J&F 100: Contribution of the church to the new South Africa

Spring 1996 just before the end of apartheid Fr Tim Smith SJ, offers some thoughts on the Church in South Africa based on his going round Natal/Kwa Zulu doing voter Education before the recent elections.

Where  are we now?

South Africa is a nation that has just gone through a Revolution. A Revolution that has touched every aspect of our national life, political, social, cultural, economic and religious. And a revolution that has generally speaking been peaceful.  If you don't think it was so peaceful, remember that we could so easily have been Rwanda or Bosnia by now. That was always possible. In fact I think that until the week before the  election  it was more than possible, it was probable. That we didn't become a Rwanda or Bosnia we have to thank the quality of our political leadership, which in my opinion is probably among the best that the world has to offer currently . So let 's thank God for that.

How has this revolution changed our nation?

Politically: from Minority Rule, to Majority Rule
Socially: from Apartheid, to Unity
Economically: from  Third world development, to First world capitalism
Culturally: from Western values, to African values
Religiously: from Christianity, to  Multi-Faith

In some sense the Church has been working towards this revolution for some years, and so is better prepared than many other institutions in our land. e.g. the integration of our schools, our religious communities, our rejection of apartheid, our emphasis on human values etc. But in other ways we also lagged behind, and were tainted by apartheid; e.g. until recently our divided seminaries, our separate churches, white priests ministering to white congregations.

In view of the revolution we have been through, I'd like to look at the challenges we face as a nation, and then at the challenges we face as a Church.

The challenges we face as a nationFr Tim Smith SJ

Building a Nation

The main task now facing the nation is to build unity. The Government of National Unity, brainchild of Joe Slovo, turns out to be a stroke of genius. At one stroke it unites those who have previously been divided, brings all the major parties into government and prevents a Bosnia or Rwanda taking place here, at least for the present. The simple proof of this is the drop in violence since the election. But this is only the beginning. It may be OK for the people at the top to work together, but this has to happen all the way down to the bottom. The model of government of national unity has work right down to local government, to cities and towns and villages, to communities and civic associations and football clubs. And that will take time.

To do this we have to develop a national identity. An identity that's not tied up with narrow  origins  like  Afrikaner  or  Sotho  or Zulu or Coloured or  Xhosa or English,  but is tied up with living in this land. This will take a lot of reconciliation. There are many hurts in all of us, hurts which need to be forgiven. However, there is great example at the top, for us to follow.


When we talk about reconstruction we mean redressing the balances, correcting the injustices, affirmative action. Of coµrse some of the injustices can never be redressed. You cannot bring people back to life; you cannot return all the people to the places from which they were removed and you cannot undo all the hurt and pain that apartheid has caused. But what you can do is to try to make sure they do not happen in the future; and that is where things like equal opportunity, affirmative action, the Land Claims Court and so on, come into play. All the inequalities in education, job opportunities, quality of life, access to things like water, electricity, transport, health care will have to be addressed.
This is what is meant by "Reconstruction".


The ANC's Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) will touch us all of our lives in some way or other. It is a far­ reaching and all-inclusive, highly ambitious plan to redress the imbalances caused by apartheid  and  to  develop  the  potential  of this land. It sets very concrete and tangible goals in many areas: education, health, housing, water, electricity, transport, urban development, rural development, arts science and culture.

These are all tangible concrete things. But perhaps more important than these things will be the intangibles, the things that aremost precious yet more easily lost. And these are the things we value about our fragile new democracy - equality, protection of human rights, freedom of the press, the rule of law etc. These are the things that really need to be developed

One of the best things, maybe the best thing about our new constitution, is Chapter J: Fundamental Human Rights. We've never had such a thing in this land before. The Bill of Rights was drawn up after a lot of discussion, argument and submission from various groups. Much of it is borrowed from the USA, Germany and especially from Canada. It is worthwhile reading.

It will change our law, because it applies to all of our law and all statutes.  It means that every Act of Parliament, every law, every statute even those of Religious Orders, are now subject to it. These human rights  are now entrenched in our legal system , and our lawyers are going to have to  learn  how  to deal with it and how to  interpret  it.  To do this they are going to have to follow  example from other countries, which have Bills of Rights.

This means that we will be building a people-centred culture, not a power or security obsessed one. This is a major departure. It means that the life of any human being, the smallest squatter child for example, has priority of anyone's power and prestige. That is an ideal course, we will fall short of it and there's no guarantee that this government will not abuse human rights, but at least now we have the mechanism to deal with it.

Challenges facing us as a Church

The Church took a leading role in the struggle against apartheid. It was visible on all the front lines. Now the struggle is over. Where do we fit in? This will require some soul-searching and this has already begun. The Church has expertise to offer in many fields. In addition, there is the continued role of being a watchdog for human rights.


The Church is uniquely placed to do some­ thing about reconciliation. We have the spirituality, the tradition and the experience to do something about reconciliation. But be­ fore we can do anything about reconciliation in our wider society we have to be reconciled ourselves. That means in our own local communities, in our religious congregations, with our brothers and sisters in religion.

It's not easy because we all have our own prejudices, our fears, our hurts with regard to each other. We first have to admit these openly, and that can be painful. We all carry baggage from the past. That baggage has to be opened and examined. Having lived in almost hermetically sealed compartments for so long has given us terribly narrow pictures of one another. One of the most enriching things as most of us know, is the experience of cross-cultural contact. It is exhilarating, and frees us from the narrow  confines  of our own culture. But it is also painful. We have already a wealth of experience in this field to share with others. It should perhaps be part of the curriculum of every Noviceship and Seminary to learn another language and culture. To spend time in surroundings other than those we are used to. It is a vital part of our learning to cross the cultural divide.

But we need to remember the painful part of our past experiences too, when religious congregations and seminaries practised apartheid.

Of course when we speak of reconciliation we are not only speaking of races.  We also speak of political parties:  how long will it take to heal the divisions in Natal/KwaZulu between IFP and ANC supporters?  Africa has a remarkable ability to forgive and forget, but also a frightful ability to exact revenge as in Rwanda. Then there are differences between religions, and between the classes, which may be the next big division in our country, between the haves and have­nots. In Soweto, I have in my parish, people who live in tiny two-room houses and have no transport and those who live in mansions and have two, not one Mercedes Benz.

Teaching values

One of the worst things that apartheid di was that it destroyed or weakened our values.  The value of human life, is the obvious one.  But after that it destroyed he value of self-respect, of respect for others, for property, of responsibility for public assets or the value of education, of hard work, of honesty and so on.  Many of these got lost in the struggle. 

We as a church have a unique role to play in teaching values, after all it is what people expect of us. What values should we be teaching?

Respect for human life

Obviously this is the first and most important one. So many of our youth in the townships and in the rural areas, have been so traumatised by what they have been exposed to that they have little or no sense of the value of human life, least of all their own. We have a stronger sense of the value of human life because we know that it is based on God's value of human life. Yesterday I was at Dlamini Squatter camp where thou­ sands of people cross a railway line every day while trains rush through. I learnt that the day before a train had stopped just short of killing a tiny toddler on the line. What was remarkable was that the train had stopped, that the driver had actually cared enough to stop. I remember from working on the railways how little the drivers felt for any people who happened to be on the line when they were driving their trains through. We need to teach again that the value of every little squatter child is the same as our own in the eyes of God.


Where we live in Soweto there’s a property adjacent which used to have a youth club on it. Some youngsters would come every night to play soccer, or use the building for karate or other games. About six months ago, the fence around it disappeared. Within a week, parts of the roof were gone. Suddenly within two weeks the whole roof was gone. Then the windows and door frames went, and then the brick wall started disappearing. Within about two months the whole structure dis­ appeared. Where had it gone? Into the com­ munity - roof here, walls there, windows there. The point was that no one took responsibility for anything there, and so it just vanished.

We have to re-inculcate a sense of responsibility in people. That's not going to be easy. After years of protest, of boycotting, of not paying for services, of regarding all institutions with suspicion, we have to learn to take possession of them. Otherwise we will he back where we started. In religious terms we have to teach people responsibility for their own actions and for the consequences of them. That means not bailing them out when they make mistakes, it means letting them take the rap for mistakes they make, it means not being afraid to challenge people continuously and helping them to grow.


"Liberation before Education". The unsung heroes of the liberation struggle are the many thousands of teachers who stayed at their posts, in the climate of anti-education that existed.

Now the tide has turned. But how will we instil a culture of learning? Some people say it may take two generations. Maybe, but already there are signs that this present generation are more eager to learn. We have a role in re-teaching the value of education.


Another thing which apartheid corrupted was the sense of service. I remember from living in KwaZulu how terribly the ordinary people were treated, not just by their chiefs and overlords, but by both the white and black civil service. Even in the Church you some­ times wonder where the sense of service is, when we ministers lord it over people and behave as if what we had to offer was ours to dispose of as we will.

Spiritual Up-building

We are a traumatized nation. Whether on the side of the oppressed or oppressors, we have been through a struggle, that has deepened us in some ways, but also brutalised us. There is a deep hunger in people for spiritual values. Especially among the young. Young people still be­ long overwhelmingly to churches before they belong to sports clubs, singing groups or political parties. The Church still, amazingly, commands a large audience. And so we have a responsibility to give our people what they are looking for -  access to the real values of the Gospel, to the Lord Jesus and his message of salvation. Not the gospel of reconstruction and development, that they will hear from politicians, nor the gospel of unity they will hear from the government, but the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. That is what we must give them before all else. Amazingly we are still a very religious nation. The State, which professes to be a secular one, is in fact full of dedicated Christians, Muslims and Hindus who firmly believe in their faith and practise it. The Church has still a vital role to play in in­ forming the conscience of the nation. The next five years are crucial, because we shall be writing our final constitution.  The Church must play its  role  in  that  writing, to make sure that Gospel values are firmly entrenched there.

Tim Smith SJ