SOURCES OF POWER AND HOPE:
from South Africa
Denise M Ackermann1
What sources of power and hope have I been able to draw on during South
Africa’s recent turbulent history? My attempt to answer this question
is that of a Christian theologian, whose ancestors have lived in South
Africa for 315 years. Looking back on my life I see it divided into two
distinct eras: apartheid and post- apartheid South Africa with 1994 as
dividing line. Most of my life has been lived under apartheid –
the whole middle forty years of it, in fact. It was a time of conscientizing,
initially slow, but as wave upon wave of oppression followed, my own awareness
of injustice and the pressing need for change became the focus of my actions
and my hopes.
A. Stories from pre-1994 South Africa.
1. Christian Institute and Beyers Naudé
“There is a fascination about individuals who pit themselves against the might of a state, particularly when this involves a spiritual rebellion against their own community, with all the ostracism and pain that this brings,” writes Peter Randall in an essay on the life and work of Beyers Naudé.2 Such individuals crop up in the histories of different societies. South Africa has been blessed to have individuals who have pitted themselves against the might of the state, women such as Emma Mashinini, Albertina Sisulu, Helen Joseph and Mama Zihlangu, and men such as Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. What sets Beyers Naudé apart is the fact that he was compelled to take up a stance against his very own community and to pay the particular price that such action demands.
Who was Beyers Naudé? Born on 10 May 1915 in a parsonage of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), from an impeccable Afrikaner Calvinist background, he became a leader in the white DRC church and then gave up all the privileges that this entailed to start the Christian Institute (CI) in the late 1960’s, an organization that was distinctly anti- apartheid by championing justice for all. In the CI, I met an eclectic group of Christians some of whom were members of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), who spoke about liberation and black theology, poetry and drama and who openly envisaged a future in which black people would exercise political power. Those were heady days. Not surprisingly they came to an end abruptly when the CI was banned in October 1977. The above few sentences do not communicate the excitement and the dangers of those times. The CI’s Cape Town offices were twice set alight; shots were fired at the home of Theo Kotzé, its director in the Western Cape and a leading light in the anti-apartheid struggle who eventually went into exile. Beyers Naudé’s passport was confiscated; ties between the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and those in South Africa were broken, and the Soweto riots of 1976 shocked the world. In 1976 the security police continued their harassment of the CI, regularly searching its offices, while political rhetoric against the CI heated up. Shortly thereafter the CI, together with seventeen other organisations - mainly black consciousness groups - was declared an unlawful organisation, its offices were closed down and all its documents confiscated. This event also signalled the end of its progressive journal Pro Veritate. At the age of sixty-two, Beyers Naudé was subjected to a banning order that restricted him to his home for the next seven years, cut him off from attending meetings of any kind, whether social, political or religious, prohibited him from speaking in public, and making it unlawful to quote him.
After his unbanning he served as secretary for the South African Council of Churches and at his death in 2004, was universally mourned in South Africa. His life and actions gave white Christians the opportunity to join in the struggle against apartheid and gave black South Africans hope. His humility, dedication, and his prophetic teaching remained a tower of strength to us.
One morning in May 1955 six women met in a home in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa. All white and middle-class, they shared a common sense of frustration, outrage and the conviction that something had to be done to stop the Nationalist government of the day from removing the coloured people3 from the common voters’ role. The women viewed this strategy as a ‘rape’ of the Constitution and a blatant attempt on the part of the white minority government to ensure their re-election. Out of this meeting an organisation was born known as the Black Sash. Never large, it would for the next forty years work unremittingly for human rights in South Africa. By vigorously and publicly opposing the draconian apartheid laws, the Black Sash stood as a beacon of light through very oppressive times.
This organization was characterised by its imaginative practices, such as the public wearing of black sashes which symbolized their mourning over the Constitution, and constituted the organization’s trademark from which its name is derived. Holding ‘stands’ (as they were later known) became the organization’s most characteristic form of public protest. The sight of white women standing with their sashes and holding spirited, often pungent placards, became a familiar one during the years of the struggle for democracy.
At the same time as they were ‘standing’, the women of the Black Sash were running advice offices, monitoring court proceedings, and actively putting their bodies on the line by being a visible presence in the townships during times of unrest, keeping vigils at trouble spots, being present when bulldozers demolished people’s homes in order to forcibly remove them to newly designated areas, and running workshops to train and inform people of their rights. They also met with opposition. Their offices were searched by security police and even bombed. Some were forced into exile; others were jailed, harassed and arrested. The image of ‘nice’ liberal ladies naively campaigning in defence of the constitution soon disappeared. The women of the Black Sash became seasoned campaigners for human rights. For their efforts they were nominated for many honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. In 1994 the Danish Peace Foundation awarded its annual Peace Prize to the Black Sash. The highest accolade accorded them came from Nelson Mandela. On the historic day he was released from jail, he addressed a large and expectant crowd in Cape Town. In his speech he referred to the Black Sash (together with the National Union of South African Students) as “the conscience of white South Africans”. The list of women, overwhelmingly black, who paid a high price for resistance to white racist policies is long and painful. Their story is still be told in its fullness. The story of the Black Sash is but one small, albeit important narrative, that marks a turning point in the political awareness of certain white women.
My third story is about my relationship with a person who has had a great influence in my life - Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu. In 1987, shortly after his appointment as Archbishop, he invited his spiritual counsellor Francis Cull (whose guidance I was also blessed to share) to start an Institute for Christian Spirituality located at his home in Bishops Court, Cape Town. He saw the need for re-discovering the spiritual riches of the Christian faith. He said to Francis: “If we can get the clergy back at prayer, we will win the day”. I joined the Institute’s staff shortly after it was established. For the next three turbulent years - as South Africa struggled through states of emergency, waves of oppression and increased civil resistance - our small team travelled throughout southern Africa, from the north of Mozambique, the borders of Angola to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho, holding meetings in churches, under trees, in windowless shacks, speaking about the great themes that lie at the roots of Christian spirituality – love and justice, prayer and meditation. When we were not travelling, we worked from Desmond Tutu’s home base, sharing communion with him in his chapel in the mornings. His encouragement, his unwavering faith in God and the goodness of humanity and his understanding that in the struggle for justice it was necessary to take time out – to move from political activism to quiet times of retreat and prayer – all these were abiding lessons to us.
B. Sources for power and hope
Six to eight hundred people dying a day – over 5 million living with the virus, infection rates increasing, reluctant ineffective leadership, and a country overwhelmed with stigma that silences truth and our capacity to deal adequately with the pandemic – these are our present realities.
What themes that are sources of power and hope are to be found in the stories I have related?
Beyers Naudé, the women of the Black Sash and Desmond Tutu all share/d one abiding characteristic – an unshakeable belief in the worth of all human beings. This belief stood in direct contradiction to apartheid ideology that deliberately deprived black people of their human worth by relegating them to a subservient status in their own country.
Traditionally, Christians understand all human beings as being created in the image of God. Our imago Dei as a gift of creation, is our original designation, which is marred by sin, restored by the grace of Christ and will come to fulfilment in the glory of heaven.5 Integral to imago Dei are the concepts of human dignity and human responsibility. Bearing the image and likeness of God imparts to human beings inviolable dignity and worth as well as boundless responsibility for the world in which we are placed. The precise meaning of image and likeness has been debated since the beginning of Christianity.6 More recently, interpretations have linked the image of God with human creativity, human community, human bodiliness and sexual differentiation.7
Human dignity and human worth are intrinsic to our understanding of what it means to be a person. The truth that every human being images God in some or other mysterious way affirms that human dignity is simply intrinsic to the act of creation. German theologian Jürgen Moltmann teases out the meaning of human dignity, by stating the obvious: “Human dignity lies in the fact that each particular human being and all human beings are, in common, human”.8 He continues by pointing out that if this statement is not to be a tautology, “…then it presupposes the difference between the existence and the essence of the human being; the human being is a human being, and ought to be a human being….Their existence is both a gift and a task”.9 Our task is to actualize ourselves, our very essence and so come into our truth - as human beings, being fully human.
Unfortunately the legacy of modern European anthropology has left us with a somewhat narrow anthropocentric understanding of imago Dei in which human beings are the centre of the world, and the world was created for our sake and for our use. Often this understanding failed to take account that human experience is both male and female. It has also failed to wrestle with the challenges coming from ecology, cosmology and deconstruction.
When the fullness of humanity is identified with maleness or whiteness, it follows that women or black people reflect the image of God in a somehow defective way and that their claims to dignity are either less valid or subordinate to white male claims. Such views negate the centrality of the equality of human worth. If I am treated differently for no justifiable reason, my dignity and my worth are injured. My stories affirm that, throughout the apartheid years, the subordination of certain groups of people was roundly rejected in certain sections of our society, and the fullness of the image of God was affirmed through the actions of those who did so.
Apartheid was devilishly successful at destroying mutual relationships between the races in South Africa. Today the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS is also destroying human relationships through untruth, denial and silence. There can be no self without human relationships. There is no self apart from others; neither can there be any adequate idea of what my imago Dei means unless I see myself as being created for relationship - with God, with myself, with others and with the world in which I live.
However, the moment we affirm the primacy of relationship, we need to ask what it means to be an individual person. Our individuality arises from and is shaped and tempered by our being in relationship with others. We are a mixture of attachment and autonomy; we are both connected yet independent to varying degrees. And there is a tension between our need to relate and the reality of our oneness. This tension is creative when we understand that our personhood comes out of, grows and is nurtured because it is summonsed into loving relationships with others. We are beings always in the process of becoming more ourselves through our relationships with others.
South Africa’s apartheid past and our present crises of HIV/AIDS coupled with dire poverty, cries out for human beings to be in right and mutual relationship with one another. Embracing our common human dignity as all created in the image of God, is essential to the healing of our wounds. Apartheid was inhumane precisely because it denied human dignity to the majority of South Africans on grounds of race and it was designed to destroy relationships between people.
The present blight of HIV/AIDS, greatly exacerbated by denial and stigma, calls for the vigorous affirmation of the dignity of all sufferers. Persons living with AIDS are labelled and ostracised. Their potential for relationship is cut off at the root when they are evicted by their families as is too often the case, or when women, on revealing their status to their partners, themselves often the cause of the woman’s infection, are rejected together with their children and land up on the streets, bereft of support and unable to sustain themselves or their offspring. Their individuality is denied as they are identified by the victim status thrust upon them. Sufferers simply become a statistic, an "HIV positive" person. Now, almost more than ever, we need to affirm our mutuality as human beings in relationships that cut across barriers of race, sex, class and disease, if we are to forge the country we long for.
Beyers Naudé, the members of the CI, the women of the Black Sash and Desmond Tutu all knew one truth – combating apartheid means putting your body on the line. The struggle against apartheid took place in the bodies of people – it was all about bodies: black bodies, white bodies, privileged bodies, poor bodies, comfortable bodies and suffering bodies. Combating apartheid meant the willingness to participate in the struggle for justice with acts of bodily courage, to leave comfort zones and to embrace dangerous activities, even imprisonment, banning or exile. The HIV and AIDS pandemic is all about bodies. The HIV virus enters, lurks, and then makes forays into the immune system until ultimately it destroys the body. Suffering, disease and death are embodied realtities.
Our bodies are more than skin, bone and flesh. Our bodies encompass the totality of our human experience: our thoughts, our emotions, our needs and memories, our ability to imagine and to dream, our experiences of pain, pleasure, power and difference, as well as our beliefs and our hopes. Our bodies are in fact the intricate tracery of all that is ourselves. Our social reality is an embodied reality. The church is an embodied reality. The tendency in western anthropology to make the soul paramount over the body has often resulted in a people having a detached view of their bodies. The soul is spirit and as such becomes the ‘real’ thing, while the body is material and of less consequence.
It is vital for the church to embrace an embodied understanding of what it means to be human. Otherwise the injunctions of the Gospel remain pleasant sounding theological theories that are not rooted in embodied acts of love and care. This I learnt from Beyers Naudé, Desmond Tutu and many others like them who faced up to injustice with embodied courage and commitment
Beyers Naudé, Desmond Tutu and the women of the Black Sash were and are all dedicated to making reconciliation happen in South Africa. Reformed theologian John de Gruchy finds four interrelated ways of describing reconciliation. The first is theological and refers to reconciliation between God and humanity; the second is interpersonal reconciliation which refers to relations between individuals; the third, namely social reconciliation, is required between alienated communities and groups and last, political reconciliation which refers to projects such as the process of national reconciliation in South Africa.10 He describes reconciliation as “…a journey from the past into the future, a journey from estrangement to communion, or from what was patently unjust in search of a future that is just”.11 It is, in a sense, always beyond our grasp, yet it is also a gift by which we live even now but which is also ahead of us. “Reconciliation”, he concludes, “is a human and social process that requires theological explanation, and a theological concept seeking human and social embodiment”.12 Clearly no social reconciliation is possible without reconciled individuals. Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela are examples of reconciled people who are able to bring about social reconciliation. The ways by which reconciliation occur are different since the one is internal and the other public. Thus the processes are similar, interrelated but nevertheless distinct.
Flora Keshgegian in her work Redeeming Memories takes a different tack. She argues that through the power of Jesus Christ we not only encounter God but we become participants in the divine through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. Such participation is embodied. “Our redemption is a concrete process that brings us fully into a different kind of relationship. Such relationship has been described as reconciliation and right relation. Reconciliation implies right relation – that which has been out of harmony or off balance or at odds is brought back into right relationship.”13 Reconciliation thus takes place within the framework of the redemptive narrative of our relationship with the God of grace and mercy and is expressed in the embodiment of right relations – with God, ourselves, others and our world. Reconciliation is the work of God who goes about restoring our brokenness so that we may live with justice and love in community. Keshgegian’s stress on the relational aspect of reconciliation is particularly valid where stigma has alienated people from one another.
Reconciliation requires change. But can human beings really change? Dorothee Sölle’s reply to this question is scathing: “I see this question as true atheism. Whoever poses such a question, whoever believes that human beings cannot change, does not believe in God. In the bible what we call ‘change’ is really ‘redemption’ ”[my translation].14 Overcoming discrimination and stigma and reconciling across difference and prejudice is therefore possible if one accepts that human beings can change.
For change to be seen and experienced it needs to be embodied. Reconciliation itself is not abstract. It needs to be absorbed in minds, articulated on tongues, visibly demonstrated in bodily acts, and embraced in hearts.
According to the apostle Paul, the good news of reconciliation means nothing less than that Jew and Gentile have to be reconciled ‘in Christ’ and this is to be embodied in the Church as the community of reconciliation.15 The embodiment of this new humanity in the Church is a sign to the world that God accepts every one on equal terms and that it is incumbent on us to do the same. Sadly, the fact that the Church has, since its early days, not managed to avoid ethnic, class or gender captivity, has undermined its witness to reconciliation. As stated earlier, reconciliation is a relational concept and as such it requires embodiment in a community of restored relations. Such a community understands that we exist only in relation to others, that we become who we are intended to be by encountering and embracing those who are different, that is different from ourselves, often across profound chasms. The willingness to embrace ‘the other’ is the foundation of a sustainable community of reconciled human beings.
Reconciliation also requires forgiveness - the thorniest part of reconciliation. It is hard to forgive, and often harder to accept forgiveness. Hasty forgiveness can seem like a betrayal of the past, an effort to wipe out painful memories in order to achieve cheap reconciliation without honouring such memories – a kind of tawdry “forgive and forget”. There is no “forgive and forget”. “Remember and forgive” is more appropriate.16 This requires forbearance from revenge. Then we may be able to redeem memories to the extent that reconciliation becomes a possibility. I can personally testify to the astounding capacity of both Beyers Naudé and Desmond Tutu to practice reconciliation.
It is useful to distinguish between divine and human forgiveness.17 God forgives sins, not simply because God has the power to do so, but because God is infinite love. We are not required to change in order to be forgiven by God. We cannot earn God’s forgiveness. Instead we can become whole because we are forgiven.
God’s forgiveness comes first. Human forgiveness starts from a different point, the point described above, namely through acknowledging the truth of our unreconciled lives. Premature speech about forgiveness and reconciliation fails to acknowledge the moral force of anger. When we decide to forgive we decide to become free from the power of the past. We do not forgive because those who have wronged us have repented. We acknowledge our wounding and decide to move on. We choose a different future. Forgiveness does not mean that we wipe out the past or excuse a wrongdoer. Rather it asserts that the balance of power has passed from the wrong that was committed and the trauma experienced, from the violator to the victim. It is the sole prerogative of the victim to decide to forgive. Forgiveness is an active, willed change of heart that succeeds in overcoming naturally felt feelings of anger, resentment, vengeance and hatred. It has a gift-like quality. The decision to forgive is the point at which divine and human forgiveness intersect.18 If God had not forgiven us first, human forgiveness would not be possible.
Reconciliation is also about restoring justice. There is no consistent understanding of justice in the modern world. I choose to understand justice as restoring “right relationship”. Restorative rather than punitive justice is that which re-makes what God intended for us – that our human worth be affirmed and upheld in right mutual relationship with one another. Restorative justice rebuilds communities of right relationship and its goal is healing and reconciliation.19 “God’s justice is the justice of restored relations, an understanding of justice inseparable even if distinguishable from love, and one which finds expression in liberation from oppression and reconciliation within both personal and social relations.“20 What would it mean for the churches to bear witness to restorative justice? It would certainly mean the re-ordering of power relations in church structures. A good place to start would be to get their houses in order in terms of just gender relations!
What does it mean to hope? Our calling to hope is vested in the very nature of hope itself. Hope is not an abstract belief or an armchair activity. It has very little currency if it is just “pie in the sky when you die”. True Christian hope is tougher, more realistic and essential to the life of faith. Perhaps this is because we have too often understood hope as referring only to the future. Philosopher Johan Degenaar speaks of hope as “creative expectation”. Søren Kierkegaard says hope is “a passion for the possible”. Both understandings imply that we have to be creatively and passionately involved in trying to bring about that for which we hope, here and now.
As I have said hope is central to our faith. Beyers Naudé and Desmond Tutu were and are supremely hopeful people. The dogged hope of the Black Sash even in dark times, was a beacon for those struggling to survive the myriad of restrictions placed on them by the apartheid laws. They simply never gave up. They all taught me that we hope even when it seems foolish to do so because we dare not abandon hope. Quite simply life without hope is a wasteland of non-fulfillment. Hope is the inseparable companion of faith. Hope opens a future outlook that embraces all of life, everything we do and know and that includes sickness, suffering and even death. But hope does not only deal with the future. Hope is sterile if it does not transform our thoughts and our actions here and now.
Hope risks disappointment and is never without struggle. The greatest threat to hope is apathy. Apathy speaks of loss of all desire. During the bleak apartheid years, frustration, despair and even hopelessness were familiar emotions to those struggling to survive the onslaughts of racist rule. Today, I see signs of anger but also of apathy as hope for a better life are frustrated and delayed. Years of being confronted with an intransigent minister of health on the issue of HIV and AIDS also causes despair, even apathy. But an apathetic citizenry will tolerate manoeuvres which can damage, and even ultimately destroy, the very democracy for which so many have paid a high price. Passion is the best antidote to apathy.
Finally, a word about the Eucharist. During all those long bleak years, the Eucharist became a source of strength and hope when all else seemed to fail. I learnt that by grace, failure does not have the last word in the Christian life. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, the embodiment of our faith, whose life, death and resurrection we celebrate in the Eucharist. We are reminded that the Eucharist was instituted “in the night that Jesus Christ was betrayed and handed over to the powers of this world.” Its origins do not lie in success or triumph but in the human betrayal of the Son and it is precisely here that we dare to hope.
I see a link between the victims of apartheid and people living with HIV and AIDS and the crucified and resurrected body of Jesus Christ whom we remember and celebrate in the bread and the wine at the Eucharist. As we remember Christ’s sacrifice, we see in his very wounds the woundedness of his sisters and brothers who have suffered, and who today are infected and dying. The Eucharist is in fact the bodily practice of grace. We are bodily partakers of the physical elements of bread and wine, this means in Christ’s presence in our lives and in our world.
Christ invites us to the feast, and he is both the giver of the feast and the gift itself. Thus the communion meal mediates communion and true life-giving relationship with the crucified one in the presence of the risen one. It becomes a foretaste of the messianic banquet of all human kind. It is the meal at which the bodies of all are welcome. In Christ’s Body, the Eucharist is the sacrament of equality. Only self-exclusion can keep one away. At the communion table we are offered the consummate step in forging right relationships across all our differences. “We who are many are one body for we all partake of the one bread”. This visible, unifying, bodily practice of relationship with all its potential for healing is ours. Although the Eucharist as a source of power and hope does not arise directly from my stories, it became very central to my work in Desmond Tutu’s Institute and has remained a source of hope until today.
1) Extraordinary Professor of Christian Theology, University of Stellenbosch, Cape, South Africa.
2) Peter Randall, “Not without honour: the life and work of Beyers Naudé” in Peter Randall (ed.), Not without Honour: Tribute to Beyers Naudé, (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1982), 1.
3) People of mixed racial origins were referred to as “coloureds”.
Today these people are reconstructing and reclaiming the concept “coloured”
with all its rich and varied cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
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