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.