In the Wake of a Miracle

Being ‘real Christians' in the post-apartheid era.

The South African church was brought to its knees in the months leading up to the country's first democratic elections in 1994, when the African National Congress won an overwhelming victory and Nelson Mandela became the first black president.

There were calls for repentance and forgiveness. There was crying out for God to protect the nation from civil war. Tensions between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party reached overwhelming proportions. Right wingers threatened to cause major disturbances—the stage was set for bloodshed, and the church (including the previously sleeping limbs of the body of Christ) was awakened to fervent prayer. The world watched as millions of South Africans stood patiently in unbelievably long queues to cast their vote, then trickled back to their homes and communities to celebrate. Even the secular press called it a miracle.

Recently, rumblings in interdenominational leadership circles highlight the concern that the church may be growing apathetic because the struggle against apartheid is over and even the rocky transition to democracy has been accomplished. Apartheid's aftermath is the evil the nation now faces, and the church's role in the next steps toward real freedom is crucial.

When more than 4,000 Christian leaders met in Pretoria in July, their core message was "being real Christians in the real South Africa." The last time a similar gathering was held, during the apartheid years, special permission had to be granted by the prime minister for black and white people to travel in the same buses and stay in the same hotels.

The South African Christian Leadership Assembly is the joint vision of Methodist Bishop Mvume Dandala, president of the South African Council of Churches, and Michael Cassidy, founder of African Enterprise, an organization committed to transformation in Africa. The gathering was a call for the church to join together in tackling the giants facing our nation, including HIV/AIDS, crime, poverty and unemployment, families in crisis, violence, racism, and sexism.

IT WAS NOT a meeting taken lightly by the secular media, nor the presidential office. In the midst of other issues of national significance, including George W. Bush's visit to Pretoria, President Thabo Mbeki spoke at the conference. Visibly moved by the diverse representation of the church of South Africa and the time of prayer for him as a key leader on the continent, he urged the church to play its proper role in post-apartheid South Africa. "We all recognize the significant role that Christian leaders have played historically in helping to overthrow apartheid and to correct past injustices in South Africa," said Mbeki. "Yet, the past is still with us, and your support to overcome the legacy of our unfortunate past requires, more than ever before, that we plan and act together."

Many feel that a wake-up call to genuine unity, reconciliation, and action is long overdue. Parts of the broader church community in South Africa are still bumbling along as if nothing happened, while others are thankfully becoming involved in a new struggle—the fight against the effects of apartheid and the subsequent poverty that threatens to cripple our 10-year-old democracy. Some movements within the church are still struggling to integrate racially in meaningful ways, with much of the leadership power still held in white hands. Others are tackling issues of restitution head on. One example is land from a white-owned church being handed back to a "colored" church in the Western Cape area earlier this year. These are encouraging signs to many who long to see genuine transformation and acts of restitution.

Apartheid, the legal system, fell. Yet the spirit of apartheid, and its consequences, still lives on. The struggle continues for equality, dignity, and economic justice—not only in the halls of parliament, but on the streets of the townships where the aftershocks of decades of injustice and exploitation are still felt on a daily basis. Looking back at the miracle that has taken place in the last 10 years, one can only imagine what could happen in the next decade with a church that is committed to authentic reconciliation and restitution.

—Linda Martindale

Linda Martindale is a journalist in Cape Town, South Africa. She is the author of Celebrate Hope (City Mission Press, 2002).

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