Religion and Reconciliation in South Africa: Voices of Religious Leaders

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To read the original in a PDF format, click here. To receive whole copies of future issues, subscribe here. Joshua, had built up a flamboyant Pentecostal-style ministry that drew adherents from across Africa. At first Nigeria declined offers of help from South Africa, and there were allegations that church workers had chased away rescuers.

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I was visiting South Africa at the time and witnessed the expressions of anger in the media and the hints of government frustration. A week passed before Nigeria allowed in a team of South African experts. Soon afterwards a South African Air Force plane was sent to bring home 25 injured survivors. One of the surprises for South Africa was the number of its people who were visiting Lagos to seek assistance from Joshua.

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Large groups were flying to Lagos for healing or counsel. Why, South Africans wondered, had so many of its people travelled so far looking for help? It became clear that there were other church leaders like Joshua in South Africa itself, sometimes building up huge congregations based in part on the power of their personalities. People were flocking to these African-style charismatic churches. To group them as charismatic is only a useful shorthand. These churches could also be called independent and evangelical.

The founder often has a vision or dramatic experience which he occasionally she regards as a call. The worship style emphasizes speaking in tongues, dramatic exorcisms, prophecy, and discernment. The Old Testament is as important as the New. Services are loud and characterized by a vivid emotionalism that utilizes faith healing and oral testimony.


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Numbers are hard to ascertain because the South African census did not include religion, but research suggests that Pentecostal churches are growing at around , members a year. Since the end of apartheid, the number of these churches has increased greatly. Some are small, a few dozen adherents meeting under a tree.

Some are not self-starts but affiliates of Nigerian or American ministries.

Q1. Apartheid as a Christian ideology/Afrikaner religion

The explosive growth of these churches raises questions, some unsettling, about the new South Africa, concerns exacerbated by media reports of exploitative pastors within these new congregations and of bizarre requests being made, for example: asking congregants to drink petrol or swallow a snake. This explosive growth of an exuberant, largely indigenous Pentecostalism is one of the signs of the times. Exploitative pastors and cult personalities often find more willing followers among the emotionally and economically vulnerable.

In South Africa, this desire appears to cut across demographic boundaries. Although most of those attending these new churches are black, observers have noted that white Afrikaners are also receptive. The Springbok national rugby team is hero-worshipped by many white South Africans, so there was astonishment when it emerged that previous visitors to T. Joshua in Lagos had included two former Springboks. Does all this point to a spiritual crisis in South Africa today? The question wafts unspoken from the pages of R. The Looming Crisis. Or nearly. But this same analysis points implicitly towards a vacuum at the place where morality, family life, and social conscience all interact.

This vacuum means that South Africans live in a society scarred by corruption, precarious healthcare, and widespread violence—in other words, they are living a spiritual crisis, indeed. After the end of apartheid it was not supposed to be like this. The ANC regarded itself as occupying the moral high ground. It had replaced an entrenched minority white rule that had disempowered and humiliated the black majority.

With Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa, the nation had a leader of dignity, courage, and integrity who worked for reconciliation. But this moral heritage has been squandered. The South African media report almost daily on a parade of corruption scandals. It seems that under the ANC there has been rampant peculation in public office, in fact outright theft from the fiscus. The bigger picture may be even more alarming. The slim tax base is strained by parastatal industries leeching money and a bloated, unproductive public salariat itself further undermined by nepotism.

A balance of payments crisis is also likely. South Africa has been over-dependent on extractive industries and has been hit hard by the drop in commodity prices, even as it imports oil and consumer goods. The only recourse will be borrowing on the international money market. Johnson predicts that in time South Africa will have to turn to the IMF, which will demand structural change that the ANC will probably be unable to deliver.

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One possible outcome is what he calls a Mugabe-style Zimbabweanisation of South Africa. If he is correct, then the ANC government is in denial, or worse, misleading the country about the true state of affairs. The people of South Africa are under pressure. Other applicants openly acknowledged that they were motivated to come forward only because of possible prosecution—again, the TRC never required remorse as a condition of amnesty. Of course, these responses do not suggest an intersubjective encounter.

Despite these challenges, the AC hearings did enable some perpetrators to reenter post-apartheid society with a fresh start, which has had a profound effect on the constitution of a new South African moral community. On the one hand, the HRVC hearings empowered victims and survivors by legitimizing their personal, and in many cases religious, narratives. On the other hand, the AC hearings not only functioned as a means of granting legal amnesty and a new status to perpetrators, but it also helped restore a number of perpetrators to moral community and thus to the moral debate about the future of South Africa.

In effect, exhuming the past and arguing about it from different perspectives is not simply remembering what happened. Perhaps more than any other single institution in apartheid South Africa, the South African Council of Churches SACC , which consisted of 20 member churches, including the large Presbyte- rian, Methodist, and Anglican churches, wielded tremendous social and political power.

With some 12 to 15 million members of whom 80 percent were black in the s, SACC became an outspoken oppon- ent of apartheid during the tenure of its general-secretary Desmond Tutu — By , and following a declared state of emergency, a group of mainly black theologians published the now-famous Kairos Document, which spelled out in theo- logical language the injustices of apartheid.

Because the churches had been such a potent force in civil society under apartheid, they were one of the few institutions that had both the organizational capability and the infrastructure to assist in establishing and conducting a truth commission. At the outset, the appointment of Tutu as chair and Boraine as deputy chair of the TRC gave a clear signal that the new government required the input of religious organizations.

As the TRC proceeded, the churches typically offered their services in conducting interviews with victims and survivors, transcribing state- ments, and acting as translators. As a structural issue, then, the involvement of religious organizations was crucial to the work of the TRC.


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  8. First, non- Christian organizations, including the smaller Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and indigenous communities, could have boycotted the Commission because of its overtly Christian character. Second, the black Christian churches and other groups critical of apartheid could have thrown their support behind the ANC and become an arm of the state, much as the Dutch Reform churches had become under the NP. Third, the theolo- gically conservative Christian churches could have balked at the idea that the churches were mixing in politics.

    At the time of transition, a number of conservatives feared that the churches were going to be co-opted into a debased secular government that used theological language only for legitimacy. Despite a number of public denunciations from certain black theologians and Afrikaner churchmen, the vast majority of churches and other religious communities chose to participate in the TRC process by offering statements in the Faith Communities Hearings in The Final Report, prepared by the Research Institute on Christianity in South Africa RICSA , indicated that the Commission recognized the importance of transitioning religious institutions into a new political reality by pro- viding them the public space to air their own experiences under apartheid.

    The RICSA report was especially appreciative of those groups who had the courage to apologize for supporting, often through their silence, the oppressive regime. Yet, it also lamented that, for a number of organiza- tions, the transition since had resulted in a disengagement from the democratic process. As an element of a transitional justice strategy, the inclusion of religion as a part of civil society transition can be a key component in building a sustainable peace and creating a democratic culture.

    To be sure, this process does require some reassessment of current thinking on the role of civil society. In her book Inclusion and Democracy , Young examines the ways excluded communities are handled in already- existing democracies. The tension created in South Africa was that the civil society associations that had been critical of the NP and apartheid were now in a position of strength. By becoming involved in the government-backed TRC process, then, these groups ran the risk of becoming instruments of the new state.

    For the TRC framers, though, this risk had to be taken in order to promote democratic debate in various sectors of South African society.

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