Dear People of God
Firstly, a Happy Easter to you all. Christ is Risen!
Since Holy Saturday, when religious leaders carried out a Walk of Witness from District Six to Parliament to demand transparent governance and accountability, I have been reflecting on what it is to be witnesses to God’s love in the world. At a meeting after Easter of the Central Committee of the SA Council of Churches, it became clear that I am not alone. I am grateful that the Church at large is reclaiming her prophetic vocation, committed like Christ to demand justice. It will not be easy but in Christ we trust and have our confidence and assurance.
In preparation for preaching on South Africa’s Freedom Day on April 27, I sent out an appeal through the Bishops for you to share with me what your dreams for South Africa were 20 years ago, and what they are now. Your thoughtful insights ran to pages and pages. Thank you all for holding my hand and equipping me to preach a homily at inter-religious “Jazz Vespers” at St George’s Cathedral in place of Evening Prayer on April 27. I offer you the text as preached:
Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, “It is true.”
You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses, says the Lord.
I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it?
Thank you all for attending this service. Let me first start by thanking the Dean and his team for organising this service and for all the artists who are present here.
Tonight, we pause and reflect as we celebrate 20 years of democracy in South Africa. What is there to celebrate, some may ask? Celebrations are an opportunity to recall, to reflect and to recommit. Indeed, starting from the last point, they are for us, in this year particularly, an opportunity to recommit to the ideals and values for which so many fought and died, in order for us to enjoy and live in a democracy.
As an archbishop, I always have to drink from my own well, starting from scripture, before I reason and then move on to share and bring my and our experiences before God in prayer. Today’s text, Isaiah 43:8-13, a text that sustained me and many of us in apartheid times, reminds us of a God who interferes in the politics of His people. He meddles, because even “politics” is but an aspect of His created order. He intervenes and interferes in the plight of His people in exile. Those who have been displaced before, or have been in exile in its broadest sense, know the feelings of alienation that exile brings.
God says, I have noted and am pained by the brutality and fierceness of the Babylonians' repression and treatment of you, my people. I have heard your cry and lamentations. In Isaiah 43, 1 and 4, he says, Do not fear, I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine, and precious in my sight. You are honoured and I love you. God says, your dignity, freedom and destiny are certain, they are non-negotiable. No other gods will be allowed to oppress you and take you back into captivity. In verse 10, God charges us with the responsibility of acting in ways that demonstrate that “You are my witnesses... and my servant whom I have chosen". Do not succumb to the Babylonian state machinery, that blinds you even when you have eyes and makes you deaf even if you have ears to hear.
What are the implications of this clear message of restoration and liberation, and of our vocation to be God’s witnesses in the world? What are they for us here in the Western Cape and in South Africa, particularly as we celebrate 20 years of emancipation from apartheid and the dawn of our freedom?
At this critical point, post “Babylonia”, it is easy to forget the exile experience. It is easy to be seduced by power and wealth as well as status and forget God and the poorest of the poor. It is easy to turn a blind eye even if we have eyes to see, and it is easy to say “It is our turn to eat,” and focus on ourselves. It is equally easy to discount the sacrifices of many and to want to rush to what we call “normality”. It is easy also to adopt a "get on with it" mentality, for after all, some would say, "We are born-frees and do not want to be dragged down into our parents' issues."
Today, we pause. We avoid shallow analysis or politicisation of our pain for partisan gains. We pause and go down deep, where there is still fear, anger and possibly hate, yet where there is also longing, hope and a desperate need to let go of the past. We pause and reflect, as part of our celebration.
Going back to where I started: What is it about South Africa’s 20 years of democracy that demands celebration? What is it about marking these 20 years that demands lamentation, liberation and restoration?
There is much to celebrate. There is indeed a good story to tell. Even when we were at the point of a knife 20 years ago, it did not pierce our souls. It cut us, yes, and we still need to heal this cut, but it is possible to do so.
Today we can celebrate above all our Constitution, which guarantees us nearly everything else we laud as achievements: to name just a few, the right of black people to vote; equal rights for all individuals, black or white; the provision of housing, sanitation, water and electricity; and the independent institutions set up to guard democracy and promote good governance under Chapter Nine of the Constitution – the Office of the Public Protector, the Auditor-General and the Human Rights Commission.
As one who grew up in places such as Alexandra Township in Johannesburg and Pimville in Soweto, and as one who has seen both rural and urban deprivation where I have worked in Queenstown, in Grahamstown and now in Cape Town, I acknowledge the progress we have seen. We have hundreds and thousands of new houses and many new clinics. I know some of our infrastructural development is cosmetic, and also that unscrupulous contractors sometimes build houses that fall down, but we really showed the world what we are capable of when we hosted the 2010 World Cup: the new stadiums, the upgraded airports and the improved roads.
Our considerable achievements, however, have to be seen against the backdrop of shocking levels of inequality in our society. There are huge differences between the wealthy parts of our cities and nearly everywhere else in our land. We live with massive disparities of income, largely based on race but increasingly based on whether you have made it into the middle class. Black economic empowerment in many instances is contributing to inequality rather than closing the gap between rich and poor.
The result is that your opportunities in life still often depend on who your parents are and whether they are privileged or not. If you are poor, the chances are that you will struggle to escape the kind of lives your parents lived. But the rich, whether black or white, will hand on to their children a legacy of privilege. Families who have resources will continue to have resources, those who have benefitted from patronage will pass down the benefits to their children, and the unequal distribution of power will still plague our economic and national life.
Despite experiencing after 1994 the longest sustained period of economic growth since World War II, we have not spread the results of the growth to the poor. Spatial apartheid still persists in our society. Whether you have adequate water and sanitation depends on your class and socio–economic status. A year ago, I joined a group of eminent South Africans to visit schools in the Eastern Cape and was shocked to find that, 19 years after the current governing party took responsibility for education, classes were still held in mud-brick schools with poor sanitation. The recent Carnegie Three report on poverty, and the multiple index poverty scale, evoke feelings of deep distress at the persistence of a sea of debilitating poverty around islands of the excessive wealth enjoyed by a tiny minority.
The poorest of the poor are losing hope of ever sharing in the dividends of democracy, and some are being brutally killed by the state when demanding basic services which the privileged take for granted. I am still struggling to make sense of how such a horrendous massacre as Marikana happened. Those killings are still a running sore in our national life, a wound in the side of democracy which reflects human lives being sacrificed for money.
This week I sent out a message to all the bishops of our Province and their dioceses. I asked them two questions: Firstly, What was your dream for South Africa 20 years ago? And secondly, What is your dream for South Africa for the next 20 years?
Paraphrasing some of their answers, they told me they dreamed of a South Africa where justice will not be determined by wealth and power; for God to raise up women and men of stature to lead our nation past where inequalities and injustices still prevail; of a South Africa where people no longer have to live in squalour and overcrowded shacks; where churches play a more active role and are more visible in moral regeneration; where we move beyond racial divisions and build one united nation; where we become the hands and feet of God to eradicate hunger, poverty, corruption and crime.
Where, then, do we go from here?
I have been thinking recently that one of our problems is that for the past 20 years we have had a ready set of answers to what we believed 20 years ago were the right questions to ask about our society. But I think the problem is actually not the answers, it is the questions.
Our questions are outdated, and therefore the answers are outdated. We need to be looking for new answers to new questions. Let me start by suggesting a few, starting with some broad questions and then narrowing them down:
Firstly, why has democracy brought with it such inequality? Why has the economic system that has generated so much growth been accompanied by so much poverty, and such a huge social distance between our leaders and their constituencies? Can we really be said to be enjoying the fruits of democracy? And is our current economic system worth holding onto if this is its fruit?
Another set of questions concerns our values. What are the values reflected in our Constitution? What are the values that Madiba's generation bequeathed to us? How can they be given expression in our current context?
Furthermore, how do we move away from a daily existence in which we suffer from a lack of transparency, not only in the Nkandla debacle but in other tiers of our government? Shouldn't we now be looking at all the Public Protector's past reports from before Nkandla and holding all those implicated to account? How do we nurture and rekindle a renaissance of trust and responsibility and be God’s witnesses as today’s scripture demands?
I want to end with two appeals, firstly one to young people:
You know that we hold this world and country in trust for you. Please engage with the way society and government is run, for your and your children's sakes. Be engaged: report corruption, care for the environment and hold yourselves and us accountable for the destiny of this country and your destinies.
Lastly, I want to go back to where I started and appeal to all of you:
South Africa is God's miracle. Make it work for God’s sake. Go and vote on May the 7th. As I said at the Easter vigil, too many people have suffered and died for us to stay away out of apathy. And while nothing stops you from spoiling your ballot paper in protest, you shouldn't have to: there will be 29 parties from which to choose on the national ballot. Examine the policies of the parties and the behaviour of their leaders and vote your conscience; make a choice of the one that best represents your values.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name.
YOU ARE MINE, declares the LORD.
Happy Freedom Day!
May the risen Christ be with you all. To South Africans, happy voting!
God bless you,