Apartheid

Flags Change. Then What?

Image via MyImages - Micha/Shutterstock

Image via /Shutterstock

Flags are only symbols, of course. Chucking one for another does not automatically overhaul a society’s deeply entrenched structural oppression. Lowering a flag and relegating it, belatedly, to a museum does not change people’s hearts and minds. Under South Africa’s new flag, the Born Frees are inheriting a country awash in contradiction. How free can this generation be with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world? With the rampant violence that especially plagues black townships and is frequently directed against women and girls? With the remnants of a broken school system that was not designed to educate all its citizens equally?

The Way of Hope

PrisonBars

Image via /Shutterstock

Week after week, we can take on the biggest issues we face as a society — from continuing racism, mass incarceration, inequality, and poverty to gender violence and human trafficking, climate change, ISIS — and just try to be hopeful.

Or we can start by going deeper, to a more foundational and spiritual understanding of hope — rooted in our identity as the children of God, made in the image of God, as the only thing that will see us through times like this.

I believe we should start there. Because the biggest problem we face — the biggest enemy at the heart of many of the issues we must address — is hopelessness.

And perhaps the most important thing the world needs from the faith community is today is hope.

Traveling with South African 'Ex-Cons' to D.C.

Photo by Tom Getman

President Kgalema Motlanthe, Jim Wallis, and Denis Goldberg. Photo by Tom Getman

I was privileged to co-host with former colleagues the visit of former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, an ex-convict from the apartheid era. He served 10 years in prison for the “treasonous” act of standing against the Afrikaans Nationalist regime, along with Nelson Mandela and 1000s of others who spent many years on Robben Island or in Pretoria Central Prison. Many died in the process. President Motlanthe was accompanied by Denis Goldberg, who was convicted along with Mandela and served 22 years. Nicholas Wolpe, the facilitator of the trip, is a cousin of the late Congressman Howard Wolpe. Nic’s father would have been one of the Rivonia accused at the trial in 1963-4 but for having made a daring famous escape with several other comrades.

Finding Cracks in the Walls of Ecclesiological Separation

Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

Palestinian men seeking access to Jerusalem at a checkpoint in August 2012. Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

JERUSALEM — One out of four Christians today is Pentecostal or charismatic, which means one of every 12 persons living today practices a Pentecostal form of Christian faith. This, along with the astonishing growth of Christianity in Africa, are the two dominant narratives shaping world Christianity today. Further, the gulf between the older, historic churches, located largely in the global North, and the younger, emerging churches in the global South, often fueled by Pentecostal fire, constitutes the most serious division in the worldwide Body of Christ today.

One can also frame this as the divide between the global Pentecostal community, and the worldwide ecumenical movement. Each lives in virtual isolation from the other, and both suffer as a result. I call it ecclesiological apartheid, with its own endless, winding walls of separation. And these walls need to come down, for the sake of God’s love for the world.

It’s become my passion, in whatever small ways, to make some cracks in these walls.

Divest from Fossil Fuels: Money Talks

LAST SPRING, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an architect of the South African freedom movement, called for “an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet.” Tutu—along with millions of people of faith and conscience—understands not only that it is morally right to address climate change, but that money talks. “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” said Tutu.

The fossil-fuel divestment movement has its roots in grassroots mobilizing, churches, local governments, and student campaigns. The movement has grown exponentially in the U.S. since Maine’s Unity College became the first campus to divest (in 2012) and the United Church of Christ became the first denomination to formally divest (in 2013). Today, divestment from fossil fuels is gaining momentum, with increasing numbers of asset owners committing to moving their money.

In fact, this campaign has grown faster than any other previous divestment movements, including those against apartheid in South Africa and tobacco. A number of factors indicate that we are at a tipping point. Here are four: 1) last year was the hottest year on record, 2) expenses related to climate change are skyrocketing, 3) significant financial risks are now associated with fossil-fuel investments and the divestment movement is growing, 4) and the economics of renewable energy products is improving, so investments in these products is growing.

Despite unmistakable signs that climate change is spiraling out of control—from unprecedented droughts to sea-level rises—20 years of global negotiations have not slowed the emissions of heat-trapping gasses. A new, effective lever of change is clearly needed.

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Divest!

This is an introduction to five-part series in Sojourner's June 2015 issue about divestment; to read the rest, click here.

IT WASN'T A HUGE surprise last year when Union Seminary announced that it would become the first seminary in the world to divest from fossil fuels. Union, after all, has long been a leader in progressive causes, and President Serene Jones said that “divestment of our endowment from fossil-fuel companies is one small step” toward stopping the catastrophic threat—the “sin”—of climate change.

But a few months later, the divestment movement reached an altogether different level when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced that it was moving its money from fossil fuels, starting with the worst carbon polluters, coal and tar sands. The Rockefeller money, of course, came from oil—patriarch John D. Rockefeller was the co-founder of Standard Oil—and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund controls $860 million in assets. All in all, 180 institutions have pledged to divest more than $50 billion to defund climate change—and, as they say, with billions in assets moved, pretty soon you’re talking real money.

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Neither Despair Nor Complacency

IN JUNE 1966, Sen. Robert Kennedy joined the National Union of South African Students for a conference held in Cape Town. Tension was running high. NUSAS president Ian Robertson had been banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, and the pressure was on Kennedy, from both the apartheid government and sectors of the anti-apartheid movement, not to attend.

Kennedy went anyway and delivered one of the best speeches of his career. “Few have the greatness to bend history itself,” Kennedy reminded the students. “But each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, [s/he] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope ... daring those ripples to build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Twenty-eight years later Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The West embraced him, celebrating his magnanimity, “disremembering” the support it gave to the very apartheid regime Mandela worked to dismantle.

In the years that followed, Mandela’s leadership enabled a country to project itself beyond the cognitive illusion that suggested there was no way out of a pending Armageddon. He insisted that things only seem impossible until there is the will to make them possible. He created and energized that will, injecting optimism and political excitement into a desperate situation. When an overenthusiastic supporter called Mandela a “saint,” he responded, “No, just a sinner who keeps trying.”

At the time of Kennedy’s 1966 speech, however, Nelson Mandela was in prison, serving a life sentence for sabotage under apartheid; no one realized he was among the “few” who would succeed in bending history. And as we know now, there are certain things that even Mandela could not do.

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

Dawn in Cape Town. Image courtesy Denis Mironov/shutterstock.com

Dawn in Cape Town. Image courtesy Denis Mironov/shutterstock.com

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.

Anti-Apartheid Action In South Africa and Abroad

Courtesy South Africa Council on Churches

Courtesy South Africa Council on Churches

Oppressive poverty, like corruption and unfettered crime, is a human condition to be addressed and mitigated by principled choices to alter societal structures. This is particularly illustrated in South Africa with the ongoing historic challenge of the lingering old apartheid effects of legalized separation of races and tribal groups. Attitudes and demographics are still entrenched. The marginalized suffer most. Escalating crime is still in large measure black on black, but all sectors of society live with corruption and hear in the media the drumbeat of violence — and not only when there is a high profile feeding frenzy trial such as for Oscar Pistorius.

In a meeting with Kairos Southern Africa leaders, a senior ANC party executive acknowledged, “We have failed in service delivery and turned a blind eye to corruption … please help us make the changes necessary.” To be true to the liberation pledges, Kairos members are mobilizing civil society to act accordingly, along with an informed electorate and principled politicians, to address the residue of years of oppression both here and abroad.

A public way in which religious leaders from across the theological spectrum participated in this regard was in a solidarity conference called by the South Africa Parliament “portfolio committee” on International Relations and Cooperation. Consensus for action was not automatic on the apartheid-like oppression in Israel and Palestine. But respect for those of differing theological and political understandings was for the most part encouraging and enlightening.

Citizen Action Making a Vital Difference in South Africa

South African flag over human face, Aleksandar Mijatovic / Shutterstock.com

South African flag over human face, Aleksandar Mijatovic / Shutterstock.com

In the Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, Baphumelele Respite Care Centre and Clinic serves abandoned children as well as ill adults. The staff faces daily the anguish of caring for babies and older children with serious congenital alcohol and drug syndrome or HIV/AIDS complications. A compassionate professional team and scores of volunteers provide education and rehabilitative residential care for countless patients and support to child headed homes.

A nurse friend on the staff gave witness to the disparity between day-to-day realities when faced with the inadequate response by government and societal leaders. It is stunningly the case in South Africa in the post-Mandela era. The clinic was started in 1989 by the local founding-director Rosealia Mashale, “Rosie,” who could not abandon vulnerable children to the trash heap.

Even with more than 25 similar agencies active in the sprawling location of mostly substandard housing and services there are thousands still in need.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, a trusted commentator in South Africa and author of We Need to Act, reminds citizens to leave their comfort zones and contribute to righting the wrongs of society

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