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A South African civil religion?

1 October 2016

My colleague and blogging friend Dion Forster has written about a South African civil religion, which he thinks has failed us He writes Why the ‘loss of faith’ in heroes like Mandela may not be such a bad thing:

The birth of the South African post-apartheid civil religion took place on the day of first South African democratic elections. This event was lauded across the world, as a “miracle” of peaceful transition in the midst of a hostile and precarious social and political situation.

Many doomsday prophets had predicted the eruption of a civil war in the lead to up the elections. Instead, post-election media reports reflected a widespread sense of euphoria and joy. It was framed in the dense and symbolic theological and religious language of peace and reconciliation. This is not surprising in a country where over 85% of the population profess to be Christian. Such language is familiar. It has meaning and currency.

He maintains that this narrative and civil religion is now being questioned by the current generation of students, and advocates the substitution of “an ethics of responsibility” for the civil religion.

Another colleague, Cobus van Wyngaard, in responding to this points out that the questioning of the current generation of students is not all that new — my contemplations | a South African conversation on just being church today:

South Africa did indeed have something of a dominent public narrative over much of the past 22 years. I think it did indeed function like a religion, and much of it was actually informed quite consciously by religious convictions. There is a theology behind the rainbow nation! But there has always been a counter narrative. The critique that Dion mentions did not emerge with the student movement, even if the student movement forced the attention of the likes of us (white middle class dominees) onto this critique (but we could have heard it had we listened). That alternative narrative need to be explored. It runs through Black Consciousness, the Pan Africanist Congress, the economic left in the older SACP and unions. For those of us in theology, it runs through Black Theology, Kairos, the CI, certain parts of the ICT.

And he goes on to ask Dion Forster to spell out what he mean by “an ethics of responsibility”.

I’ll add my bit to the conversation by questioning the narrative of a civil religion. I doubt that it took the form or was as all-pervasive as Dion suggests. I think talk of the loss of faith in heroes like Mandela is a bit over the top, because I doubt that that faith was there to begin with.

Yes, there was widespread “euphoria and joy” in the wake of the first democratic elections, but it was not joy that a civil war had been averted, it was joy because the civil war had ended. The civil war had erupted in 1976, against schoolkids in Soweto. And when the flypast of a museum of aviation history took place at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration there was a huge outburst of cheering and applause, because those weapons and symbols of oppression had been neutralised and were on our side now.

Thundering jets -- the sound of freedom

Thundering jets — the sound of freedom

If the media painted a picture of euphoria and joy because a civil war had been averted, they got it wrong. They created the spectre of civil war in their scenario because of their philosophy of “if it bleeds it leads” and before the votes had been counted most of them had rushed off to Rwanda, where the hoped-for bleeding was taking place.

There was euphoria and joy because there was real liberation. And yes, it had religious echoes. It put me in mind of the Psalm:

When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion: then were we like unto them that dream.
The was our mouth filled with laughter: and our tongue with joy.

Anyone who doesn’t think there was a real liberation then is simply in denial about how oppressive the apartheid regime actually was.

There were a very few, like Fr Albert Nolan, OP, who hailed this moment of liberation as the end of history. Other revolutions of the past had subsided into oppression, but this one, he believed, would not. So for him, it was an “and they all lived happily ever after” fairy-tale ending. That may have been the beginning of a civil religion, but I doubt whether it had many followers.

Yes, Nelson Mandela became a symbolic figure. For the next few years, whenever he appeared at a sporting fixture, the South African team won, starting on the day of his inauguration.

But he often pointed out that he himself was a disciplined member of a disciplined political organisation. He did not make decisions, the decisions were made by the ANC, and though his voice was influential within the ANC, it was not by any means the only one, or even the dominant one.

And now, more than twenty years later, during election campaigns, the ANC does sometimes appeal to a kind of civil religion, the “we have a good story to tell” narrative. The problem is that most of the things in the “good story” happened 15 years ago or more, and most of the people who did them are dead. Many communities gained access to clean water for the first time under the ANC government, thanks to people like Kader Asmal. And yes, I agree with Dion Forster that we should not put our faith in heroes like Kader Asmal, any more than we should in Nelson Mandela. And if an “ethic of responsibility” means that we should do what he did, I’m all for it.

But why did they do the things they did, and why do we no longer find people who do the things they did?

Why are many people who have been active in the ANC now sad and disillusioned, and look back nostalgically to the era of Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu, Hani and others? Was it because they had “put their faith in them” as some kind civil religion?

I doubt it. They were all fallible human beings. They made good decisions and bad decisions. They were part of an organisations that made good decisions and bad decisions. And if you want an ethic of responsibility, then we have to acknowledge that some of the bad decisions led us to where we are now.

Part of the problem is power.

When the ANC was out of power, when it was the opposition, it could dream of the kind of society it wanted and put in place of the existing one. It could come up with plans for transformation. And there were people who gave thought to this, for example to how they wanted education transformed (since we are dealing with demands of students). What system would they like to put in place of Bantu Education, Christian National Education, inequality in education, Broederbond-controlled universities, and all the rest? How would these changes be brought about, and how would they be funded? There were some people, like John Samuel, who gave a lot of thought to this. But after the ANC came to power, people like John Samuel were sidelined, things muddled along they way they always had been with the difference that a whole lot of teacher training colleges were closed — yet that was exactly where transformation in education needed to begin. The result was a lot of ad hoc decisions to deal with crises as they arose, and a lot of old vested interests that needed to be balanced with some new vested interests in the hope that things could move along somehow, with education chronically underfunded and no real plan. Twenty lost years.

Before coming to power, the ANC could dream of changes and improvements they could make if they came to power, but once in power they could only dream of power itself, and keeping power, and instead of planning policies for education. Instead of planning strategies for education, most of the energy is now put into planning strategies to deal with rivals in power struggles.

As Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

So much for putting one’s faith in heroes.

And the longer men are in power, the more corrupt they tend to be.

So perhaps what middle-class theologians, or, better still, theologians 9f all classes, need to think more about is the theology of power, and especially possession of power. What is the difference between possessing power and being possessed by it? And how can human beings handle power without becoming enthralled by it? And how do we exorcise people and organisations once they have been possessed by power?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 October 2016 8:19 am

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks so much for your very helpful and thoughtful piece. It was wonderful to read your thoughts and gain your perspectives on this complex issue. As I said to Cobus in my comment on his response to the article, I think it is important to remember the genre of my little article when engaging the ideas. It was intended to be an illustrative ‘think piece’ of 800 words for a newspaper. It certainly is not a thoroughly developed, water tight, academic treatise! I was merely trying to highlight something that I am hearing from a variety of persons and places which I characterised as a ‘loss of faith’ in historical persons and events. Interestingly, just after I published my article there was another article on The Conversation that pointed out that the Mandela foundation was reconsidering aspects of legacy – read about that here:

    In some senses I agree that 1994 was a miracle. Indeed, I was a minister in the townships and involved in the Wits Vaal peace initiative. I was acutely aware of some of the local complexity and political and social powder keg that we were sitting on as we approached the elections.

    However, 22 years on I do have to question the narrative of the miracle – for who was 1994 a miracle? Perhaps it is a miracle that someone like me can still continue to ride the wave of privilege. But for the majority of South Africa’s population the fruit of the ‘miracle’ is still to be realised. Was it really a miracle for them?

    You are right to question whether what I termed as a form of civil religion (belief in the power and contribution of certain persons and processes) was equally shared by all actors in society. I don’t think it was. But, there is a very significant portion of our population, who for very many years, did almost nothing because they were sustained by the legacy of those ‘heroes’ and the euphoria of the period directly after 1994.

    I agree with you conclusion that the issue of power is critical! I suppose in some sense I was trying to do just that. I wanted to ask where people place their agency? Are they giving it over to contemporary actors (politicians, business people etc.) because they are ‘caught’ in a memory? It was for that reason that I suggested that we take some for of responsibility.

    But, I will need to think a little more deeply on your challenge! I do believe you are onto something!

    Thanks for taking the time to read Cobus’ superb response to my little article, and for reading the article itself. I appreciate the energy and time very much.


    • 4 October 2016 11:01 am

      Hi Dion, sorry for the delayed response. Your comment was marked as spam, and I’ve only fished it out now. Akismet very rarely has false positives, but this was one of them.

      Anyway, I think it is important to keep the discussion going. While I don’t think there has been a civil religion, I do think that there was a significant difference between the leaders of 25 years ago and the leaders of today. Back then, the leaders had not generally enjoied the perks of power, and they had a vision for a new society. Now the vision is narrower, to retain power in order to enjoy its fruits. Not in every case, of course, but much more after 2009 than before.

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