Prophetic Politics in the New South Africa: Ten Years after the Formal Dismantling of Apartheid, Economic Injustice, HIV/AIDS, and Poverty Stand in the Way of Real Reconciliation-And Present Daunting Challenges for the South African Church

Article excerpt

THE WORLD WATCHED THE 1994 ELECTIONS in South Africa with high hopes as apartheid gave way to a multiracial, democratic government. While the majority of white Dutch Reformed churches had provided a theological justification for apartheid, many other churches and religious leaders--Desmond Tutu, Frank Chikane, and Allan Boesak, among others--played a decisive role in resisting an ideology and government based on racial oppression. Like the black church during the U.S. civil rights movement, these South African churches lent moral credibility and infrastructure to a movement that challenged and ultimately transformed this repressive system.

Since 1994, South Africa has embraced a courageous model of national reconciliation through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which helped shed light on atrocities committed during the apartheid era. The public hearings of the TRC were based on the belief that unearthing the truth would liberate the country from its haunted past. But for most of the black underclass, the prerequisites for achieving real reconciliation include reparations and social justice. Entrenched poverty and the lack of progress in achieving economic justice constitute the Achilles' heel of the new South Africa.

I recently attended a three-day conference in Cape Town in which more than 50 leaders from South African and American civil society discussed racial reconciliation, HIV/AIDS, and community philanthropy. I talked with a range of religious leaders to explore how the prophetic role of the South African church has changed since the fall of apartheid, with a particular focus on the dual crises of HIV/AIDS and poverty that will profoundly determine South Africa's future.

AS AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN minister, I was struck by the profound parallels between post-apartheid South Africa and post-civil rights America. As in the United States, the black South African educated elite have benefited the most from South Africa's new political and social dispensation, while the large and growing black underclass has fallen deeper into joblessness and abject poverty. Most economists agree that South Africa has experienced, at best, halting and uneven progress since 1994.

For example, according to the South African government, the country has managed to retain investor confidence and grow at an annual rate of 3 percent per year, with an estimated 10 million people gaining access to fresh water, 4 million to electricity, and 1.5 million to new homes. But recent estimates by the United Nations Development Program show that the proportion of people living in poverty--almost half the population--has not changed dramatically between 1996 and 2001. Over the last nine years the unemployment rate has steadily increased, with between 20 to 42 percent of the labor force caught in a vicious cycle of unemployment, according to a May 2004 U.N. report.

The church operates at the crossroads of these and other harsh realities, including a failed land reform policy, an epidemic of violence, and widespread nihilism in the face of little economic growth. According to Bishop Ivan Abrahams of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, "the socio-economic legacy of apartheid has proved to be intractable. Therefore the church must be the new wine and bring new wineskins."

The concentration of power within the African National Congress (ANC) compared to other opposition parties is another reminder of the need for an independent and prophetic church voice. With the 1994 inauguration of President Nelson Mandela, church leaders were made a more formal part of the decision-making apparatus of the ANC. President Thabo Mbeki now meets with religious leaders through a religious roundtable four times a year. It would be unwise for the church not to utilize this access to key leaders, say many religious leaders, particularly when many of their former comrades are now a part of the government. "Churches can't just have just an adversarial relationship [with government]," says Bishop Abrahams. …