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More on Amahoro

11 June 2009

amahoroMy previous post on the Amahoro Conference, Truth, reconciliation and smelly feet, covered the session on Tuesday afternoon where the former Minister of Law and Order of the apartheid regime, Adriaan Vlok, had his feet washed by a former member of the dreaded Koevoet.

After that we had supper, and had a very interesting discussion with a Baptist pastor from Ghana and a Methodist minister from Witbank. The guy from Ghana had spent several years in the USA, and was most impressed with the Amahoro Gathering, and said that such a thing was urgently needed in West Africa,mwhere Christianity tended to be rather superficial. He was impressed both by the presentations, and by the small group discussions, and thought that people were grappling with important issues, and not ignoring them, as Christians in West Africa tended to do. But I think he forgot one thing. If you gather all the people who are concerned about these things in one place, you can overlook the fact that the majority of Christian in this country are not much different from those in West Africa.

In the evening Brian McLaren spoke on “The framing questions of a new reformation”. If  Kenzo Mabiala’s paper was academic, and the forum on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was existential and emotional, this would be described best as inspirational and motivational, though perhaps “motivational” is a bit unfair. It wasn’t the “rah rah” platitudes of the hack motivational speaker on the make, but really was meant to inspire people to thought and action.

He said that statements lead to a new state, while questions lead to a new quest. One of the questions is the narrative question — what is the shape of the story line of the biblical narrative. He drew a diagram showing the 19th-century evangelical-reformed shape of the narrative, and then somewhat confusingly called it the Greco-Roman narrative, linking it to Plato and Aristotle, which sounded rather far-fetched to me. I think I’ll have to listen to the recording of what he said to see if that point is any easier to follow the second time around.

The next day (Wednesday 10th June) Deacon Nektarius could not come, but Father Frumentius Taubata, the priest of the Orthodox Church in Atteridgeville, was able to come with me. We arrived in time for the “worship” on the timetable, which somehow never seemed to happen. Nic Paton and Cori Wielinga (both of whom were at the Amahoro conference) posted a cartoon that says it all, about the worship that didn’t happen:


From The ongoing adventures of ASBO Jesus (ASBO in Britain stands for “Anti-social Behaviour Order“)

The next speaker was Paul Verryn, who is Bishop of the Central District of the Methodist Church, and his topic was “The Reformation of the Church”.

Four years ago the Methodist Central Hall in Johannesburg opened its doors to homeless people, many of them refugees from other countries, like Zimbabwe, and there are now up to 3000 people sleeping in the building every night.

He said that there are still people searching for food in the rubbish bins of the richest city in the country, and yet 90% of South Africans are religious. Religious people are middle class, and don’t like poor people in the building.

Reformation, he said, is all about grace, and grace and reformation mean opening the doors. Methodists believe in salvation for all, and so when the doors are opened all kinds of people come in, including criminals. A couple of years ago the police raided the building, looking for illegal immigrants, but now Bishop Verryn has a better undertanding with the police, and if they raid they do it by arrangement and come to look for real criminals. He said he was concerned about the safety of women and children in the building, and that they had had two murders in the building.

We got into small groups, and were asked to discuss the question “What doors could you open in your church (or community or home) as part of our love quest. Father Frumentius told of his home where he has 18 children from various parts of Africa, including Rwanda, Mocambique and Zimbabwe. They speak all sorts of different languages, but the common language is English.

The orphanage in Atteridgeville West

The orphanage in Atteridgeville West

Then followed a panel discussion on xenophobia, and especially the xenophobic violence that spread through South Africa last year. Evans from Zimbabwe described how he had come from Zimbabwe as a refugee, fleeing the repression there, and had gone to Johannesburg and slept in shop doorways, and then he heard about a course on conflict resolution at the Methodist Church, and went there for that, and became involved in what was happening there.

Jackson (I think his surname is Khosa) described himself as both a xenophobe and a victim of xenophobia. He said he, like many other Christians engaged in casual talk against foreigners, and could now see that that casual talk had helped to create a climate in which xenophobic violence could erupt. And then the target switched to Shangaans, and he and his wife had to flee from Alexandra, and so themselves became victims.[1]

Someone remarked to me that he was surprised that someone would admit to being a xenophobe at a gathering like this, and I said that I did not understand it in that way — he was not trying to justify xenophobia, but acknowledging guilt for helping to propagate it by careless talk that facilitated the kind of climate of opinion that led to violence. I noted the effects of this kind of rhetoric in another post on Killing the killers, referring to a case in which an abortion doctor and a soldier had been killed in the USA, and Frank Schaeffer acknowledged his role in creating that kind of climate of opinion in his own rhetoric. I think Jackson was making a confession similar to that of Frank Schaeffer — careless remarks people make about foreigners, with no serious evil intent can be picked up by others and used as a justification for murder. It was also the kind of thing that Adriaan Vlok was saying, where the people at the top said “stop that happening, but didn’t enquire, and didn’t even want to know, about the methods that would be used to “stop” it.

It was also interesting to see the dominance of the Johannesburg narrative in this discussion. People referred to Jackson as being “from Alexandra, where it all started last May”. In May this year the Johannesburg newspapers reminded us that that month marked the start of the xenophobic violence in South Africa.  In fact it started several weeks earlier, in Mamelodi, then flared up in Atteridgeville (where Father Frumentius took in refugees from the violence) and a newspaper columnist , Justice Malala,  made the same point about the rhetoric promoting violence, referring to the gatvol factor.

As Fr Frumentius noted, after the progrom against foreigners in Atteridgeville in April last year, the South Africans who said the foreigners were taking their jobs were nowhere to be found. The services provided by foreigners stopped, but no South Africans stepped in to provide those services in their place. As someone pointed out at Amahoro, foreigners work harder and work better. If you hire a Zimbabwean builder, they will get the job done on time and fulfil the contract. If you hire a South African builder they prove unreliable, and object to penalty clauses in contracts if the work is not done in time. Now that sort of thing is true all over the world. Immigrants tend to work harder, no matter what country they find themselves in, because they have something to prove.

And I will add an observation of my own, not mentioned at Amahoro, but I think relevant to the discussion.

I have noticed that Zimbabweans tend, on average, to be far better educated than South Africans. I attribute that to their not having had Bantu Education, which disrupted education in South Africa for a generation or more, and we are still finding it difficult to catch up. Zimbabwean teachers are better trained and better qualified and we could make use of their skills to help South African children to catch up. But any suggestion of doing that would spark off a xenophobic storm among South African teachers, the majority of whom were trained under the inferior Bantu Education / Christian National Education system, and the education faculties of our universities and our teachers training colleges have not yet been transformed from that, in spite of much empty talk about “transformation”.

But there is also a time bomb sitting over Zimbabwe, because most of the teachers are here, not there, and a generation of children is growing up in Zimbabwe right now that are deprived of eduction even worse than South African children in the Bantu Education/CNO era.[2]

I don’t have much to add on what went on at Amahoro. I could not attend today, and it finishes tonight, but what I did manage to attend was very much worth attending.

Here are a few of the others who have been blogging about it, and i hope that through blogs and mailing lists the conversation will continue long after everyone has gone home.


[1] Shangaan, or Tsonga-speaking people live mainly in the eastern part of Limpopo province, but straddle the border with Mocambique, so some Shangaans are South African and others are Mocambiquan. In the xenophobic violence, some began to treat all Shangaans as foreigners.

[2] CNO – Christelike Nasionale Onderwys – Christian National Education, the National Party’s education policy for all children, black and white, based on the ideology of “own affairs”. And it was neither Christian, nor national, and nor was it education.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. cecilia permalink
    25 July 2009 4:33 pm

    “We arrived in time for the “worship” on the timetable, which somehow never seemed to happen.” mmmm, i’m not surprised! cecilia


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