Address to the 2023 Algemene Sinode van die Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk
Addisionele lede van die Moderamen,
Broers en susters,
Ek groet julle in die heilige naam van onse Here en Verlosser, Jesus Christus: Goeie Dag!
Baie dankie vir die uitnodiging wat oorspronklik deur my vriend, Dominee Nelis, uitgereik is; ek en my kerk waardeer die baie en dit is 'n besondere groot voorreg om hier te wees. Ek is net jammer dat ek nie persoonlik saam met julle kan wees nie. Soos ek vir die Sinode Wes Kaapland vroeër in die jaar gese het, alhoewel die nuwe tegnologie ons help om meer verpligtinge in ons skedules in te pas, kan dit nie persoonlike kontak tussen ons vervang nie.
As 'n mens die geskiedenis van ons twee kerke inagneem, is my teenwoordigheid hier as 'n verteenwoordiger van die Anglikaanse Kerk miskien 'n historiese gebeurtenis. In die vroeë twintigste eeu het baie mense die Anglikaanse Kerk as die kerk van die Britse "establishment" in Suid Afrika gesien; later het hulle die NG Kerk as "the National Party at prayer" gesien. Nou beklee nie een van ons daardie posisies nie, en ek waag dit om te sê dat dit ons in staat stel om die Evangelie baie meer effektief te verkondig.
Dit is ook belangrik dat ek hier staan as President van die Suid-Afrikaanse Raad van Kerke. Vyf-en-viertig jaar gelede het wyle Biskop Desmond Tutu, destyds die Algemene Sekretaris van die Raad, en wyle Dr Frans O'Brien Geldenhuys, die direkteur van ekumeniese sake van die NG Kerk, 'n gesprek begin in baie moeilike omstandighede. Ek hou daarvan om te dink hulle sou opgewonde wees om die uiteindelike resultate van hul toenadering te sien.
Before I continue, please allow me to speak briefly of the situation in the land we call holy, the place where Jesus was born, nurtured, crucified and raised, and the place which Judaism and Islam also call holy. We all agonise over what is happening there, shocked and disturbed at the levels of hatred we see, where Palestinians are oppressed in ways we once experienced here and where Israeli civilians are brutally attacked and killed in scenes reminiscent of the anti-Jewish pogroms of Europe in the Middle Ages.
Last week the Anglican Church sent to our parishes a prayer for the Holy Land, in which we asked God to grant the people of Palestine and Israel – and I quote from the prayer – we asked God to grant them:
Gentle hearts, and
A new beloved community, embodying
love, truth, justice, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Last Saturday we celebrated the 90th birthday of Mama Leah Tutu, and I told them that I am sure that at this moment, ninety-nine of every one hundred Palestinians and Israelis would say that anyone who believes that God will grant us that wish of a new beloved community is crazy. But we in South Africa have shown the world that it is not crazy to envisage a time when, in that beautiful biblical phrase, common to both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, “The wolf shall live with the lamb,” and “the leopard shall lie down with the kid”. (Is. 11: 6) It might be hard for us to imagine today, but just as it was possible for us in South Africa to overcome the hatreds and bitterness of the past, it is possible for Israelis and Palestinians to do the same, and all people of faith need to work and pray tirelessly to that end.
Turning back to South Africa, ek hoop die afvaardiging van Wes-Kaapland sal my vergewe as ek hier – en ook later – verwys na wat ek 'n paar maande gelede aan hul Sinode gesê het. I read that passage in Chapter 28 of Matthew's Gospel, which tells us how, on that first Easter, after Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had found Jesus's grave to be empty, an angel appeared to them and said: “Do not be afraid... he has been raised from the dead.” The women then left the grave, and hurried to tell the disciples the Good News. In one translation, it says that they left the tomb “met vrees en groot blydskap”, but in the translation I preferred, it says, “Hulle het toe haastig van die graf af weggegaan, bang maar baie bly...”
I told the Western Cape Synod that as we contrast what is happening in our beloved country today with the joyful message of Easter, we too can feel, “Bang, maar baie bly” – alhoewel ons is bly vir die opstanding van ons Here en Verlosser, Jesus Christus, ons is ook bang vir die toekoms van ons land.
And indeed, there are many reasons to be afraid for the future of our land. Although we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights which are the envy of the world, the promises of our Constitution have not been fulfilled. We are a country scarred by the most glaring inequality experienced anywhere in the world, the gap between the rich at one end of the spectrum and the poor at the other end being wider than in any other country. We are mired in the mud of corruption. Services we built for our people have collapsed in some areas and money budgetted for new services and infrastructure is too often stolen, misdirected or inefficiently spent. Too many public servants have forgotten they are servants of the public.
Recently I have joined other religious leaders in what we call “Walks of Witness” to areas in which people are suffering because of government failures. I first went to the site of the gas explosion in the Johannesburg city centre. A few weeks later, I was at building, also in the Joburg city centre, where nearly 80 people died in a terrible fire. Black South Africans like me who grew up in Joburg under apartheid knew that building, number 80 Albert Street, as the Johannesburg pass office, where, at the thump of a stamp in your “dompas”, you were either allowed to stay in the city, or were endorsed out to try to eke out a living in your rural Bantusan. To see one kind of suffering in that building replaced by another kind of suffering under democracy made me want to weep.
So we face crises on every side, almost too many to count. But we should remember that church leaders warned us that this might happen. Back in the early years of democracy, Desmond Tutu said: “Even a freely-elected democratic government is still made up of frail, vulnerable human beings who may or may not succumb to the blandishments of power.” Our Oom Bey, Dr Beyers Naude, alerted us to the danger of complacency in 1996, when he said: “People tend to say that now that we have a new government, now that we have a new Constitution, now that we have solved our political problems, for the time being, there is no prophetic role for the Church at the moment. I think such a perception is a very serious mistake.”
Back in the 1990s, we avoided what could have been a bloody war, the likes of which we now fear seeing in the Middle East. That was due to the efforts of many South Africans, with Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk of course playing the central role, but the churches also played an important role, both at congregational level and through leaders like Dr Johan Heyns. Like Moses and the children of Israel in that great story of the exodus, we liberated ourselves and escaped the bondage of Egypt. But now we have to make sure we don't spend the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness. The church has an important role to play if we are to reach the promised land.
We need to take the warnings of Desmond Tutu and Beyers Naude to heart. We still have a prophetic role to play, and as people of faith we need to work out, here and now, how best to mobilise our energy, our courage, our imagination, our skills and our political will, and channel them into a coordinated effort to support those in our society who are committed to fulfilling the promises of the Constitution. We need to work together to answer the cries of the poor, to complete tasks half-done, and to respond to new obstacles that have emerged.
Returning to my message to the Western Cape Synod, let us consider again the response of the women at the empty grave that first Easter morning. Despite their conflicting emotions of grief and joy, despite their confusion and fear as they tried to take on board the meaning of what they had seen and heard, they summoned up the courage to move forward. Faced with the might of the religious and political establishments which had crucified our Lord, they were not intimidated. They faced down their fears, and went out bravely to proclaim the Good News of the Risen Christ.
As the Christian churches of South Africa, we need to summon up the courage shown by those women, summon up the courage displayed by Desmond Tutu, Beyers Naude, and Johan Heyns, and take the lead in setting an example of moral courage to our people and our political and community leaders. As a nation, we face probably the biggest challenges of the democratic era. But just as the disciples on Lake Galilee were reassured by Jesus in the middle of a terrifying storm, we too can be reassured by his words to them: “It is I, don’t be afraid.” He will be with us, strengthening our resolve.
Many of you may know that since the failures of the Zuma administration in South Africa, I have been repeatedly calling on all South Africans to join what I call the New Struggle, a new struggle for a new era, a new struggle for a new generation, a struggle to regain our moral compass, a struggle to end economic inequality, and a struggle to ensure that the promises of our Constituion are kept. And I am hopeful that if the churches, other religious bodies and civil society join this struggle, we can succeed in turning South Africa around and putting us back on the path on which Nelson Mandela set us.
For if we compare ourselves to many parts of the world, and especially to regions such as West Africa, we come to this struggle with advantages that others don't enjoy. We have a strong and independent civil society, we have an independent media, we have term limits for our presidents and, very important, we have a democratically-elected Parliament.
That is why I have been using whatever influence I have to urge all South Africans, and especially young South Africans who have never voted before, to register to vote in next year's elections. As I have said often this year, I understand why many, many young South Africans, both white and black, are disillusioned with politics. The behaviour of our politicians discourages them from joining the political process and they can't see a way of making a difference in public life. But if they register to vote, then go out and vote in their numbers, they can and will bring about change.
And a number of us, including former President Mbeki and the SACC General Secretary, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, are concerned that white South Africans – and especially the Afrikaner community – are becoming alienated from our national life. It is very important that you exercise your rights to speak out, to join debates on our future and to organise politically if we are to secure our future. Don't be silent because of concern you will be called a racist; every single one of us, black and white, has the same rights under our Constitution, and we all need to exercise them if our democracy is to truly reflect the concerns and wishes of all our people.
I am sure that many of your members are concerned about land reform. As I told the Western Cape Synod, we need sensible policies of land reform which will not prejudice our economy. The government's land reform programme is clearly failing, and my own belief is that we need to introduce Gospel values into the debate around it: sharing, reconciliation, healing and taking care of our neighbours.
A fully-developed policy of redistribution needs both to take into account that there is more demand for urban than for rural land, and to provide an economic model for developing rural land, including education and practical help for those who want to work the land. We should decentralise the process by allowing people to work out local solutions appropriate to local situations, and it should be a tool for real transformation, to address the inequality of opportunity and the high rate of unemployment from which we suffer.
In summary, as I said in the Western Cape, sensible land reform policies can find compromises which both protect our economy and meet the most urgent needs of those who want to farm the land and produce food for our people.
I conclude by urging you to claim the place in our society which our Constitution guarantees you, namely one of critical participation in our democracy. Jesus tells us in John's Gospel (10:10): “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” It is my prayer that as we walk together into the future, we will build a South Africa in which all will have life, and have it abundantly.
God bless you, and God bless the deliberations of this Synod.
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba