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Quick Takes

South Africa—Twenty Years Later (by Stephen Martin)

And so it was this past Easter Saturday that thousands of South Africans, supported by religious leaders, “evoke[d] the spirit of the 1980s, when the faith community intervened to promote and defend democracy.”[2] Leading the procession was the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba.

“Some weeks ago, a number of us gathered on the steps of St George’s Cathedral where our predecessors stood during the apartheid era. There we stood in silence under the banner, ‘A Flower for Thuli, A Message for the President’, referring to the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, and her report on the upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s private residence at Nkandla. [Now] we have decided to pluck up the courage that the times demand of us and to invite the people of Cape Town to join us on a Procession of Witness from District Six to Parliament, with the aim of calling upon our leaders to live up to the national values established by the Constitution.”[1]

And so it was this past Easter Saturday that thousands of South Africans, supported by religious leaders, “evoke[d] the spirit of the 1980s, when the faith community intervened to promote and defend democracy.”[2] Leading the procession was the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba. Also in the procession were two emeritus archbishops, Desmond Tutu and Njongonkulu Ndungane, veterans of marches of years past. The immediate cause was a report from South Africa’s Public Protector, slamming the misspending of public funds at the president’s private home. The deeper issues were long-standing: corruption, cronyism, and neglect of promises to address the endemic poverty and suffering in South Africa: a society once a symbol of hope but one of the most unequal in the world.

South Africa was born again in 1994, a global symbol of racial reconciliation, the final nail in Africa’s century long struggle to free itself from European colonialism. Twenty years ago this past Sunday (April 27) a ballot box represented equality, voting a ritual act of inclusion. The world watched snaking lines of humanity encountering each other across race, class, and credal lines. The kings of the earth came in procession to see this new birth. Many of those who were given the ability to participate in the political process for the first time in their lives were unable to read or write–the legacy of a grossly unequal education system. They made a simple ‘x’ next to a photo of their chosen party’s leader. With other South Africans they returned to shantytowns and suburbs, to condos and kraals, confident that their worlds had changed.

The church was there too. Having taken to the streets to compel the apartheid government toward this moment, churches had been voter educators, election and peace monitors, and hosts of party debates. The church had also become something different during that time: spaces of exclusion (it should not be forgotten that apartheid began in segregated communion, and that resistance to racist laws was tepid at first) becoming openings for inclusion. Three days after the elections were pronounced ‘free and fair’ a purple clad Archbishop Tutu introduced to the world “our brand new, just out of the box President.”[3]

A honeymoon period ensued in which South Africans basked in the glow of the world’s admiration. People came from far and wide to learn the ways of reconciliation. Mandela and Tutu engaged in a series of symbolic acts, including blessing the 1995 Rugby World Cup (a game notorious for its reinforcing of apartheid restrictions, and equally for global boycotts), They inaugurated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. On the more material front homes were being raised, infrastructure built, and programs for social transformation initiated. The face of South Africa changed virtually overnight from TV presenters to corporate icons. “Simunye” and “ubuntu” were spoken in seminar rooms and board rooms. Cultural crossovers became the norm (I recall a fascinating concert featuring a classical guitar/“bushman’s bow” duet).


A shadow lurked behind the scenes in the form of HIV/AIDS. But even that seemed surmountable in the light of the new.

But then people began to notice something. The newly elected government which initially had sought to embrace the widest spectrum of constituencies (including old apartheid-era politicians in significant positions) became more and more like the old. Contracts were given to companies friendly to the ruling ANC, and positions in the civil service to those with “struggle credentials” rather than basic competencies. Government officials moved into mansions abandoned by the old elite, dressed in the finery of European fashion, and travelled in bullet-proof Mercedes’ in “blue light” convoys.

And then there was the arms deal, the “original sin” of the new South Africa, as Desmond Tutu called it. Like that first sin in the Garden of Eden, this is not “original” in the chronological sense, but in the paradigmatic. In the arms deal, South Africa ceded its acclaimed moral high ground for the murky cesspool of the international arms trade. The deal itself involved nearly $5 billion in new and upgraded military equipment, in exchange for “offsets” that benefited companies with ties to the government. Further allegations of bribery (as high as $300 million) have implicated people in the highest levels of government, including the current President Jacob Zuma. Successive attempts to bring the accused to trial have been blocked by government.

The arms deal was also beyond the paradigmatic. As former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein points out, virtually at the same time as the contracts were being signed, the Mbeki government announced that it could not afford antiviral medication to keep the five million AIDS sufferers in the country alive.[4] Estimates are that over 300,000 deaths could have been prevented. The failure to deal with the pandemic crippled the economy as well. But it did more than this: it destroyed hope.

In 1998 the steps of St. George’s Cathedral saw the beginning of a movement to promote Treatment for HIV/AIDS sufferers. The Treatment Action Campaign began there in 1998, and grew to be the model for a series of South African “service delivery” protest movements. Tutu’s successor Archbishop Ndungane would become its patron. The TAC mobilized successfully in getting the Constitutional Court to rule against the government, which eventually led to the government reversing its stance on AIDS treatment. It was a significant victory, especially for civil society working with constitutional instruments. But too late to save so many.

And now Nkandla, President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Dubbed “Zumaville” by The Mail and Guardian,[5] its upgrades include the $20 million in security upgrades and $55 million to tar a private road. It resembles a fortress of luxury surrounded by poverty and squalor. Indeed, the medical, police, and transport facilities installed behind the security fence are desperately needed by the surrounding communities. But they are inaccessible. Nkandla, too, is paradigmatic.

The Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, was mandated to investigate allegations of improper spending and misleading the public. During her investigation, she was viciously attacked by government. There are allegations that her life was threatened. Members of civil society, including churches, sprang to her defense. Madonsela’s report was damning. She found that not only were the expenses far beyond what was reasonably required, but Zuma himself was compromised in that he was “the guardian of resources of South Africa in addition to being the beneficiary of public privileges.”[6]

There have been other moments of notoriety, most notably the mowing down of striking miners by police at Marikana in 2012, an incident eerily reminiscent of the Sharpeville massacre of March, 1960. But Nkandla has focused attention like nothing else because of the direct involvement of the presidency.

The elections which will be contested on May 7 will be the fourth since 1994. They will be the most contentious yet, and show a marked contrast to those twenty years ago. Far from a symbol of inclusive diversity, the run-up to them has shown the restless anger of a population more fragmented ideologically than 20 years ago, but more unified in their dissent. New populist parties, including that of “tenderpreneur” and former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, are determined to chip into the ANC’s majority. In the meantime, a movement including two former ANC cabinet ministers has arisen to encourage South Africans to protest government failure by spoiling their ballots, an act of profound desecration in the light of 1994.[7] Most expect the ANC to retain its majority, though with diminishing numbers. But will the diminishment be because people are voting for other parties? Or will it be because people are losing interest in government as an engine of social change, and simply abstaining?


There are numerous diagnoses of the roots of the problem on offer. Some say that it’s simply a matter of power (which is considered always bad) corrupting well-intended people—a kind of “fall” narrative. Former Methodist Church President (and deputy chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) Alex Boraine claims that the paranoia about “counter-revolutionary forces” which flowered in the post-Mandela years along with the valuing of party loyalty above all else, is rooted in the practices of the ANC while in exile.[8] Human rights abuses in ANC camps were documented by the TRC (which is one reason why the ANC refused to implement the Commission’s recommendations, after trying to scupper the publication of the Commission’s Report). The “fall” then goes deeper. Historian Colin Bundy identifies the state itself as the problem, and the fact that its structures remained virtually intact from apartheid to the new regime. The state post–1994 was simply “under new management,” and global market forces shaped the purported agenda of liberation into liberalization.[9] The best intentions mattered not. The ANC thought it was ending an old drama and beginning a new one. In fact it was being co-opted into the very thing it had resisted.

This latter analysis is not far off the theological mark (though it’s made by a materialist historian). There is something about the world as it is [presently] constituted that prevents the kind of closure South Africa longed for twenty years ago. We live “during the world,” in the words of Charles Mathewes.[10] And the world must be “endured” this side of the eschaton. The world is ever “under new management,” but it is always the world, the “not yet” of the kingdom. No contingent figuration during the world can equate to or bring about the Kingdom of God. That’s not to say that all contingent figurations are equally distant from the Kingdom. Jesus himself (Mark 12:34) said it is possible to be “not far” from it. Some political settlements are better than others, and these “better” provide an analogy wherein we glimpse that Kingdom in the struggles of the world. The “enduring” presence of the church, both in its liturgy and its missio, is the hermeneutic of that struggle, the sign that there is healing to come. Hope, in spite of the evidence, is not in vain.


Which brings us back to Easter Saturday. Christians perform Easter Saturday as the in-between day. Lingering is the memory of the Good Friday liturgy, with its stripped-bare altar, sober hymnody, and rituals of complicity and responsibility. Ahead is the glorious celebration of Sunday, of resurrection and transformation. Standing between is fire and darkness. The dramatic tension, what Mathewes (after St. Augustine) calls distensio, is palpable. Christians inhabit the tension of Holy Saturday every liturgical year. But Holy Saturday is also the pattern for every day of every year, especially where politics is concerned. It is a tension which lives between the despair of Good Friday (in a world where the glory of Christ has been revealed) and the triumph of Easter Sunday (in a world where squatters and squalor, where corruption and cronyism, continue). And the church dare not lessen that tension either through naively identifying the fulness of the kingdom with any one regime (however noble its identifications) or by cynically reciting “same old, same old” before the world.

On the night of the Easter vigil, as he and other sore-footed congregants gathered at the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr in the heart of Cape Town, Makgoba intoned these words, “On this most holy night… I pray for the transformation of our country, especially at this time, [and as] we prepare for the celebration of our twentieth year of democracy and liberation, let us also hold a vision before us, of the resurrected Christ who has overcome. Let us approach those places and issues, the tombs, with renewed courage, and ask the difficult questions as we prepare to go out to inflame others with Christ our light.”[11]

Indeed, may it be so, not just in South Africa, but everywhere the risen Christ is named.


Stephen W. Martin is Associate Professor of Theology at King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta.  He completed his Ph.D at the University of Cape Town in 1999, and has written extensively on the South African experience, including the book Faith Negotiating Loyalties: An Exploration of South African Christianity Through a Reading of the Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008), and the article “Civic Sacrament and Social Imaginaries in Transition: The Case of the Churches and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Political Theology 12.3 (2011) 386-418.


[1] Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. See “Religious leaders announce ‘Procession of Witness’ from District Six to Parliament,” available at http://archbishop.anglicanchurchsa.org/2014/04/religious-leaders-announce-procession.html. Published April 15, 2014. Accessed April 27, 2014.

[2] “From Standing for the Truth to Standing Up for Good Governance,” available at http://archbishop.anglicanchurchsa.org/2014/04/from-standing-for-truth-to-standing-up.html. Published April 16, 2014. Accessed April 27, 2014. The Standing for the Truth Campaign was a series of actions led by churches and other religious communities in the run-up to the 1989 elections, which would turn out to be the last apartheid elections.

[3] Personal recollection.

[4] Andrew Feinstein, After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey Inside the ANC (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007).

[5] The Mail and Guardian is one of the top investigative newspapers in South Africa. See its special site on Nkandla at http://mg.co.za/report/zumaville-a-special-report. Accessed April 27, 2014.

[6] “Damning Nkandla report finds Zuma must pay upgrades,” available at http://www.enca.com/south-africa/damning-nkandla-report-finds-zuma-must-pay-upgrades. Published March 19, 2014. Accessed April 27, 2014.

[7]  “ANC stalwarts lash out at Zuma regime,” http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/anc-stalwarts-lash-out-at-zuma-regime–1.1676666#.U13H817Gbtk. Published April 16, 2014. Accessed April 27, 2014.

[8] Alex Boraine, What’s Gone Wrong? South Africa on the Brink of Failed Statehood (New York: NYU Press, 2014).

[9] Colin Bundy, Short-Changed? South Africa since 1994 (Johannesburg: Jacinda, 2014).

[10] Charles Mathewes, A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[11]  “Sermon at Easter vigil, St. George’s Cathedral,” available at http://archbishop.anglicanchurchsa.org/2014/04/sermon-at-easter-vigil-st-georges.html. Published April 20, 2014. Accessed April 27, 2014.Accessed April 27, 2014.


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