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Black and white perceptions of South Africa’s problems

29 January 2012

I’ve been reading Cobus van Wyngaard’s Masters dissertation, in which he analyses public statements from the white Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk, or NGK) on crime and violence in South Africa.

His main point is that in its public statements on crime and violence the NGK, while trying to use non-racial rhetoric, nevertheless continues to see these questions mainly from the point of view of whites, and tries to universalise this white point of view and extend it to everyone. Their statements are couched in language like:

  • People no longer feel safe…
  • People are beginning to give up hope…
  • people threatening to take the law into their own hands…
  • people have lost all confidence in the authorities…
  • People come to the conclusion that the authorities are not able to maintain law and order…

The church leaders no doubt reflect the voice of their people, and the things their people tell them. Things they chat about after services on Sundays. Things they tell the minister when he visits them in their homes. But who are these “people”? The members of the NGK are overwhelmingly white Afrikaans-speaking people, mostly upper-middle class. But the complaints that are voiced within the white Dutch Reformed Church are universalised as if they are the concerns of all the people of South Africa, or at least all the Christians in South Africa.

And so the Dutch Reformed church leaders go on to call on the President and the government, “On behalf of millions of Christians in South Africa (75% of the population) we beseech you to take drastic measures to restore law and order according to the Constitution.”

The “drastic measures” sometimes form part of government rhetoric too (unacknowledged by the DRC leaders), speaking of “zero-tolerance” and the Deputy Minister of Police telling police to “shoot to kill.”

Cobus is concerned about how to get white people, like the DRC leaders, to become aware that they are often speaking only or mainly for whites, and not for everybody, and to become open to a broader vision of the problems of South Africa.

This morning when we gathered for the Hours and Readers Service at Mamelodi East, I thought it might be interesting to get a different view of the problems facing “people” in South Africa. Mamelodi is an overwhelmingly black township. One could say “working class”, with the proviso that the unemployed might outnumber the workers. Perhaps “proletarian” might be a better description, Certainly none of the people in our congregation own any means of production.

So, at the time for the sermon, I asked the congregation, black, North Sotho-speaking, what they thought were the main problems in the community, problems in their lives, problems people talked about in the shops. They came up with four:

  1. Poverty
  2. Crime
  3. Backbiting and gossip
  4. Witchcraft

One item, crime, was the same as on the white list. I suspect that the other three would not appear on any white lists.

I asked what were the good things in the community.

They said people help one another. If someone’s house is broken into, the neighbours call the police. If there is a car crash, they call an ambulance, and try to help the injured. I observed that that, to some extent, countered the backbiting and gossip. People in the community did look after one another, so they are a community. Neighbours do care for one another (I think that is probably not so true in white neighbourhoods, at least in the bigger towns).

So if there is a car crash, the people in the community help the victims, they don’t go through their pockets looking for cell phones?

No, it is the ambulance workers who do that. And the police, especially the police.

In asking that I had in mind a priest in Albania, whose car had left the road in a mountainous area, and crashed down the mountainside, and he and his whole family had been killed, except for one child, a boy of about 11, who lay injured in the wreck while the neighbouring people plundered the car and the bodies.

In the Orthodox Church, today is the Sunday of Zacchaeus.

The paschal season of the Church is preceded by the season of Great Lent, which is also preceded by its own liturgical preparation. The first sign of the approach of Great Lent comes five Sundays before its beginning. On this Sunday the Gospel reading is about Zacchaeus the tax-collector. It tells how Christ brought salvation to the sinful man, and how his life was changed simply because he “sought to see who Jesus was” (Luke 19:3). The desire and effort to see Jesus begins the entire movement through Lent towards Pascha. It is the first movement of salvation.

And in the story of Zaccheus we see something of the problems that the members of the church had mentioned.

We see crime, in that Zacchaeus had cheated people as a tax collector. He had abused his position of authority like the police and ambulance people who steal cell phones. He had enriched himself by impoverishing others, so that crime and poverty were not separate problems, but are related. People sometimes like to talk about poverty as the cause of crime. But it is much less common for people to talk about it the other way round — of crime as the cause of poverty. Yet much of the poverty in places like Mamelodi is caused by crime — white crime.

The backbiting and gossip were there too:  But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).

But the good things are there too

Zacchaeus repents, but he also tries to undo some of the evil that he has done.

And so that is the message as we turn from the celebration of the Nativity of Christ and begin to look forward to Great Lent, the season of repentance. It is a time to look and see how we can reduce the evil in ourselves and in our surroundings, and to see how we can turn evil into good, like Zacchaeus.

I suggested to members of the congregation that between now and next time we should think about what we can do and how we can do it, to reduce the evil and increase the good. We are not the government, and we are not the Mayor of Tshwane. We are not in a position to take “drastic measures” (except with ourselves, by fasting). But perhaps we can come up with something, something that is within our reach.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 January 2012 5:21 pm

    Thanks for the mention Steve.

    To link onto your list, one pattern I’ve been noticing (but wasn’t part of the documents I discussed in the dissertation, and I’ll have to take time to confirm this later) is that the DRC lists of problems facing South Africa often include poverty, but rarely include economic inequality. On the others hane the recent Kairos document, and some statements from the URCSA explicitly focus on economic inequality.

  2. 30 January 2012 10:03 am

    Perceptions and realities will always differ, as certain groups of people have different circumstances, cultural values and expectations. This is the reality we have and we should just accept it, without trying to make someone elses reality into nothing.

    I noted that “Witchcraft” thing you mention, under black church people…makes no sense to me, but then again for them it is reality.

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