways in the north beholding the beauty of God’s African creation and creatures, to the beaches that seem to go on forever, to the stunning beauty of rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the glorious continent, to Table Mountain in what might be the most beautiful city in the world, Cape Town, my children saw South Africa. But they also saw the continuing poverty of a country that still shows the oppressive geography of apartheid. My boys met the youth of the townships, some of whom believe they need a second revolution, and others who want to make that happen, but with justice and peace.

That woman who wakes at 4 a.m. to catch the bus into Cape Town? Her future and the future of her children will determine the future of South Africa. And a new generation of faith seems ready to help shape that future. It gave me new hope, once again, from South Africa.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided , the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter@JimWallis.

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