Prophetic Politics in the New South Africa

The world watched the 1994 elections in South Africa with high hopes as apartheid gave way to a multiracial, democratic government. While the majority of white Dutch Reformed churches had provided a theological justification for apartheid, many other churches and religious leaders—Desmond Tutu, Frank Chikane, and Allan Boesak, among others—played a decisive role in resisting an ideology and government based on racial oppression. Like the black church during the U.S. civil rights movement, these South African churches lent moral credibility and infrastructure to a movement that challenged and ultimately transformed this repressive system.

Since 1994, South Africa has embraced a courageous model of national reconciliation through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which helped shed light on atrocities committed during the apartheid era. The public hearings of the TRC were based on the belief that unearthing the truth would

liberate the country from its haunted past. But for most of the black underclass, the prerequisites for achieving real reconciliation include reparations and social justice. Entrenched poverty and the lack of progress in achieving economic justice constitute the Achilles’ heel of the new South Africa.

I recently attended a three-day conference in Cape Town in which more than 50 leaders from South African and American civil society discussed racial reconciliation, HIV/AIDS, and community philanthropy. I talked with a range of religious leaders to explore how the prophetic role of the South African church has changed since the fall of apartheid, with a particular focus on the dual crises of HIV/AIDS and poverty that will profoundly determine South Africa’s future.

AS AN AFRICAN-American minister, I was struck by the profound parallels between post-apartheid South Africa and post-civil rights America. As in the United States, the black South African educated elite have benefited the most from South Africa’s new political and social dispensation, while the large and growing black underclass has fallen deeper into joblessness and abject poverty. Most economists agree that South Africa has experienced, at best, halting and uneven progress since 1994.

For example, according to the South African government, the country has managed to retain investor confidence and grow at an annual rate of 3 percent per year, with an estimated 10 million people gaining access to fresh water, 4 million to electricity, and 1.5 million to new homes. But recent estimates by the United Nations Development Program show that the proportion of people living in poverty—almost half the population—has not changed dramatically between 1996 and 2001. Over the last nine years the unemployment rate has steadily increased, with between 20 to 42 percent of the labor force caught in a vicious cycle of unemployment, according to a May 2004 U.N. report.

The church operates at the crossroads of these and other harsh realities, including a failed land reform policy, an epidemic of violence, and widespread nihilism in the face of little economic growth. According to Bishop Ivan Abrahams of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, “the socio-economic legacy of apartheid has proved to be intractable. Therefore the church must be the new wine and bring new wineskins.”

The concentration of power within the African National Congress (ANC) compared to other opposition parties is another reminder of the need for an independent and prophetic church voice. With the 1994 inauguration of President Nelson Mandela, church leaders were made a more formal part of the decision-making apparatus of the ANC. President Thabo Mbeki now meets with religious leaders through a religious roundtable four times a year. It would be unwise for the church not to utilize this access to key leaders, say many religious leaders, particularly when many of their former comrades are now a part of the government. “Churches can’t just have just an adversarial relationship [with government],” says Bishop Abrahams. “They must be able to commend and criticize government as necessary.”

But engaging with the government while still offering a prophetic critique has been a delicate balancing act for the church. According to Steve de Gruchy, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, “Many church leaders have found a middle ground between purely protest and insider politics through an approach called critical engagement.” Ecumenical church leaders recently pressured President Mbeki to change his foreign policy of accommodation toward the increasingly authoritarian President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Working through the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, South African churches have sent food aid while lobbying Mbeki. Church leaders also expressed vocal opposition to an attempt by the South African government to purchase expensive arms for the military.

But church leaders have found it more difficult to provide a consistent prophetic witness around the economic challenges and frustrations facing the country. Even though the South African government has pursued a largely neo-liberal economic policy agenda that has disproportionately benefited businesses and the wealthy, according to Moss Ntla, head of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa, “the ANC is still viewed by many South Africans as the pro-poor party.” Thus fighting poverty becomes less a question of “if” and more one of approach, capacity, and strategy. “There is no easy formula for addressing inequality in the new South Africa,” said Frank Chikane, former head of the South African Council of Churches who now serves as director-general in President Mbeki’s office. “The government is moving as quickly as it can.”

How the church goes about redressing economic injustice and effecting change is a critical and open question. To many it is unrealistic to expect the church to maintain the same prophetic role in post-apartheid South Africa now that challenges have become more covert and economic, rather than overtly political. According to de Gruchy, “the theological clarity and moral indignation that characterized the struggle against apartheid seems conspicuously absent in the new South Africa.” The global nature of investment, trade, and capital also necessitates that the South African church work in solidarity with churches across the global North and South in order to advance the cause of justice and equity. The future of South Africa will be dramatically molded by how churches resolve this dilemma.

The Basic Income Grant (BIG) campaign provides one compelling and recent example of how the South African church is proactively pushing an economic justice agenda. A coalition of churches, labor unions, and civic organizations founded and leads the campaign, which seeks to provide a guaranteed grant to every South African to meet basic needs and plant the seeds of capital to empower people out of poverty. The monthly grant would be paid by the state to every legal resident of South Africa, regardless of age, income, or family status, making concrete the right to social security guaranteed by the South African constitution. Proponents say BIG would provide one of the best ways to liberate the most people from extreme poverty, while also stimulating consumer spending and economic growth, at a cost of about $7 billion per year.

However, the campaign has been largely rejected by the South African government as being too costly and ineffective as a means to address poverty. According to Chikane, “the income grant is a lovely but impractical idea.” So far the campaign has used public demonstrations, lobbying, and media events to advance its cause. The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, organized public poverty hearings across the country in order to shine a light on poverty. Churches increasingly face a choice between escalating pressure through tactics that might alienate the South African government and relying largely on inside diplomacy to convince an intransigent government to reverse its stance.

With the most people living with HIV of any country in the world, AIDS represents the single greatest threat to South Africa’s future—but also presents the greatest opportunity to advance social and economic justice. The crisis of HIV/AIDS, which is fueled by poverty, marginalization, and sexism, has sparked a movement of people living with HIV to speak out against the negligent leadership of President Mbeki and the ANC government. Through the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), activists— particularly women living with HIV—are courageously demanding access to treatment and health care as a fundamental human right. Archbishop Ndungane as well as other religious leaders have joined this call. Ndungane conducted a public HIV test while challenging church leaders to get tested and know their status.

AIDS also exposes many controversial issues surrounding sex and sexuality that serve as major barriers to church engagement. Fortunately, the church is increasingly moving from a posture of judgment, silence, and stigma to a response of compassion, pastoral care, and even calls for social justice. Bishop Abrahams calls on “the church to unite around poverty and AIDS, just as it did around apartheid.”

Hopelessness fueled by growing inequality could turn the miracle in South Africa into a nightmare. Far too many South Africans feel powerless to influence the growing deficit in economic opportunity. While the Basic Income Grant provides a hopeful sign that the church is willing to provide greater leadership in the fight against poverty, the campaign does little to challenge the macroeconomic policies of the ANC government. South Africa deserves a more vibrant dialogue about the merits of its economic policies—and about concrete alternatives.

Twenty years ago, a number of pastors, teachers, and theologians in the ecumenical Institute for Contextual Theology drafted the Kairos Document, a seminal statement that proposed a “prophetic theology” for the church’s fight for justice. The AIDS movement has clearly shown that with sufficient public outrage and mobilization, the ANC government can be changed from the outside through methods of protest politics. The church must increasingly provide a platform for prophetic interrogation of government policies, working alongside growing social movements such as TAC and the landless people’s movement, which are mobilizing South Africans to exercise their constitutional right to affect change.

While great progress has been made in securing civil and political rights, for the majority of South Africans still living in poverty, now is the time for the church to heighten its prophetic role of organizing, advocating, and protesting on behalf of economic and social justice.

Adam Taylor is director of campaigns and organizing for Sojourners.

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