Saturday 30 March 2024

Sermon for the Easter Vigil, 2024, St George's Cathedral, Cape Town

The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba
Archbishop of Cape Town
Easter Vigil
St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town
30th March 2024

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Sisters and brothers in Christ, thank you for joining us in our mother church on this most holy night, when we recall and celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. May you know the joy, the hope and the peace that the Season of Easter brings.
    Thank you, Mr Dean, to you, to the parishioners, to the clergy, the wardens and other lay leaders, to the music director, the organist, the choir, the verger, the office staff, the cleaners; to all of you who ensure that we can worship God at such beautiful services, our profound thanks. We give special thanks for the Dean, who is here for his last Easter Vigil in his current capacity before retiring. We will celebrate his ministry at other services in the coming weeks, but for now, I appeal to you as a congregation to give generously towards his farewell.
    As I prepared for tonight’s vigil, I was reminded of my mother’s voice. She was one of those who passed on wisdom in unstructured moments, popping up with sayings even when we were sharing something totally unrelated. I recall one such moment when we were walking to an Easter service on the dusty streets of Alex township. I was no more than twelve years old, when she passed on this gem: “Thabo,” she said, “Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity.” It is in that spirit that I have tried during these past weeks of Lent to absorb its lessons for how we should be living as a global family in the current age.
    Globally speaking, it is as if we have lived this year through a very long Good Friday. Indeed, the shadows of Good Friday hang heavily over and destroy the lives of so many that the Resurrection seems very far away. Think of the millions of starving people in the Sudan, the insurgency in the DR Congo, where South African soldiers are fighting and dying, the violent chaos in Haiti and the war in Ukraine. Think of the fighting in Yemen, and the slaughter in Gaza, where genocidal rhetoric encourages the commission of war crimes in which men, women and children are killed and maimed with impunity.
    In those places, the Good Friday sound of nails being hammered into flesh and the cries of “I thirst” are the only realities millions of people know. All around us the daily genocide of poverty and marginalisation, the constant bombardment of domestic violence and gender-based annihilation, echo deeply. For those victims and survivors, the cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the daily, painful way of life. Against this devastating background it seems almost callous to proclaim that “The Lord has Risen.”
    But despite the cruelty, the hate, the pain, the suffering and the dying, the Resurrection says that embedded somewhere in their horrible midst, Easter breaks through. In Mark’s Gospel, we hear how the women courageously set out for Jesus’ tomb to anoint him that first Easter morning—despite the devastating experience of Good Friday, despite their fear, despite not knowing how they will roll the stone away from the entrance. We are told that the others, the men, cower behind locked doors, crippled by fear. But the women refuse to cower. Nothing stops them from following the prompting of love; neither the soldiers, nor the religious establishment. Mark is adamant that when there is courage, when people like those women refuse to be intimidated, then it is dawn, a new day arises and a new marker is placed in history.
    Today we see the same happening again in precisely the places where suffering is at its worst. We see it in the courage of women who stand up to domestic abuse and violence, who organise and say loudly: “No more!” We see it in the courage of women who make extraordinary sacrifices for their children in a time of war. We see it in the resilience of fathers who go out, against the odds, and find food for their families in the midst of conflict.
    We see it among Palestinians who continue to resist despite dying in a pitiless occupation at 20 times the rate of those killed on October 7th. We see it in the courage of those such as “Jews for a free Palestine” who say bravely, “Not in my name”, and in the determination of hundreds of ordinary Capetonians, young and old and of different faiths, to march from Simon’s Town to the city centre for the cause of Palestinian freedom. It is the combined efforts of all these campaigners that have produced, for the first time, a Security Council resolution mandating a ceasefire in Gaza, and we call for that ceasefire to be implemented immediately. If both Israel and Hamas do not put down their weapons, they deserve to become pariahs among civilised people.
    Achievements such as bringing about a ceasefire reflect the stirrings of Easter. New beginnings, shifts in consciousness and new thresholds in history; all proclaim the Easter message.
    Going back to my mother’s story, I remember shaking my head and trying to repeat her words (in Sesotho): “Thabo, omamele ka mafolofolo, ha Moruti a bua nnete. Ho bane otshwanetse ho tshepahala”. The intensity of those profound words kept echoing in my ears. I remember so clearly what the sermon on that Easter Day half a century ago was about, and that was the hope and the assurance that we could trust Jesus to end our apartheid world.
    The entire Easter story is at its core about hope. Hope structures your life in anticipation of the future and influences how you feel in the present. The hope generated on the day I walked to church with my mother  still empowers me now. It enables me, despite the death-dealing of Good Friday, to continue to preach every Easter of the power of the Resurrection. So as we turn our eyes, our hearts and our minds towards the resurrection hope, let us, Listen with curiosity, Speak with honesty, and Act with integrity.
    Over Lent, as opposed to heading off for a solitary retreat of reflection, contemplation and intellectual healing, I embarked on a different journey. Recognising that every sector in our South Africa has both a role and responsibility to shape both the discourse of our democratic landscape and weigh in on South Africa’s future state I embarked on a journey of speaking over the six weeks of Lent to leaders in six sectors. I hope that I indeed listened with curiosity, that I will now speak with honesty and commit to act with integrity in creating a context for hope to be felt throughout God’s world and church.
    As South Africa gears up to mark the 30th anniversary of our liberation, and to hold our seventh democratic election, many of us feel the way the first people we now call Christians must have felt more than 2,000 years ago, on what we now call Good Friday: in despair and devoid of hope for the future. And there is plenty of reason to feel pessimistic.
    Over the past six weeks I have been canvassing the views of leaders in business, education, the media, non-governmental organisations, the faith community, sport and the arts and entertainment industry. Common to all of their feelings is a decline in their trust of politicians and a deep anxiety that no leader, no party they see on the horizon, has the capacity to lead us out of our current morass.
    For the best part of 30 years, most voters have given one political party the trust that it will champion and deliver equality of opportunity, that it will create jobs and defeat inequality. For perhaps 20 of those years, the governing party’s voters have woken up every morning in  the belief that those in power are there for one reason, and one reason only, that is to build a beacon of democracy and good governance, one with the highest standard of living on the continent.
    At the beginning, it seemed those promises were being fulfilled. Between 1994 and 2007, gross domestic product grew an average of 3.6 percent a year. The number of people with jobs rose from eight to 14 million, and average income rose by nearly 40 percent in real terms. But then the trajectory changed. Between 2008 and 2022, average GDP growth dropped to 1.2 percent, the number of people with jobs increased by hardly a million while the population grew by 10 million, and on average people became poorer in real terms.
    But now we are caught in a miasma of corruption, which has become the cancer that permeates every level of our country. In the words of our former president, Thabo Mbeki, his successor set out to destroy the SA Revenue Service, the very institution which gave his administration the financial means to govern. Institutions linked to the State—Eskom, Transnet and others—were looted. This rot has spread down to provincial and municipal level, and in some respects it has its roots in practices which go back the full 30 years of our democracy and further. None of our rulers—including of course those from the apartheid era—can claim a total lack of responsibility for our current plight.
    Not only has the country been devastated by corruption, we also suffer the decay that results from mismanagement. From national to provincial to municipal level, basic maintenance has been neglected, to the degree that many communities are going without water and we can’t drive on many of our roads without potholes damaging our cars.
    Perhaps worst of all, our 30 years of freedom have produced the most unequal society in the world. The elite of all races enjoy salaries which enable them to travel in private vehicles and buy private medicine, to live in private homes with burglar alarms in safe suburbs, and to be protected by private security companies. Meanwhile the poor and the marginalised must depend on run-down public transport, public hospitals that in some provinces are badly managed, over-stretched police and shacks prone to fast-spreading fires in informal settlements.
    As churches and other faith institutions in society, we dare not be neutral in this election. The widening gap in income is a threat to social stability for all of us, whether we are rich or poor. It demands that on May 29, whether voting at national or provincial level, or for an independent candidate, we must cast our vote for the option that will most benefit the poor and the marginalised. The future of all of us depends on it.
    So this election is not simply an election for a party. It is an election which calls us to decide for or against continued corruption, for or against inequality, for or against misgovernance. We need to examine party manifestos, but then—just as important—we need to decide whether we believe the parties are capable of implementing those manifestos. We can judge a party which has had power at a local, regional or national level by its past results, but we also need to ask of parties which have never had power: have their leaders ever shown, in business or their previous jobs, that they have the capacity to do what they say they will do?
    As we contemplate an election in which we have an unprecedented range of new parties to choose from, we need to test the parties against a number of key questions. Some of them are:
    • How will you create equal opportunities for all?
    • How do you propose to reduce polarisation and work collaboratively with others to the benefit of all?
    • What do you as a party see as the specific challenges facing education and what are you going to do to remedy them?
    • What exactly do you plan to do improve the reading skills of learners?
    • How will you combat children dropping out of school early?
    • How will you work with communities and NGOs to create policies that really model equality of opportunity?
    • How do you understand the experiences of people on the margins of our society, and what will you do to bring them into the economy?
    • How exactly do you propose to expand and bring about universal healthcare?
    • What exactly will you do to fix service delivery?
    In evaluating the answers to these questions, we need to decide: Which party do we trust to do what they promise? Which independent candidate do we trust to do what they say they will? In the end, trust is about believing the promises others make.
    There isn’t a more important decision that you will make this year than how you will vote on May 29. The future direction of South Africa rests on your vision of what our state will look like in the future and your judgement of who best can build it. And once a new government is in place, we can’t take our eye off the ball and leave governance up to political leaders. It will be up to every one of us to be vigilant, to remain involved in the political process and to lobby and campaign for the changes we have voted for to be put into effect.
    The season of Easter promises us that this not only can, but that it will happen in South Africa, and that our hopes will be fulfilled.     
    Let me conclude this Easter message with these thoughts. The biblical priorities and hope-filled Easter message in the spirit of both the “Old Struggle” and our “New Struggle” are: we shall overcome the corruption; we will overcome our society’s social indifference; we shall overcome the inequality of healthcare, education and service delivery; we shall overcome the corrosive inequality of opportunity. In the end, good will prevail. Values and principles will prevail. A shared vision and shared purpose for South Africa will prevail. Equality will prevail. Truth will prevail. On the world stage, war and the genocidal killing of civilians will end.
    The stone will be rolled away. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Friday 22 March 2024

The role of the faith community in the public discourse and in shaping South Africa’s future state

 The sixth and final Lenten reflection from Archbishop Thabo Makgoba on the role of different sectors in South Africa. Earlier reflections are all available on the home page of this blog.

The daily lessons which I read as I prepared this column were, at their heart, about the importance of service to people and to all God’s creation, carried out “in remembrance of him”. As religious leaders, such service calls us to stand in the gap that enables the transformation of individuals, societies and oppressive regimes and systems.

This is often unpopular. As Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town...” (Mark 6:4) When in 1989 our Archbishop at the time called for a huge peace march in response to police killings, the young activist Cheryl Carolus demanded: “Who gave you the mandate, Father Desmond?”

But supporting Archbishop Desmond’s position, Gandhi has been quoted as saying that “Those who believe religion and politics aren’t connected, don’t understand either.” Alternatively, as John the Baptist aptly puts it, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy as he preaches and baptises in the wilderness of Judea, “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. (Matthew 3:3)

Yes, we can and must roll up our sleeves as religious leaders and get our hands dirty. But our key role is also to have the theological imagination to articulate and develop paths which lead to God’s justice and peace. I have called this a New Struggle Theology, a theology of equality.

Our mandate is to pursue the justice of God, to put a spotlight on those who are on the periphery; to read the signs of our times and say, “Thus says the Lord.” As we do so, we need to be mindful that we are not the only ones with this calling; that we don’t know everything, nor do we possess all the solutions. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, and as Passiontime reminds us: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”

Last week on Tuesday, together with bishops of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church, I visited the Vatican, where we met and prayed as we renewed our commitment to pursue our vocation to serve especially those who live and die in apartheid contexts—the excluded, those discriminated against, those taken hostage or the relatives of those who have died in conflict. While it was key that we prayed together, we also gained the perspectives of others, and we resolved to seek to act as peacemakers and to continue to do so under the guidance of God.

Throughout our meetings and our prayers, I was intensely aware of our shortcomings, of the enormity of the task we have set ourselves, and of our own need to be equipped for it. But I was also assured by the fact that we are not alone, nor do we need to be self-sufficient; we are part of the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us and empower us.

We need to have the courage to acknowledge our shortcomings and our mistakes, to weep, to embrace our weaknesses and to work to heal our brokenness. Yes, religious leaders do mess up – just like the cunning business people, politicians and leaders of other sectors of society I have been reflecting on this Lent. It pains us when they have hurt instead of healing, when they have destroyed instead of building, when they have betrayed trust instead of building it. Some can be swayed by terrible ideologies that maim, destroy, are genocidal, or are racist, discriminatory and evil. Some are manipulated by the love of power and money and forget their main vocation, to work for the justice of God and the transformation of societies.

Before writing this column, I consulted a number of leaders in various fields on what I should say.  Their rich responses were too numerous to include all of them, but they mainly focussed on what religious leaders should be doing, not only in our churches but also through church NGOs, family trusts and the like, to create public spaces to reflect on ethical and moral concerns.

A family member who supports the SA Communist Party told me that “church leadership” is far too quiet and confused in democratic South Africa. Our views are all over the place, he said, and it is unclear what we stand for. He urged us to adopt a faith leadership manifesto, and at annual conferences to pinpoint one social issue to concentrate on for the next year, then to choose another one the following year.

A devout religious colleague said we are too busy as religious leaders; that we have too little time to pray and reflect deeply on contextual matters, as our predecessors did in apartheid times. This prompted the question: What happened to the “see, judge and act” models for small groups? Yet another respondent, a parishioner, a retired priest and once a liberation fighter in exile, criticised us as just wanting proximity to people and places of power, getting drunk on these associations and forgetting the poor.

A Muslim friend, a former journalist and published author, said she still has hope in the power of interfaith action to foster peace, but urged us to intervene where society hurts the most, and to improve our track record in bringing about gender equality and ending gender-based violence.

A retired bishop from a different denomination noted that religious leaders’ voices have historically been an equalising force for disenfranchised individuals without a voice. His strong criticism of the current political environment underlined the need to continue to play this role. Today's environment, he said, is basically set by political and social networks that have evolved into platforms for fake news and propaganda, empowering disruptive voices, ideologies and messages, essentially trying through illegitimate means to hijack democracy.

Of course, as one would expect, political leaders often dispute the notion that moral and religious convictions should be part of public discourse. But if we were to exclude them, we would cut ourselves off from a wide range of considerations, issues and truths that often matter in the way we govern our lives together. In my lifetime, sharing secular views with a religious overlay has made  for a richer, sometimes disruptive, but clearly higher-level discourse, a better kind of democratic citizenship and the cleansing power of transparency.

Hearing competing viewpoints tests our abilities to be active listeners, focusing on understanding versus replying. It helps us to test our limits, to rise above the crowded field of mediocrity and to find out how far we can go as learners, listeners, and champions of moral and values-based leadership. Most importantly, it allows us to share with each other what we believe, without stereotyping and genuinely searching for what is in South Africa’s best interests.

When South Africa came to a consensus about ending apartheid and delivering full civil rights to all adult citizens, regardless of race or gender, we did so for different reasons. Some advocated the equality of all human beings as children of God. Others argued on the basis of self-evident truths about human nature. Yet others cited the overall increase in happiness that would result from equal treatment. Not everyone accepted the premises of all of these arguments, but that did not prevent us from reaching a common understanding and alignment in which different people accepted the same conclusion from quite different arguments. So there is no objection in principle to religious arguments in political debates.

During the past decade and more, religious leaders have “stood in the gap” to try to transform the lives of individuals and our society in many varied ways. We have undertaken “walks of witness” in Ukraine, in Alexandra in Johannesburg when xenophobia was at its height, in areas of Cape Town lacking proper sanitation and in the Johannesburg city centre after a devastating building fire. We have partnered with others in building school toilets at Jane Furse in Limpopo and in promoting healing at Marikana.

We have, through visits and advocacy, raised the plight of people in Lesotho, the DR Congo, Lesotho, Tigray in Ethiopia and South Sudan. We have raised out voices against corruption in the public and private sectors, advocated sustainable development in the mining sector and lobbied the Paris climate talks.

Just this week, on Human Rights Day, members of different faith groups in Cape Town walked from Simonstown to the city – the equivalent of the length of the Gaza strip – as part of the internationally-organised Gaza Ceasefire Pilgrimage. In May, the SA Council of Churches will co-host with Kairos Southern Africa a Global Israel anti-Apartheid Conference, in which we will engage with representatives of Palestinian churches to find paths to sustainable peace with justice.

And as we head towards elections in South Africa, we will be bringing moral pressure to bear on the process as part of creating a free and fair climate for voting. Apart from calling for special prayers for the election on Sunday May 5th we will act as election observers on May 29th..

During our visit to the Vatican last week, two young ladies approached me and a Roman Catholic bishop, opened a big plastic bag full of rosaries, and asked us to bless them. In unison, we did so in the name of the Triune God. Smiling and thanking us, one of them explained that she was getting married and wanted to give each of her woman guests a rosary.

That episode illustrated the intangibility of how so much of our faith works—a precarious blessing from those who have travelled from afar, the telling of a story by a bride and now she and her guests will share that blessing. On landing in Johannesburg from Rome, I shared the iftar with a friend and colleagues, breaking the Ramadan fast with them. And soon I hope to meet with South African Jewish leaders to discuss our differences over Gaza.

The outcome of such engagements can often not be immediately or easily assessed, and in pursuing them we have to be prepared to be prophets without honour in our own homes. But the reality is that we brought nothing into the world, and we will take nothing out of it, and while we are here we are under a Gospel imperative to model God's love. We will do that by striving together to make the world a more just, a more equal and a better place than we found it.

Ad Laos - To the People of God - March 2024

 As published in Good Hope, the newsletter of the Diocese of Cape Town:

As we approach Holy Week, let me start first by wishing each of you a blessed Easter! May we continue to be the Easter people of God as we bring to all the light and justice of Jesus, especially through serving those on the margins of society.

I write also following a meeting of the Diocesan Standing Committee, where we approved the 2024 budget for the Diocese. The post-Covid picture looks bleak, as the chair of the Diocesan Finance Committee reminded us. The majority of parishes are doing well but the few not doing well are dragging the common pot down so much that we need to take drastic action soon. DSC agreed to set up a body to look at all the pressure points, make us more responsive to the needs of our communities, and turn the situation around. This body will give its first report at the forthcoming Diocesan Synod, which meets from June 13-15th this year.

During this Lent, I continued reflecting in my blog upon various aspects of society through the lens of the week’s readings in the Lectionary. I continued the discipline of not just reflecting for a church audience but also of writing and sharing these thoughts in the wider public space and have enjoyed the feedback and engagement on them. This past week, I shared one on the role of non-governmental organisations. You can read my reflections on the NGO sector as we head towards elections here >>

At the latest meeting of the Synod of Bishops, the key point in a report we received from the Revd Jaques Pretorius, Executive Director of the Anglican Board of Education, was how we can partner with Early Childhood Development (ECD) initiatives by using parish properties to help open ECD centres. In this way, the church can become part of the solution in fixing our education system. (You can read the full statement of the Synod here >>)

At a recent meeting of the National Executive Committee of the South African Council of Churches, we took account of the general sense of anxiety being felt around the country stemming from the fact that the May 29 election will be one of the most contested in our history. (The NEC's statement can be found here >>) As I said at the meeting, we cannot remain blind to this situation. As a result we have appealed to all our member churches to join all other people of faith on Sunday May 5th to pray for a free and fair election. Please join these nation-wide prayers in your parish.

God bless.

††Thabo Cape Town

Friday 15 March 2024

The role of NGOs in the public discourse and in shaping South Africa’s future state

The fifth in Archbishop Makgoba's Lenten reflections on the roles of different sectors of South African society. Previous reflections have covered the areas of  business, education, media and sport.

At the heart of our lessons this week is the message that when we identify and work with those on the margins and periphery of society, we share God’s steadfast love with them. We participate in their vindication; we show God’s mercy and compassion; and we stand in the gap as salt and light to alleviate their pain and suffering.

The non-governmental organisations of which I have been a part have all played such a role. In Johannesburg in the 1990s there was the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women and the Women Against Woman Abuse Project. More recently, my family has sought to promote security, education and social justice through the Archbishop Makgoba Development Trust. Church-based NGOs operate health, environmental, social justice, educational and feeding programmes, while other NGOs which I have supported in one way or another have served a wide variety of citizens' interests, including issues of land restitution, elections and the enhancement of democracy. As South Africa's National Development Plan states, all those bodies have sought to procure social cohesion through active citizenship.

Civil society in South Africa is characterised by an important and powerful NGO sector, one which has demonstrated that with systematic funding and support it can over time drive long-term, sustainable change.

As we consider our choices at the ballot box on May 29, one of the key questions I have is how the different political parties view the sector and how they propose to facilitate its contribution to improving the lives of our people. In order to assess the issues NGOs face, I have interviewed a number of leaders in their fields: a prominent head of a health NGO, a leading development expert, one who runs a funding NGO which facilitates the participation of others in society, the leader of a faith-based NGO working to advance Early Childhood Development and a person who operates another church-based group working in education.

Viewing the sector broadly, our NGOs act as social service providers, as advocates for the environment or for living or work standards, and as catalysts for democratic change. They often represent the interests of citizens who might otherwise be left out of national policy debates, opening the public discourse to people of all economic and social classes and to women and minorities. They allow citizens to improve society by advocating, educating and mobilising attention around major public issues and by monitoring the conduct of government and private enterprise.

But they are hindered by being under-represented in critical spaces of national dialogue. For example at Nedlac, the grouping which is meant to promote interaction between government and other constituencies in society, business and labour is well represented, but community organisations are represented by a narrow set of ANC-aligned quasi-NGOs, such as the South African Youth Council. So the place where a comprehensive national debate and dialogue should be taking pace excludes a key pillar of our society.

This bias was seen during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, when the government turned to business in establishing the Solidarity Fund. This was despite the private sector having little experience in responding to health crises, and our country having a civil society health sector that is world class.

One of the challenges in the relationship between NGOs and government is that they are viewed either as voices opposed to the State, or as agents of service delivery on behalf of the State. This undermines the vibrant contribution that they can make—innovating at the margins of society in ways that can show us where opportunity lies for deep change.

One of the most impressive instances in which different sectors have come together to change behaviour at significant scale has been through loveLife, the youth non-profit set up to combat the spread of HIV which also seeks to advance the total physical, mental and social well-being of young people. Combined with the movement for access to treatment for HIV, it has had a profound impact on the epidemic in South Africa.

Apart from the practical change NGOs can bring about at grassroots level, they have a rich history in South Africa of being the voice of transparency, often revealing publicly what many know but are too afraid to say. Their independence from government and corporate interests give them a real capacity to effectively expand the public narrative, raising critical issues which, even if government and business recognise their importance, they are constrained from initiating debate on themselves. In this way, NGOs often play a mission-critical role of shedding light on obvious socio-political blind spots. This might make being the voice of an NGO risky, but the worse the problem, the more we need our NGOs.

While NGOs are often under-equipped to bring about the kind of long-term change in social norms, attitudes and beliefs that their missions and their standard rhetoric demand, they are well-equipped to play the role of courageous champions of ideas, ideally placed to publicly ask tough questions.

In the democratic era, the investigative journalists of amaBhungane empowered faith leaders to call for an end to corruption in President Zuma’s administration, and later to call for him to resign and for the corrupt to be prosecuted and forced to wear those “orange overalls”. The media and civil society, including faith-based groups, can claim to have played an important role in the establishment of the Zondo Commission.

In an election season, the role of civil society becomes complicated because reason and balanced discourse is often set aside, replaced by polarising political rhetoric. Nevertheless, NGOs need to take the opportunity to ask the parties the tough questions:

  • What lessons have you drawn from the extensive work of communities and NGOs to create policies that really model equality of opportunity? (There is a very good example of the Social Employment Fund, which is modelling a very powerful public-NGO set of partnerships.)

  • What do you as parties see as the specific challenges facing education today and what are you going to do to remedy them?

  • How do you understand and relate to the deep, lived experience of children falling out of the education system, and in the context of this deeper understanding what plans do you have for change over time?

  • How do the parties understand the lived experience of people on the margins of our society, and what plans does each party have for addressing their exclusion and lack of access to opportunity?

  • How can the pursuit of universal healthcare put the experience of patients at the centre of its design, and how are you going to overcome the challenges to its delivery?

  • What do you see as the challenges facing service delivery more broadly, and again, what exactly are you going to do about them?

The objectives of NGOs are to pursue social justice, to be courageous and to challenge especially the powerful, the moneyed, the multinationals, and to hold them to account, to appeal to their consciences, their ethics and their morality in the interests of the poor and excluded.

The world of public discourse—political, social, diplomatic and commercial—has so corrupted language that we are rightly more suspicious of the meaning of the words uttered by protagonists in society than we are convinced of their veracity. So often, language is turned on its head. But NGOs can help each of us begin to think seriously about what action we and our country are called to, and therein lies my hope for the role they can play.

Thursday 7 March 2024

Athletes’ and artists’ role in shaping the public discourse and South Africa’s future

In his fourth Lenten reflection, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba writes on the role athletes and artists can play in society. 

At the heart of a number of our lessons this week are themes of sacrifice, suffering, endurance and achieving the ultimate biblical goal, being made right by God, freely. Among those in society today who often have to be willing to make sacrifices, to suffer and to show endurance—albeit at different levels—are the athletes and artists who distinguish themselves by their achievements.

While not in this week’s readings, of course the popular Pauline line is “I have run the race and I have kept the faith...” (2 Timothy 4:7) With that phrase in mind, ahead of this weekend’s big Cape Town Cycle Tour and as elections approach, in this reflection I want to ask: What role should sportswomen and sportsmen play in our national conversations on politics, race and gender in society, and for the sake of the future of South Africa?

While my parents were physically strong and walked long distances to bus terminals and train stations every day, neither of them were ever sports people. My petite mom loved watching wrestling, boxing and car racing when we finally bought her a TV, but she didn’t take part in sport. However, both she and my dad used to say to us as kids, “Sport builds character and gives courage.” So my elder sister became a great 800m runner and amongst us siblings and our kids, we became athletes in rowing (our son captained his crew), tennis, swimming, hockey, netball, rugby and soccer.

Yes, mom and dad were correct—each one of us has our different qualities of character and varied levels of courage. Preparing this article, I spoke to a rugby player, a woman golfer, a lawyer who works in the music industry and a politician who used to lead sports boycotts in apartheid times and also led the South African Music Association. I also drew on desktop research to develop a deeper understanding of the painful experiences suffered by those in segregated sports. Sadly, in my view our Department of Sports, Arts and Culture is wanting in the task of filling the gap of addressing past inequalities; instead it focuses mainly on photo opportunities when athletes have won trophies.

When individuals whose voices are marginalised—such as people living in poverty, those suffering from inadequate service delivery and inferior education, as well as those who experience discrimination for their race, gender or sexuality—see their issues and concerns reflected in the national discourse, they can be empowered to take action to change the status quo. Public figures can play a key role in directing this discourse, and athletes, with their fame and the adoration they attract, clearly possess the influence to advocate for the voiceless. 

One who writes on his quest for equity in sport, Andrew MacMaster, says that “the personal vulnerability and public voice of athletes make them perfect crusaders for justice” and continues: “Athletes possess one of our country’s most visible platforms and as a result can play a key role in directing public discourse by using their platforms to bring attention to issues facing our under-served communities. They possess the influence to advocate for the voiceless, the marginalised, and their fame... makes them well-suited to this opportunity.”

The Minister of Sport and Recreation in the first Mbeki Cabinet, Ngconde Balfour, sought to deal with issues of equity and visible redress during his time, but the inequality of opportunity for athletes notoriously still persists to this day.

Over and above his captaincy of the Springboks, Siya Kolisi is the sports person most South Africans would want to identify with. Not is he only the most recognised athlete in South Africa, but he is one of the smartest and most articulate South Africans committed to the vision of a new, improved version of our country, and what he does in wider society best epitomises the role athletes can play.

When Covid-19 was rampant, and also when fires devastated shacks in unequal Cape Town, we managed to collect food, clothing and other supplies for victims. But the challenge was, how do we get the supplies to where they were needed? Siya, through his practically-minded foundation, provided us with trucks, thus filling a gap and helping to deliver aid to the most marginalised, nearly destitute people in society.

This one example answers the question, should athletes and artists be part of our public discourse? Yes, of course!

When it comes to artists, one thinks back to apartheid days to recall how the prophetic lyrics of those such as Miriam Makeba, Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa shaped our lives.

Nowadays, the example of Siya Kolisi drives the point home most effectively in our democratic era. Unfortunately, he is an aberration. Why are all our other athletes and artists not fulfilling their roles as outspoken social critics, courageously addressing the inequalities of opportunity?  What are they afraid of?

It is not just their fame that makes them well-suited to this task. Ultimately, the historic dynamic of personal sacrifice in the face of overwhelming opposition that most successful athletes and artists represent make their actions all the more noble, and ultimately more effective in advocating for equal rights and justice.

Unquestionably, there have been too many examples of those who used their platform facing repercussions from the so-called powers that be. Athletes in particular have been targetted for being outspoken.

In my mind, the greatest example was in 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the military on religious grounds. He was subsequently arrested, stripped of his championship title, and banned from boxing in the US for three years. His moral stand was later recognised when he was granted conscientious objector status in 1971. Interestingly, by that time most Americans felt that it had been a mistake to have fought in Vietnam. He became an international icon for social justice and in 1997 was recognised with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.

In the instant that successful athletes and artists discard their individualistic professional identity for a communal one, they humanise themselves to the nation in a powerful and relatable way. In displaying endurance and a willingness to sacrifice, their professional identity becomes subsumed into one of a caring humanitarian.

In South Africa, entertainers such as musicians seem to face less scrutiny for their political actions than athletes. Entire music festivals have been dedicated to protests, and these artists almost certainly suffer fewer professional consequences when they actively use their platforms for advocacy.

Perhaps sports stars are subjected to more criticism on account of sport’s reputation as non-partisan, universally-adored entertainment, a rallying point regardless of ideological differences. While this can explain the backlash athletes can suffer for their protest and activism, it is exactly why we need them to be activists.

The power of disruption is an important one; often those who are oppressed lack access to the traditional channels of change, and the voice of famous athletes can help bring awareness to the toxicity of the status quo. And when they suffer as a result, it helps to highlight the way marginalised communities are held in oppression by unjust and unstable power structures. 

When athletes and artists are willing to risk their images, their pay checks and possibly their entire careers for speaking up for the poorest and most forgotten among us, it makes their statements all the more powerful. And the courage they display when taking such stands models the courage that it took for our forebears to resist and eventually defeat oppression in South Africa.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

Friday 1 March 2024

Is the media fulfilling its role in promoting South African democracy?

By Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

As we observed the second week of Lent, and as the Bishops of the Province met in Episcopal Synod this week to reflect and speak to church and society, our lections demanded of us that we be alert, that we take seriously how our behaviours affect others and, when they are not conducive to abundant life in God, that we amend them.

In the latest of my series of reflections on the state of society from a faith perspective, I examine how the media is taking stock of its role and measuring up to what we require of it in our current circumstances.

It is an unfortunate reflection on the quality of debate in Parliament that real political life in South Africa is to be found on the streets and in the media. Three decades into democracy, as we gear up for our seventh national and provincial elections, we need to ask: are the media facilitating or hindering the growth of democracy in our country?

A decade ago I was privileged to serve under the former Chief Justice, Pius Langa, as a commissioner of the Press Freedom Commission, which was appointed to recommend how best to ensure that the press adheres to the highest ethical standards.

So to help answer my question on the media’s performance, I have solicited the views of a range of media professionals – former editors of print and broadcast media, journalism academics, board members and ombuds – and tested them against the demands articulated by the commission.

In the commission’s report, we defined our primary objective as being “To ensure press freedom in support of enhancing our democracy which is founded on human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedom..."

We were of course guided by the principles of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, including media freedom and the rights of everyone to impart information or ideas.

Now the Constitution does not include in its definition of these freedoms the requirement that speech or private publications need to be fair or balanced, or even that they be truthful. We are free, for example, to promote propaganda in support of our ideas. In recent years, as well as those publications which print propaganda, we have seen the phenomenal growth of social media outlets, which – when used well – have helped ordinary people to realise the Constitution's promise of free speech. (In the church, for example, our members don't hesitate to hold us to account on Twitter and Facebook.)

But propaganda, like the fake news and toxic debate we see on social media, is of no value in promoting human dignity, equality and the advancement of human rights. Nor is it of any use at all in helping voters provide the reliable and truthful information they need to make informed choices at election time.

Fortunately, we have in South Africa private and public media committed under the codes of conduct of the Press Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission to publishing truthful information and diverse views. When operating at their best, they are independently edited by experienced professional journalists who are neither mere tools of their bosses and shareholders, nor hijacked by politicians.

Journalists with inflated opinions of their influence are often brought back to earth by research which says that what they publish rarely changes the minds of their readers and viewers. That said, the media set agendas: they tell us what to think about, how long we should be thinking and talking about something and they can influence how we think about something.

Ideally, they hold those in power accountable and enable democracy by giving voters the information they need to become, as Mamphela Ramphele has said, “active citizens” instead of “passive subjects”. Unlike newspapers during the apartheid era, which were often banned and always constrained by more than 100 laws, they can promote transparency to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

In short, the media in South Africa have demonstrated that they have the power to influence individual beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, choices and decisions. But in one area that is crucial to the effective growth of democracy in South Africa, they fall short: most of our print, online and broadcast outlets speak to or reflect the interests of social and political elites.

In the Press Freedom Commission's 2012 report, we noted that “Diversity of content in the media is essential to ensure that the voices and opinions of all South Africans are heard." When it came to print journalism, we added: "It has been noted that the voices of some sections of the population are seldom heard in newspapers. The increased urbanisation of the print media has resulted from the concentration of both advertising and editorial imperatives on the large urban areas where larger newspapers are situated. Even national newspapers focus more on urban news. This results in fewer voices of rural people being published.”

Has the situation improved since then? There have been some positive developments: online or print outlets financed by philanthropic foundations and trusts which respect the independence of editors, and which – within their limited means – try to publish news about those otherwise ignored.

But traditional print media is in grave financial straits. Newspaper circulations have plummeted in the past decade and although there is growth in online news, it competes with the unreliable content seen on social media. Reporters who continue to travel to smaller towns and rural areas deserve praise and support but many papers cover their lack of ability to put reporters on the ground by running opinion pieces from politicians or academics.

With some exceptions, the media are not good at covering those whom they do not see in front of them – the 40 percent or so who still live in former “homeland” areas. And if you came to South Africa from another planet, you might think you had arrived on another continent, so little news from the rest of Africa – even crisis-hit, war-torn regions – would you see or hear.

The picture in broadcasting is not much better.

A former media executive who helped launch a new commercial broadcast venture tells me that at the outset their stated aim was to give a voice to the marginalised. But within months, the “market” taught them that it was not the marginalised, or even “the workers”, who bought new cars or bakkies – if the station wanted to attract advertising from businesses to sustain itself, it had to avoid antagonising them, so ended up paying lip service to the poor.

For its part, public broadcasting is not realising its full potential. Another former executive gave me chapter and verse of how the SABC’s transformation in the early 1990s from a state broadcaster into a public one has soured.

Under the visionary leadership of the late Zwelakhe Sisulu, the SABC began building a new, inclusive public broadcaster which aimed to develop a professional and fair news service that reached the poorest of communities around the country. But two crucial developments served to shift their focus.

First, political interference began to take place after the 2004 election when, for example, the news department began to spend vast sums, not on getting reporters to rural areas or uncovering problems with poor township schools, but instead on covering senior politicians on myriad overseas trips. Censorship was reinstated, with prominent experts on Zimbabwe banned from the airwaves. Then financial disaster hit during the reign of the political deployee, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

I speak frequently to SABC journalists who are consummate professionals, and broadcasting experts acknowledge that the SABC is challenged not only by poor governance and corruption – its onerous public service mandate is largely unfunded and so it has to rely on advertising for most of its revenue.

But its response to the financial crisis was to undermine the reforms of the 1990s. An example of this can be seen in radio, the medium which can do the most to represent and reflect the interests of the poor.

With about 37 million people relying on it as their main source of news, radio has more listeners than print media has readers, reaching every corner of the country, both urban and rural. In the 1990s, the SABC established an integrated news team that could report all the news to every station in each of our 11 official languages.

But in response to the financial crisis, news and current affairs programmes in prime-time slots were cancelled and the time was given to talk shows. Call-in shows can be deceptive. Listeners may think they are getting “news” but phone-ins are not the same as news reports, which to stand up to scrutiny, have to be verified, balanced, and fair.

Commercial stations, whether private or public, generally fill their time with call-in shows because “talk is cheap and news is expensive.” In effect, listeners provide free content. It is expensive to send reporters out to far-flung, or even local areas.

As a result of this change of focus, it is effectively the elites whose voices get heard: listeners with air-time and the opportunity to call in, politicians, academics and business leaders.

Journalism is a key and central feature of a democracy. Without it, leaders are largely left unaccountable and the voices of the poor are unheard. We have been blessed in South Africa with a free and often robust media which have done an outstanding job in recent years of exposing corruption and misrule, as well as a judiciary with integrity that has withstood political pressures.

But right now, and especially leading up to the May 29 elections, the greatest challenge facing the media is to step away from being an interlocutor between the middle classes – both old and new elites – and reflect those who are still struggling to be citizens.