South Africa

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.

What One Person (or Two) Can Do in Transition Cultures

Photo by Tom Getman

Not many people traveling in southern Africa consider Venda in the northern Limpopo Province a worthy touristic or project partnership visit. For years visitors to the South African Development Community have seen this more isolated, beautiful mountainous area of northern South Africa as a shortcut to Kruger National Park or to/from Pretoria and Johannesburg en route to the wonders of the 1,000-year-old Great Zimbabwe ruin or majestic Victoria Falls.

Perhaps a quick stop was worthy on the Musina-Beitbridge border to photograph the “great, green, greasy Limpopo River” made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s “How The Elephant Got His Trunk.” Not much else would interrupt the dash on the N1, similar to America’s own Route 1 from Canada to Florida.

Big mistake! As I found out when saying ill-advisedly to our travelling companions that “there really is nothing to see or stop for in the area … and we do have an important dinner appointment in Pretoria.” The twofold result was a serious late night ”domestic” with my more adventurous and intuitive wife, Karen, and secondly, a necessary, more open-minded review of the unexplored albeit minimalist pages on the Venda Region section of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guidebooks. Alas the travel guides seemed to have the same misperception as my 30-year-old wisdom.

'Keep on Walking' to Justice

Bishop Rubin Phillip. Photo via Diakonia Council of Churches on Facebook.

Bishop Rubin Phillip speaks at the Good Friday service. Photo via Diakonia Council of Churches on Facebook.

“Come to the living God … Come to stand alongside those who suffer
Come to those who seek freedom … Come to resist all that offends God’s justice
Come to Jesus as He hangs on the Cross … Come to the living disturbing God.”

DURBAN, South Africa — A precursor to Easter sunrise and call to commitment is the now 30-year ritual Good Friday packing of the International Exhibition Center with 3,000+ ecumenical congregants participating (with dance, choir, prayers, and prophetic preaching) in the call to “Arise – Act for a Just Society.” Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip set the scene with a moving historical reminder of the reason for the 1985 first march to the central prison. It was to protest the silencing of the 16 Durban “treason trialists” (including congregational deacon Archie Gumede, and Frank Chikane, post-apartheid member of the first multiracial Assembly, Apostolic pastor, and future President Nelson Mandela staff chief). Family members of the incarcerated and current elected leaders carried a cross to city hall, calling all to love mercy and act justly. We paused to give thanks for their courage at the one remaining wall of the prison now in the front plaza of the iconic convention center. When the first march 30 years ago stopped to sing and pray, “voices were heard from inside the prison joining in the singing of Good Friday hymns.”

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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Finding Hope in South Africa

SOUTH AFRICA has meant a lot to Sojourners over the years. In the 1980s, I was invited to come to South Africa by key church leaders there, including Beyers Naudé, the first white minister defrocked by the Dutch Reformed Church for opposing apartheid; Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town; theologian and preacher Alan Boesak; and Frank Chikane, a Pentecostal minister who came up through the ranks of the movement to lead the South African Council of Churches.

They became my “comrades,” as they say in South Africa, for six weeks that happened to fall during Lent—it was a powerful season for me of seeing and feeling the pain of that beloved country while looking for the hope that comes from people who make costly commitments. Together we worked on a strategy between South African and U.S. church leaders to end apartheid.

Ten years later I returned to witness the victory of that hope in the miracle of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first black president, and later came back for an international reunion of anti-apartheid activists.Those formative years in the South African movement for freedom helped give me my theology of hope—which I learned means believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.

This August, I returned to South Africa for a speaking and book tour, and I decided to bring my family to show them the country that had changed my life. I had come originally as a young man, blessed to be thrust into this historic struggle with a heroic generation of South African leaders. This time, I came as an older man, blessed again—by making deep connections with a new generation who are finding their own agenda and mission for helping to build a new South Africa.

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Ferguson's Reach: A Shot Felt in South Africa

I was in South Africa on August 9, when a young, unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. It didn’t take long before Michael Brown’s story was on all the news channels in South Africa. After that, in every media interview I did Ferguson came up. “How could this have happened?” all the journalists asked. When I laid out the pattern of this happening regularly to men of color in America at the hands of white police or other men with guns, they were stunned. “White cops couldn’t get away with that anymore in South Africa,” they said.

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