Monday 15 October 2012

Sermon on Marikana and 'Towards Carnegie 3'

This sermon was preached at St George's Cathedral, Cape Town, on 9 September 2012, following a visit to Marikana, and the 'Towards Carnegie 3' Conference - its themes are still relevant over a month later.

Proverbs 2: 1-8; Ps 119: 129-136; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7: 31-37

May I speak in the name of God, who makes the deaf hear and the mute speak. Mr Dean, thank you for your invitation to preach this morning. As I shall be back again this afternoon, I was tempted to bring a picnic basket and camping stool with me to the pulpit!

But let me turn to more serious matters.

On Wednesday I returned to the North-West Province, with the President and General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). We visited Marikana and then attended the talks at the Rustenburg Civic Centre, between worker representatives, unions, mine management, and the Department of Labour. Almost everyone present was committed to finding a peaceful way forward, and, overall, there was an atmosphere of hope – notwithstanding the ‘robust’ language that many used! I found this very encouraging.

But at the same time, my heart was sore, and my spirit grieved. Driving away later, we went past the Karee West informal settlement, and past the mine area: past Nkaneng camp and Wonderkop and the shaft head. It felt that the land was crying out to me, deep in my soul, saying ‘All is not well, all is not well.’ It felt like the calm before the storm, the eye of the hurricane.

That part of North-West Province teeters on a knife edge. The dire state of everything from living conditions to the issues in the mining community, stirred up revulsion inside me. This is the stuff from which revolution is far too easily made, if we allow it. Whether in the mines or anywhere else, living and working conditions that – 18 years after the coming of democracy – still deliver neither human dignity nor economic justice, have become like a cancer spreading across our country.

Poverty and its consequences are clearly portrayed in scripture as evil. And this evil all too often arises from structural deficiencies rooted in moral failings. Of course, the problems can be complex. If there were simple, easy answers to poverty, to inequality, to unemployment, someone, somewhere, would have found them by now. This is why we need good research on strategies to overcome poverty and inequality, as encouraged at this week’s conference at UCT, ‘Towards Carnegie 3’. This is why we need comprehensive policy initiatives like the National Development Plan.

But the essence of the problem lies elsewhere – it lies in within us. Jesus cured the deaf and the blind. But he also warned of spiritual deafness and blindness. To the Pharisees, Jesus said ‘Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?’ (Mk 8:18).

This is our problem: the failings of political will, of moral strength, of ethical courage. We see the injustice, we hear the cries of those who are oppressed. Even if we do not know all the answers, there is always plenty we could do. But we do not do it – and we sit back while others, in politics, government, business, and across society, do not do it.

The tragedy of Marikana did not come from nowhere. It arose because we have been content to let things slide. They have slid in policy-making and implementation; in attitudes that allow economic inequalities to grow; in acceptance of high and low level corruption and in ineffectual implementation of good governance and the rule of law. They have slid in the worsening trust between government and citizens, politicians and people.

It is, as Mamphela Ramphele has said, above all a failure of leadership: in politics, but also in business, and in the cosy relationship they too often enjoy. Our leaders are the deaf, who cannot hear the loud cries of the hungry, the homeless, the needy, the oppressed. Our leaders are the blind, who cannot see what is right in front of their faces.

And what of us? Are we the mute, who, despite all this evidence, say nothing? As we heard from St James this morning, we must be doers of the word, not hearers only. We cannot remain silent. What we see and hear, we must speak out.

This is what I, and so many of us, try to do in supporting the task of the Carnegie conference and the National Development Plan; in opposing corruption; in aligning with NGOs and initiatives like Equal Education, the Social Cohesion Summit, and Social Justice Coalition; and through the Church’s own projects, like those at the Cathedral, or the Global Economic Indaba which I am promoting.

It is what I have tried to do, in calling for President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to visit the platinum mining area of North-West Province together. It would be of great symbolic importance for our country's leader and a former union general secretary to be seen working closely together to address the issues of workers and local communities.

We also call for Judge Ian Farlam – our own Provincial Chancellor – to receive every assistance, every prayer, as he chairs the Commission of Inquiry. We also wish the peace efforts ‘Godspeed’, upholding all those involved, and those like the SACC and local clergy who are doing so much to support the process.

For the prophetic voice of the church must proclaim what is wrong, but, more important, we must always announce the possibilities of God’s redemptive grace into every situation. And although we are frustrated and grieved by all that is wrong, we must not become fuelled by anger. As we heard from St James, our anger cannot produce God’s righteousness, which is what our country, our people, most desperately need.

Rather, our attitude must be of sharing freely, as we have freely received, from God’s generous hand. God’s promise of salvation, in every area of society, must be our vision – our goal, and the touchstone of all we say and do.

Recently, I’ve become very hooked on St Paul’s wise words to the Philippians:
‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ – or, as another translation puts it, ‘let your mind dwell on these things’ (Phil 4:8).

Behavioural science tells us the same as St Paul: when the positive vision is central, it becomes magnet that draws us forward. If we always focus on problems, we lose sight of where we are going, and get dragged down.

The book of Proverbs puts it another way: live in fear – or better, in awe – of God, if you want to know how to live. Cry to God for insight and you will discover what to say and do and find the will to do it. Or, in the Bible’s own words:
‘The LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice ...’

May God indeed grant wisdom, so we may live upright and blameless lives, and guard the paths of justice so all may walk in them. And each one of us, whether or not we are involved in policy making and implementation, can live in awe of God; and strive so that in our own contexts, and in all our dealings with others, human dignity is upheld, justice ensured, equality promoted, and moral courage encouraged. We must also press for governments internationally to take more courageous steps towards fundamental restructuring global economic and financial systems, so we can ensure that the needs of the poor and the planet are put before profit and politics.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, my time in Marikana left me with the sense that this country is like a smouldering log that, left unattended, lies ready to ignite at the slightest wind. There is real urgency in these matters. Yet I remain an optimist, for I have faith in the living God, whose word to us is peace and hope and new life. His gospel promises that a better future is possible.

Therefore, this is not a message of doom – it is a call to wake up and act. All South Africans must rekindle the vision of a free, fair, just, South Africa which inspired the peaceful transition to democracy; and we must work and pray to bring it about. Never again must talk of ‘blood bath’ become a possibility within our country.

And so, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, let our prayers be that God will open the ears of the deaf among our leaders, so they may hear and act. May God help us all, who are so often so mute, to open our mouths and speak out. Amen.

For useful background, see