Monday, 1 February 2021

For the record: Interview with Anglican Journal, Canada

 ‘We can name the evil that is racism’: A conversation with Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

The struggle against anti-Black racism is a common thread in the history of North America and South Africa. During the apartheid era, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa played a major role in supporting the movement to end the official system of racial discrimination. While apartheid officially ended three decades ago, racism continues to plague South Africa today alongside persistent economic and social inequality.


In 2007, Thabo Makgoba became archbishop of Cape Town, occupying the position once held by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As a student in the 1970s and ’80s, Makgoba actively participated in the movement against apartheid. In his subsequent ministry as an Anglican priest, rector, archdeacon, bishop and archbishop, he continued to challenge inequality, injustice and corruption. In the last years of Nelson Mandela’s life, he provided pastoral care and presence to the former South African president and icon of the anti-apartheid movement.

The Anglican Journal spoke to Archbishop Makgoba to learn more about his memories of apartheid, the church’s ongoing role confronting injustices in South Africa, and his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement in North America. The interview which follows has been edited for length and clarity.

I read your memoir Faith and Courage: Praying with Mandela in preparation for this interview and was wondering if you could expand on your own experience of apartheid and its aftermath.

In my memoir, I tried to spell out briefly my family history and my history growing up as a Black child in South Africa. I think what remains unresolved even by the democratic government is the whole issue of land, where land was taken by force. Even in the township where we lived, we were removed forcibly to another township by the Afrikaans government then, by the “Peri-Urban” [police on the outskirts of South African cities].

Land tenure and disputes around land still remain an issue, and dare I say, a racial issue, because those that were forcibly removed are mainly Blacks or Africans, Indians, the Coloureds [a multiracial ethnic group]…. Those are the sad terms that we use in South Africa.

Besides [my family’s] forced removals, when I tried to apply to one of the best universities in the country, Wits University, I was denied, initially, entry because it was mainly a white university. In those days, we as Black people had to prove to the minister that we were academically capable, but [also] to say the course we want to do is not available at a [Black] African university. Most of them are far away from Johannesburg…. I was denied a ministerial approval at the personal level. That was really based on racial terms. And I was detained a couple of times for the pass laws [requiring Black South Africans to carry an internal passport].

The role of the church in fighting apartheid was a major influence in your deciding to pursue the priesthood. How did the Anglican Church in South Africa respond to anti-Black racism during and after apartheid?

During apartheid, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa had powerful archbishops from this office that challenged the Bantu education that sought to put Black people into Black schools and not allow them to meet. There was vociferous challenging of apartheid.

We have the best-known advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was elected dean of Johannesburg. The challenge then was, if you let a Black dean to be in Johannesburg, where was he going to stay? Because the rectory was in a white suburb. Desmond Tutu was given really a heartache in terms of that. [Later] we have the Anglican Church again electing Desmond Tutu as the first Black archbishop. Now he has to come and stay here in [the wealthy Cape Town suburb] Bishopscourt, when we were segregated racially and Blacks had to stay in certain places and whites had to stay in certain places.

In terms of residential formation, the Anglican Church had Black and white theological colleges. We started sending Black students to St. Paul’s, which was a white elite theological college, to say we will not be ruled by apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu challenged the international community to impose sanctions against [South] Africa as a passive means, a non-violent stance, to bring about a change.

We’ve got [some] of the best schools in the country, started by monks and nuns. Inevitably in South Africa, they became schools for those that can afford [them], and those that can afford in South Africa became mainly white parents. We started challenging some of those schools to say, “Please, do accept Black children, so that there is some degree of integration.” We’re still far from that. We get accused of all sorts of racism in our schools. But those are some of the efforts that we made. We also started placing priests in the so-called white parishes in order to intentionally erase the divide of Black and white.

Based on the last two chapters of your book, which discuss the more recent history of South Africa, it seems that the question of fighting racism today is inseparable from fighting economic injustice and economic inequality.

Yes, you put your finger on it. Racial capitalism is a sin. Racial colonialism also impacted South Africa. In South Africa, unlike [with] the so-called Indians in North America who [faced extermination efforts], here the Dutch East Indian Company said, “No, we want the land, we want the resources, but we want the people as cheap labour.” Then a segregated economy started, which was racialized and weaponized. We’re still suffering that today. It was the economy in the hands of the Dutch East Indian Company, which was European and white. Blacks became cheap labour and were enslaved, and then women became at the bottom rung.

Now, even in democratic South Africa, we have won political emancipation. But we still have to look at what I call spatial segregation, where Blacks, in the main, live in squalor and poorer areas and far from their place of employment, and are less educated than their white counterparts. They’re excluded from the economic activities of the country. Women suffer a double quandary: they are Black, they are women, they are unemployed, and they are not seen.

Those are the consequences of apartheid and racial colonialism and racial capitalism, which the church has to be literate and sensitive about. The church has to highlight the fact that if we are to regard everyone as created in the image of God; if we are to take the psalm which says “the Earth is the Lord’s and all that dwell in it,” and if we are to take John 10:10 seriously—that Jesus came so that we may all have life and have it abundantly—we need to know some of the policies that can enable all of us to obtain that parity and equality and inclusion in economic activities of South Africa.

A lot of the struggle against anti-Black racism in North America relates to police brutality. In your memoir you describe your own experience of police brutality in South Africa during apartheid, but also the police massacre of 34 miners at Marikana in 2012. It seems as if despite the democratic changes in the 1990s, there’s a certain continuity between the role of the police during apartheid and the role of the police now in enforcing economic inequality.

You’re right. There are continuities and discontinuities. We tried here in South Africa to change even the name “police force” to “police service.” We’re trying to say to the police, “Mentally see yourself as serving humanity and serving the community, rather than the police force are forcing the citizens into your way of thinking.” The bulk of all our police services are now trained in that model of enforcing the government rules, of enforcing particular ways of thinking. I see there the continuity between the apartheid police, and I see there the continuity with the police in North America.

I remember during Black Lives Matter [protests], we were under a COVID-19 lockdown, and the president dispatched the army to go and ensure that people listened to the restrictions. If you go into a leafy suburb, yes, social distancing and curfews are possible. But if you go into a slum and squalor, it’s actually unsafe indoors, where they are overcrowded there if they live in slums.

Have the Black Lives Latter movement and the fight against racism and police brutality in North America found an echo in South Africa?

Yes. People are following it, and it has really found a lot of resonance. It also sparked [discussion of] other issues, like gender-based violence. But there are other political priorities.

For example, there’s a school here in Cape Town where the parents and teachers agreed that some could go on a matric ball. It’s called Brackenfell [High] School. The matric ball costs 500 rands, which is something like 50 Canadian dollars. For you it may not be much. It’s a lot of money for people that do not have [a lot]. Inadvertently, only white parents and white people were able to go to that matric ball. There was a picket and the police came in; there were stun grenades shot and tear gas all over.

Another example is the farm killings. Sometimes, when we look at racial conflict, we can tend to emphasize only Black Lives Matter. That’s why it was very important to say, Black Lives Matter is a movement to highlight the killing and the discrimination and the racism towards Blacks because they are Blacks. But in South Africa, we are a non-racial country [with apartheid gone] where sometimes, people are killed because they are farmers, and most of the farmers are white. That’s why it is important to also look at violence towards whites in South Africa, and violence towards Blacks in South Africa, and violence towards women in South Africa.

Do you see parallels between Black Lives Matter in North America and your own days as a student fighting apartheid, or struggles in South Africa today?

Yes, I see some parallels, because at the heart of Black Lives Matter and at the heart of when we fought apartheid is the really biblical injunction that all of us are created in the image of God. All of us deserve respect, and all of us must be accorded dignity with which we are created. On the 10th of December we will be celebrating yet again Human Rights Day. At the heart of human rights, I think, are those biblical injunctions that humanity matters, that respect for every individual matters.

Fighting apartheid was not anti-white. Fighting apartheid was to say, “Hey, South African whites, if you demean me, you demean yourself. If you exclude us, you’re excluding yourself,” because you can never be happy when somebody can’t breathe, because you have to keep that knee on their throat. If you keep your knee on their throat and they die, you have to live with that conscience. Whether [the legal system] finds you on a technicality guilty or not guilty, you have to live with yourselves.

In North America, Black Lives Matter is a call for justice. Funding of a police that kills people because of their racial complexion ought to stop or [be] reviewed. Training of those police forces so they can actually protect everyone and see people as people, not as Blacks, is going to be very important.

Based on all the experiences in the movement against apartheid, with the student movement, the church and figures like Nelson Mandela, what do you think the role of the church is in the fight against racism and for social justice?

The role of the church in fighting against racism and [for] social justice is cut out for us. We have a number of biblical texts, and the church must always start from Scripture. Anglicans always pride ourselves that our touchstones are Scripture, tradition, experience and reason. We must go back to Scripture. [There are] some biblical passages that are outrightly racist, tribal, and look at the consequences of that when God intervenes. And we look at some of the biblical injunctions that say in Christ there’s no Jew or Gentile. We are God’s people. Then maybe once we have read our Scripture, we should look at how can we advocate for such a just society.

I know some people say, “Oh, the church can’t be involved in politics.” The church can’t be partisan; I can’t go and stand for political office and say I’ll advance the biblical texts in politics. Some can do that. But I think our true vocation is to say the rule of God is at hand, and what is God’s kingdom … in contextual issues? We can do that in advocacy, and then we can give agency to the particular groups that are affected by that racism and exclusion. We can name the evil that is racism, because we know that racism reduces the God in you and the God in me into some smaller God, and makes one race’s God bigger than who God created us to be.

Once we name it, we can maybe create our own racial sensitization programs … and then look at some of the things that can show that we are really serious about inclusion. How many Indigenous Canadians are in leadership positions in the Anglican Church of Canada, in government, and in other places? Is there a policy that we could advance as the church that unashamedly gives preference to those that have been maimed, those that have been excluded through racialized mechanisms, even if we are unpopular? Are we able to stand up and speak out?

So there are many things that we can do as a church—go back to our texts, advocate for change, give agency to those that are marginalized, include them in our structures, and then have what I call strong policy organizations that can change the Canadian policies and the church policies in order to reflect the beauty of diversity.

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