National church leaders gather to reflect on 20 years of democracy in South Africa and the challenges that still remain for the country
As South Africa celebrates two decades of democratic freedom this year, National Church Leaders gathered together in Johannesburg this week to reflect on the critical role of the church in today’s society, and the considerable challenges still facing the country that need long-term, effective, and undoubtedly, innovative solutions. There was a recognition on the part of all those leaders in attendance that the past 20 years of democratic freedom has led to a fundamental change in our country, bringing many positives to the lives of South Africa’s citizens. Today, more people have access to basic services that are improving their quality of life, more opportunities are being created for people to thrive in society, and the country’s reputation and standing in the global community has been restored.
Yet, this is not a time to rest on our laurels as a country and a society. There is still so much to do if we are to heal the pain that still exists in the lives of so many, and if we are to repair our broken communities and restore a genuine hope in the future for a better and more just life for all. South Africa is still experiencing serious challenges in a number of areas. For example, a large proportion of our citizens are still living in poverty, without access to proper housing and basic services. Many are unemployed, in particular our youth, with the latest global statistics reporting that South Africa has the third highest youth unemployment rates in the world, with over 50% out of work. Each day, the country is confronted by the challenges and terrible consequences of crime, corruption and fraud, all of which contribute to a broken society. Finally, as the country prepares to commemorate 16 Days of Activism next month, we have to recognize that the scourge of violence against women and children still plagues our society and destroys innocent lives, and behavioural attitudes on the part of men have to change. It is against this backdrop that the Church has an increasingly important role in our society to act as a vocal moral compass. It has to speak out about the challenges and issues that confront South Africa moving forward, and challenge those who refuse to act or change their attitudes. The Church has a responsibility to give voice to those who cannot articulate their suffering, or express their aspirations for their future, and that of their children.
As we look back on the past 20 years, we must caution against romanticizing democracy against the very real backdrop of the vast majority of black South Africans still experiencing the pain, suffering and exclusion of being trapped in poverty and inequality. To the world, South Africa may be regarded as a beacon of democratic freedom and hope, known colloquially as the ‘rainbow nation’, but the reality is our country has many shades of grey, reflecting the social evils we are producing and that need to be countered. We also need to protect the very essence of our democracy, our Constitution and its principles and values, recognizing that we all have a responsibility to uphold those principles and values in our day-to-day lives. Our government also has a responsibility to lead by example, following parliamentary procedures and fulfilling their own duties by demonstrating leadership, a commitment to accountability and transparency, and a service to country and citizens, rather than to personal agendas or elite society. All South Africans need to recognize that they have a duty to be active citizens, giving life and meaning to the Constitution as the embodiment of our democracy. In this regard, citizens need to recognize the importance of defending those who fight to protect our democratic freedom and rights. An example of this can be seen in current need to defend the Public Protector and her office against the political onslaught they are experiencing in the wake of amongst others, the “Nkandla-gate” scandal.
As Church Leaders in South Africa, we also have a responsibility to engage in dialogue with all sectors and role-players on major policies such as the critically important National Development Plan (NDP). South Africa’s economic transformation, and with it the much needed foundations for achieving greater social progress and meeting our human development goals, lies in our ability to effectively implement the NDP. It is the innovative framework that has the potential to achieve real socio economic growth and transformation in our country. As an influencing body of leaders, we understand the meaning and value of active citizenship and the importance of strategic partnerships between different sectors, all of which form the basic framework of the National Development Plan. The role of faith networks, civil society, and business, in the implementation of the plan is to ensure that benefits should reach local communities. As a result, we are resolved to enhancing our active engagement with the National Planning Commission, government and other key stakeholders, in order to make real and positive change happen in our society.
As a responsible, caring society, we also need to recognize that our children are this country’s future, and as Church Leaders in South Africa, we have a serious concern about education, particularly around the delivery and output of our basic education in this country. In our role as influential leaders in society, we have resolved to continue working with all stakeholders, including government, unions, civil society, etc., to bring about the necessary change that will ensure the future of our children’s education is as bright as their aspirations. As part of this commitment, Church Leaders have decided as a group, to engage with the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and other role players as a matter of urgency. In the same vein, more work needs to be done to inculcate a greater understanding in our society of the importance of Early Childhood Development (ECD), in all the aspects of education, health services, nutrition, etc.
There also needs to be a greater recognition that more work needs to be done, and greater action taken, in improving the effectiveness of this country’s social and welfare policy. In the same regard, there is a current crisis relating to the current underfunding of social welfare services delivered by faith networks and NGOs in South Africa. These networks and organizations play a critical role in safeguarding the health and wellbeing of impoverished communities and citizens in this country, each and every day. More has to be done in terms of providing the essential resources required, to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable in our society receive the necessary support and care to survive and thrive.
The issue of safeguarding health is one that is making headline news around the world at the current time, focusing on the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa and its impact on the continent as a whole. Church Leaders expressed appreciation for South Africa’s response to assist, and appealed to the regional and international communities to faster mobilize more resources (finance and staff) to fight the disease, recognizing that it affects all of humanity. There was also a unified warning to all citizens, not just here in South Africa, but across the continent, to guard against the stigmatization of patients, especially those living in the affected areas. It is important that citizens take the responsibility to educate themselves about Ebola, to understand the disease and the conditions which allow it to spread, and to show empathy for those that are impacted.
On the subject of health, there is an identified need to strengthen primary health care through partnerships in this country. By seeking new and innovative ways of stimulating mutual cooperation between different sectors in order to address the critical shortage of medical staff (doctors and nurses) in South Africa, we can look to improve access to healthcare for the most needy citizens. To support this process, greater attention needs to be given to promoting and advancing healthier lifestyles in our communities, our schools and in our family environments. In this regard, the Health Literacy Programme has a great role to play, run in partnership with Medical Faculty, Pretoria University, and the Department of Health). In terms of addressing HIV/Aids in South Africa, Dr Erasmus Morah, Executive Director of UNAIDS, commended South Africa for doing well in treatment roll-out, but warned of the danger of complacency. The rate of new infections, currently around 460 000 per year, reminds us that prevention programmes are not effective. He also posed the challenge for Church Leaders to engage with some practices of faith healings that are detrimental to medical treatment of HIV/Aids patients. The challenge going forward is to improve the access of civil society networks to funding to continue their work on grassroots level.
The tragedy of those who died in the recent guesthouse collapse, attached to the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Nigeria, was also discussed by Church Leaders. Efforts by the South African government to ensure that the remains of those who died are transferred to South Africa and their families, were also commended. However it remains important that pressure be kept on the Nigerian authorities to speed up the process.
Other important areas for discussion tackled at the gathering of Church Leaders included: addressing concerns about the current energy policy, particularly in relation to nuclear energy and fracking, which are not environmentally responsible and may destroy the living chances of future generations. The importance of food security and land redistribution and use in South Africa was also discussed. Finally, deep concern has been expressed about the current crisis in the postal service and how it is negatively affecting the poor, the elderly and students, apart from the damage it is inflicting on the economy. The lack of responsible and prudent leadership in this state entity (and others), is of great concern – not only are essential services disrupted, but scarce funding that could have been used to fight poverty are lost in this way. As Church Leaders, we urge government to do what is necessary to resolve this and other crises that are negatively impacting on our country and the lives of its citizens.
Notes to Editors
The participating National Church Leaders included the following:
Archbishop Dr. Thabo Makgoba – Anglican Church of Southern Africa; Chairperson of NCLC
Archbishop Dr. Zandisile Magxwalisa – Jerusalem Church in South Africa
Rev. Mukondeleli Ramulondi – Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa
The Most Revd Bishop Lunga ka Siboto – Ethiopian Episcopal Church
Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa – Methodist Church of Southern Africa / SACC
Bishop Nkosekhaya Dikana – Word of Life
Bishop Sonwabo Dlula – RAMSA
Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana – Ethiopian Episcopal Church / SACC
Prof. Nico Koopman – Faculty of Theology – Stellenbosch University
Bishop Melumzi Norhushu – Ebenezer Christian Church
Rev. Gosekwang Seane – Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa
Prof Mary-Anne Plaatjies Van Huffel – Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa
Rev. Mzukisi Faleni – Presbyterian Church of Africa
Rev. Buhle Mkiva – RAMSA
Dr. Donald Katts – Volkskerk van Afrika
Dr. Frank Chikane – AFM International / SACC
Dr. Renier Koegelenberg – EFSA/ NRASD
Prof. Welile Mazamisa – EFSA/NRASD
Rev. Lungile Mpetsheni – Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa
Rev. Mkhuseli Dukwana – Presbyterian Church of Africa
Rev. Vuyani Nyobole – Methodist Church of Southern Africa
Rev. Willie Van Der Merwe – Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa
Rev. Charmaine Morgan – Methodist Church of Southern Africa
Rev. Moss Ntlha – The Evangelical Alliance of South Africa
Rev. Canon Desmond Lambrechts – Anglican Church of Southern Africa
Pastor. Hermy Damons – International Federation of Christian Churches
Rev. Senamo Molisiwa – CAIC
Rev. Horst Muller – Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa
Rev. Luvuyo Makalima – Baptist (Calvinist)
Pastor Xola Skosana – Way of Life
Mr. Marcus Van Wyk – SACLI
Mr. Miles Giljam – SACLI
Mr. Henry Jeffreys – Journalist and analyst
Endorsed by the South African of Council of Churches (and the National Executive Council of SACC) and Church Leaders’ Forum (CLF)