Sunday 12 May 2013

Sunday Independent Opinion Columns

This opinion piece was printed in the Sunday Independent on 12 May 2013. Below it are some earlier columns.

Revolution we need starts with you

May 12 2013, By Thabo Makgoba.

Are politicians or preachers, those of us who speak or write in public, aware that our words may one day come back to bite us? This happened to me after I returned last month from looking at school infrastructure in the Eastern Cape. Our group of academics, writers, human rights experts and others found atrocious conditions in many places, as had been widely reported. But then a friend challenged me. “Why so many bad news stories, Archbishop? Haven’t we had enough of falling down schools and stinking toilets? You always remind us that dwelling on negativity pulls us down, and that we need to keep focused on the positive vision of what South Africa can become.”

She is right, but she is also wrong. Too much bad news truly can be bad for us. It can breed what social commentators call “learned helplessness”. When we are bombarded with news of situations far removed from us, or where we have no capacity to be engaged, we easily become overwhelmed. We start to feel powerless about everything, even where we could make a difference.

But the answer can never be to close our eyes to bad news. We need to see it, just in its right perspective. While focusing on our vision for our country, as the touchstone for policy making and implementation, we must also be aware of what is holding us back. We need honesty about our problems, and my friend is not alone in finding this uncomfortable, even painful.

Her reality is very different from the Eastern Cape’s mud schools. She grew up with a good education, as one of the privileged in the old South Africa. She still enjoys a comfortable life far removed from the stranglehold that poverty has on the great majority. Yet she gives to her church and to NGOs to help alleviate poverty’s grip, pays her cleaner a decent wage, and would do “more” if only she knew how to make a difference. But she is at a loss to know what would be effective. So she feels helpless and guilty, and doesn’t enjoy it when TV and newspapers keep reminding her of this other reality.

Some of us have managed to exchange that stark reality for one more like my friend’s. We may have grown up in deprivation, but we are determined our children will know a different life. And we also may find it easier to keep our distance from what we have left not so far behind. But this will not bring socio-economic freedom for all, to match our political freedom. The struggle must continue for equal opportunity and a decent standard of living for everyone.

We need to bridge the gap between the two realities. And we need to do so at a human level, if we are to do so at an economic level. We need to dare to be literally “in touch” with poverty, for ourselves – to go there and see, and smell, and taste, and touch the bad news stories that are the stuff of others’ daily lives. We cannot be like the past, where it was possible for some people to say they didn’t know how others lived. We must refuse to live at such cold distance from one another, and instead harness human empathy to give us the urgency to press for tangible change.

Choose not to be overwhelmed. Choose a particular focus. One I’ve chosen is education. I’m acting individually, through my church, and supporting a national campaign.

A group of us who grew up in Alexandra are helping to rebuild Pholosho School and funding bursaries. The Anglican Church has long supported the Vuleka initiative, and our next project is building a boys’ boarding school in Gauteng. Nationally, I’m adding my voice to the call for decent school buildings and facilities. This was the motivation behind the Eastern Cape visit. Though we encountered heroic efforts by teachers and pupils, we were also appalled by much of what we saw. We will not let it rest, but will keep up the dialogue, keep up the pressure.

And the good news is that it works. Within days of our visit, the government issued a statement saying the president had directed the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency to look into the matter and let him know what was being done to address the problems of sanitation in three schools we’d seen. So I encourage you not to be afraid to write letters to the president, to ministers, to MPs, to MECs, and to newspapers. Phone radio stations. Blog. Post on Facebook. Tweet. Demand that Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga issues proper, decent, minimum infrastructure norms and standards. Let us bombard her with letters, pleas, prayers, even poems. Speak out when what you see is unacceptable to you and your children. You are taxpayers. It is your money being squandered. Hold the government to account. Demand urgent action.

The SA Democratic Teachers Union must also be held to account. Where it promotes better education, we support it. Where it puts its members’ narrowly defined interests above those of our children (inevitably affecting those already most deprived) and our legitimate education goals, or promotes unhealthy politicisation, or prioritises financial issues, we will demand better. We cannot allow past fears to dictate our future by holding us back. They may explain our unwillingness to get involved today, but they cannot justify it.

Festering wounds need to be opened up and exposed to the light, so they can be dressed – and addressed – and healed. We all have to take a stand. If we do not, our inactivity becomes complicity. Then we all become party not only to the continuance of mud schools without toilets, but also the passage of the still fatally flawed secrecy bill, and the ethical mess of which the Gupta wedding saga is just the tip of the iceberg.

Reject helplessness. Choose hopefulness. And be encouraged – you will make a difference.

From 28 April 2013

Deeds, not words, are what count

We have much to celebrate, and should never underestimate the miracle that was our peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, made possible by the courageous, visionary initiatives of a remarkable few, and by the dignified act of marking ballot papers by the determined many. We continue to thank God that this, and not civil war or bloodbath, became the fate we dared to dream and work for. Since then, we have seen 19 years of changes that were unimaginable when I was young, through the slow but steady progress towards restoring the dignity that apartheid sought to remove from so many. Through three subsequent national elections we have furthered our commitment to democracy in the service of all. We do not have to look far beyond our borders to recognise that peaceful ballots cannot be taken for granted.

Yet, as we are all too aware, we still have a long way to go. And no matter which way politicians and pundits spin it, the legacy of apartheid and the track record of the ANC have some part to play in the continuing failures adequately to overcome poverty in all its manifestations. So we certainly do need “mobilisation towards consolidating democracy and freedom”.

Above all, this means getting our foundations right: our conceptual foundations and attending to the fundamental basics of tackling our greatest needs. Conceptually, we need to remind ourselves of what we aspire to, of the covenant we made to one another and to our nation as a whole, when we chose the path of democracy. We signed up to build a country based on sound ethical principles, good governance, and all that goes with them. Without these, we have no hope of being, and more fully becoming, the nation we like to think we are – the nation to which others around the world look as a model for solving conflict, building bridges and relishing the riches our diversity brings.

Yes, this is the vision that lives in our hearts still, today. We should know this, and therefore take heart, whenever we are tempted to disillusionment or despair by all the bad news stories of corruption and failure – for our frustrations are fuelled by our deep inner convictions that we should do better, and our strong beliefs that indeed we can.

Two particular areas where we can and should do better are housing and education. We have always known we need to get these right, if we are to create a society of true opportunity for all. And we also know that both are vulnerable to poor governance and absent ethics, which allow for tender fraud and corruption and failure to deliver on promises: with shoddy work, collapsing buildings, textbooks not supplied and general failure of service delivery manifested in widespread ways. Almost never do we hear of anyone being brought to book. Such scams are doubly shameful, for they most hurt those in greatest need, and draw them into heartbreaking deceptions.

We have all seen those who have waited long years for housing shed grateful tears when finally given the key to a place of their own – only to find that a few years later, their leaking, cracking home is fit for little more than demolition. Too often irresponsible contractors close old companies to avoid the consequences of one lot of shoddy work, while simultaneously opening new ones to bid in the next round of juicy tenders. As we know, sometimes government officials participate in these debacles, even fraudulently “selling” building land to the innocent and unsuspecting. It is outrageous.

And then there is schooling – and here I am not even going to address the processes of learning, but the contexts in which it happens. Not only are there similar problems to the housing sector when it comes to building and upgrading schools. There is also the far more fundamental problem of failing to bring all schools up to anything like an acceptable standard in the first place. Presidents, ministers and MECs have long been promising a swift end to mud schools and studying under trees, by deadlines that have come and gone. Both persist, in considerable numbers.

Finally, forced by court action, we now have the Accelerated Schools Infrastructure Delivery Initiative. We have also seen the publication of new draft Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure. These, however, are a great disappointment, in their broad generalisations and failure to give specific, measurable criteria to which the government can be held accountable. They are even weaker than the 2008 draft, which contained greater detail, tangible goals and clear time frames. They are an unacceptable step backwards.

A few days ago I embarked on a ‘Solidarity Visit’ of several days to the Eastern Cape, to witness first-hand the extent of the school infrastructure crisis there. As we suspected the picture we found was rather worse than that which government is attempting to paint. How can we justify a situation where over 100 grade 9 children share a classroom in near sub human conditions? This is something that personally devasted and saddened me. It is more hurting to see such levels of inequality and poor material conditions of the poorest of the poor.

And here we face another ethical conundrum. For if the government is serious about wanting to “mobilise society towards consolidating democracy and freedom”, then they need our partnership. This means they need our trust and our confidence. Yet nothing undermines trust as successfully as failing to be honest about the true situation, and refusing to take the citizens of the country into their confidence. And little undercuts confidence as surely as the production of revised policies that actually move us backwards rather than forwards.

It is well known that the future of a country depends, more than almost anything else, upon the quality of its education. Where our children do not even have adequate schools within which to pursue education, we are already putting them – and, in consequence, the whole country – on the back foot. So another Freedom Day has come and gone. We say to the government, we are ready to be mobilised, but we need you to demonstrate that you, too, are truly committed to the vision of a country founded on ethical principles.

From 14 April 2013

Why Tutu deserves the ‘Nobel of Religions’

Once again, that most irrepressible of South African pensioners, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, is in the news. This time, he has won the Templeton Prize, awarded to “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”. It is given for his “life-long work in advancing spiritual principles such as love and forgiveness which has helped to liberate people around the world”.

Though sometimes known as the “religious Nobel”, intriguingly the Templeton Prize is linked to no particular faith or view of God. Furthermore, alongside such usual suspects as Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama, winners also include philosophers, astrophysicists, biologists and other scientists, some of whom are not people of faith in the everyday sense of the word. But that hasn’t bothered the Templeton Foundation, set up in 1972. Its founder, British-American investor and philanthropist John Templeton, who died in 2008, launched the prize to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit” who help “expand our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality”.

Rightly, they see no inevitable conflict between science and religion. Better understanding about the origins and functioning of life, and what it means to be human, can only help us do better in tackling questions of morality, ethics and meaning in today’s complex world. Hand in hand, the best of science and of religion offer invaluable resources for seeing clearly the issues that are at stake, and tackling them wisely and constructively. Neither can do this as well alone, and neither should be fearful of the other. Both are in pursuit of truth.

This complementarity blows a hole in the old philosophical adage that “you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.” It is surely evident that, knowing that poverty is destructive of flourishing life in individuals and communities, inescapably means we ought to do away with it. Justice clearly is a foundation-stone of stable, healthy society and governance, and therefore ought to be pursued. So, too, is honesty and so on. Whichever way you look at it, justice, good governance, fighting poverty and corruption, are what science and religion alike demand of government, politicians and civil servants. It is what makes sense from whatever angle you care to look at it. Therefore we should have no qualms about demanding the highest standards, the most wholehearted commitment and true accountability, from our political leaders.

The Arch is not the first South African Templeton Prize winner. That honour went to UCT Professor of Cosmology, George Ellis, honoured in 2004 for a lifetime’s work that embraces not only the origins of the universe but also the human brain and behaviour, and the relationship between science and religion. A Quaker and activist, his social writings were condemned by the apartheid government. Like Tutu, he has spoken and written about the over-riding need for humanity to live with faith, hope and love – even loving your enemies.

Questions around loving our enemies and the power of forgiveness have been in my mind for other reasons this week, which has seen the death of Margaret Thatcher, the anniversary of Chris Hani’s assassination and news that Clive Derby-Lewis has again been denied parole. No one can deny that Britain’s first woman prime minister was a remarkable individual. But that is about as far as agreement seems to go – 20 years after she left power, she still divides opinions. In South Africa, she is mostly remembered for calling the ANC a “typical terrorist organisation” and opposing sanctions, though others have described her as a positive influence on constitutional transformation.

Stirring up strong emotions is one thing, but I was shocked to hear of parties organised to celebrate her death – and was glad these were condemned even by her strongest political opponents. It’s not that we must uncritically “love” all that Thatcher was and did. But it helps no-one if we dehumanise those with whom we disagree. The Arch has often told us that we must not reduce others to “monsters”, however awful their actions: first, because it actually makes them less responsible for their actions, and second, because it denies the possibility of redemptive hope. Accepting that redemptive hope exists everywhere enables us to deal with life honestly, maturely, constructively, and rationally – in the best and fullest sense of this word, as the Templeton Prize supports.

For we can step back and look at Margaret Thatcher and admire her drive and determination, even if we think it was often wrongly directed. We can admire her achievements as the first woman to hold such high office. Then we can take what we admire, and build on it: daring to think big and be bold, and pressing towards greater gender equality. We can also analyse rationally what we oppose, and why, so that we can draw both useful lessons and the energy to do better.

These are lessons for South Africa, too, as we continue to recall the past, whether through specific anniversaries or the daily legacy of history upon us. Polarisation – painting people as wholly right or wholly evil – undermines our ability to engage constructively and go forward creatively. We need a similarly nuanced approach to political parties and policies, as well as personalities: affirming the positive; learning from and working to overcome the negative. None of us is perfect, and others always need to look on us with a level, honest gaze, free of fear. Then we can see what is good and pursue it further. We can learn from what went wrong, and work for better. And we can identify what can now be let go, set to one side and left in the past so that it does not hold us back.

Chris Hani’s death remains a tragedy, but it must not hold us back from a better future. The best of what he offered to us can still live on, if we heed his words. Just a couple of weeks before he died, in calling for a comprehensive, just peace, he warned against corruption and the greed of the gravy train. “What we need in South Africa is for egos to be suppressed in favour of peace. We need to create a new breed of South Africans who love their country and love everybody, irrespective of their colour.” These words are as apt today as they ever were.

And what of Derby-Lewis? I do not know what is in his mind and heart. But I do know that Tutu and the TRC taught us that reconciliation only comes with truth. It requires the scientific truth of full honesty around the facts, and the spiritual truth of recognising the human cost of actions and so knowing true remorse. Such truth can indeed set us free.

This is a personal lesson, too. For myself, I know that when I honestly acknowledge what scars I carry from the past – the harrowing facts around them, the painful emotions they stir up, the wounds they have left on my soul – then I, too, know that I am taking the first steps towards a freer future.

Come, walk with me on this journey of hope.

From 31 March 2013

Spread seeds of hope and dignity

As Christians celebrate Easter, the casual observer would be forgiven for asking how on earth we can declare God’s victory over sin and death when there is so much suffering and destruction all around. Let’s face it. The first three months of this year read like a violent horror story. Details of events at Marikana unfold in drawn-out agony at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry. More recent incidents of police brutality, like the death of the Mozambican taxi driver, Mido Macia, have left us, and observers round the world, reeling with shock.

There was, for a while, outrage at the brutal rape and murder of teenager Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp, and the so-called satanic killing of schoolgirl Keamogetswe Sefularo in Mohlakeng. But attacks keep occurring, and often go unreported as we have become numbed to their frequency. How has such violence, including rape and sexual assault, become part of the fabric of our lives? How can we move from expressing anger and indignation, in marches and vigils, to deeper conversations about social cohesion, and take the necessary steps to rebuild society on the basis of true humanity – rooted in the dignity of being made in the image of God, of being ubuntu people, whose identities are shaped through belonging to one another?

We have been suffering from a wider loss of confidence, affecting everything from our public broadcaster to our national carrier. And this is not just a domestic question. Last weekend, rebel forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) left 13 of our soldiers dead and 27 injured. We are now embroiled in conflict in a place that was previously little more than a sound bite or a football team.

Lent, the six-week period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, invites us to look at ourselves with an honest eye. We need to recognise that too often our world is a mess. But our response should not be to despair. Two Christian leaders who arrived on the global stage this month show us a better, more hopeful, way, of tackling challenges. The media have been fascinated by the new pope, who, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, lived in a small flat, cooked his own meals and took public transport. He is the first pope to choose the name of Francis, after Francis of Assisi, renowned for his simple life-style and care for the poor. Since becoming head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, he has made his priorities clear – whether in sitting on a plain white chair, instead of a golden throne on a scarlet platform, or in preaching that we should all be “discreet, humble, faithful protectors’ of God’s creation and all people”. True leadership is to care for those who need it most.

Last week I was in England, for the enthronement of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Justin Welby is another fascinating character, who gave up a successful career in the oil and finance sectors, to become a priest. He has since been involved in conflict resolution around the world, and on more than one occasion came within a whisker of being murdered.

Lasting, just peace and reconciliation are in short supply, as we can see in the CAR, and in frequent unrest between Sudan and South Sudan. We see it especially in Syria. This week I added my voice to calls on the leaders of the Brics nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), meeting in Durban, to press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to allow the UN to bring humanitarian aid into his country. The tragedy is that when the Brics leaders met a year ago, they called for “an immediate end to all violence and violations of human rights in that country”, but their call went unheeded. Since then, the death toll has risen from about 9 000 to over 70 000. Today there are 4 million people in urgent need of aid, half of them children.

In our letter to our leaders, political and civil society figures from Brics countries wrote: “The people of Syria are living a nightmare of death, injury, illegal detention, rape, torture and displacement. Schools and hospitals have been targeted, children as young as eight have been used as human shields, and one in every three Syrian children has been injured or shot at… “Extensive food aid distribution and shelter are urgently needed… the basic humanitarian needs of millions of Syrians are not being met.”

Achieving lasting, just peace and reconciliation – whether of military conflict and civil war, or violence across society – requires risk-taking, perseverance and selfless commitment, especially from our leaders. This, in a nutshell, is the message of Lent and Easter. Jesus faced the full horrors of suffering and death head-on, in order to bring resurrection and life. They cannot be ignored or brushed aside, since they only fester and worsen. The enormity of injustices, past wrongs, woundedness, oppression and discrimination, have to be brought into the open and acknowledged in honest dialogue, no matter how painful, if we are to sow the seeds of hope that bring new life.

In South Africa we discovered the truth of this, in our transition to democracy, even if there is still unfinished business to be tackled. We must not lose sight of this vision, which gave us such courage, such hope, to begin building a great nation anew. Nor must we forget the other lesson that came with it – that in recognising the inherent dignity of each and every human person. We cannot afford the luxury of losing hope, because then we will pay the price of continuing downward spirals. But the good news of Easter is that the seed of hope is always there, ready for us to nurture, if we only take courage, take the risk, and persevere. I wish you all a blessed Easter.