Apologists for the ANC?

2013-03-04 00:00

I AM a baptised, confirmed and practising Anglican. I studied at UCT during the eighties and started working in 1990. I am convinced that all of us made judgment errors 20 and more years ago, regarding emphatically held political stances, actions, or the lack thereof. I remember like yesterday, the passions, emotionally expressed positions and uncertainties within white Anglican parishes. This article’s purpose is certainly not to challenge the Anglican Church of South Africa’s (ACSA) explicit Christian duty in historically condemning the National Party and its policies. But it broaches a lingering personal unease that there were or remain significant clergy and laity, far too trusting, indeed naive, to assume that the ANC-SACP gave sufficient reason to conclude it assured a future South Africa vision consistent with Christian values. Of course, such is virtually unheard of in any substantially supported political party; but that is my point — did the ANC and allies not imprudently receive (still?) from ACSA, an undeserving and moral stature?

A sample of past Sechaba or the African Communist articles provide a grim historical record of where ANC-SACP thinking was not too long ago. Where did the ANC-SACP, outside predictable stale platitudes like “non-racialism” and over-worked quotes from the Freedom Charter, demonstrate they were not just another ruthless, power-seeking organisation of Swapo or Zanu genre, driven by a philosophical core comprising a hodgepodge of black African nationalism and various distorted socialist models? Historical correlations between the worst of Afrikaner and African nationalistic trends were/are also so obvious.

In late December 2011, an organisation called Kairos South Africa (KSA) issued a lengthy document which included a skewed, dogmatic and judgmental interpretation of South African historical processes, lauding the ANC’s liberation role, while conflating colonisation and apartheid through sweeping one-dimensional generalisations. A leading KSA light is Reverend Edwin Arrison, an ACSA priest, on the editorial staff of Southern Anglican, a quarterly ACSA publication. Directly addressing the ANC on the eve of the Mangaung Conference, the document, undersigned by scores of current and retired ACSA clergy, contains numerous grating obsequies to the ANC. Concerns are raised, but couched stylistically as little more than a gentle chiding. This public document constitutes an historically unrealistic portrayal of the ANC’s purportedly “vital role” in South Africa during the 20th and early 21st century, rising barely above the kind of uncritical rhetoric one would read in political party leaflets. At minimum, it suggests a very strong emotional attachment between the document’s authors (and one assumes the signatories too?) and the ANC.

The document is not ACSA’s official position, but its authorship and signatory credentials create the perception of a kind of camaraderie club of political animals, rather than the faith-based considerations of clergymen. Anglicans use the three-stranded cord imagery of Ecclesiastes 4:12, describing its theology centred upon: scripture, tradition and reason. But where is the historical reasoning in a blinded negation of the ANC-SACP’s often totalitarian-orientated history, littered with abuses no sincere Christian should want to be linked with? And such is notwithstanding current disastrous ANC governance issues. Why this misguided “mildly disappointed hero-worship”, beguiling common sense? In terms of Christian teachings, how does one comfortably accommodate KSA’s ingratiating congratulations and prayers for the ANC, considering the damning, verified, contemporary and historical picture this organisation represents to many South Africans?

I am fully aware that Archbishop Thabo Makgoba recently made urgent press appeals directly to the ANC government that it in haste, address its myriad governance and organisational failings. I acknowledge and support this good man’s efforts, but fear there is little likelihood of them being heeded. As Anglicans, our current concerns about the ANC should be legion, but there is much more. During the past 10 or so years, growing historical analysis has been directed at researching the ANC and its allies during the past five decades, focusing upon strategies and actions from the early sixties to mid-nineties. For example: eighties’ liberation theology was a position held globally by many priests, not just some Anglicans, attempting to justify war against governments, their militaries and supporters, which liberation theologians deemed deserving of violence, for the purpose of forcing political change. In 1986, a former archbishop of Cape Town, Bill Burnett, a World War 2 veteran, did not make himself popular with the ACSA hierarchy when he wrote in the journal Ichthus that he considered liberation theology an anathema. Some ACSA clergymen, assumedly without the consent of eighties’ archbishops Burnett, Philip Russell or Tutu, even decided to identify with or join uMkonto we Sizwe. The heinous ANC bombings across South Africa are well-known, but from 1988, ACSA bishops withdrew licensing for Anglican SADF chaplains.

As controversial as the SADF often was, it remains difficult to cast all its members, particularly white national servicemen, as “evil”, deserving termination then by “righteous ANC soldiers” supported by their “unofficial ACSA chaplains”. SADF conscripts included Anglicans, whom ACSA was duty bound to minister to. And we also know now, the SADF played a vital role in facilitating and protecting the 1994 elections, let alone the unknowns of how many more innocents might have died in eighties’ and nineties’ township anarchy or MK “operations”, if there had not been some containment, which the SADF provided, albeit imperfectly; as opposed to the often shocking conduct of the SA Police Service. But there is still further disturbing material to ponder.

Some historians have discerned more clearly the nature of the extreme violence implicating ANC culpability during the eighties and 1990 to 1994, particularly, but hardly exclusively, within KwaZulu-Natal. Anthea Jeffrey’s People’s War has shown that individuals/mobs/activists, directly aligned with the ANC and its internal double the UDF, savagely enforced strikes and consumer boycotts. Paul Trewhela has vividly exposed the Stalinistic purges at the ANC’s Angolan Quatro punishment camp, besides and the deaths and torture suffered by Swapo detainees. Reverend Barney Pityana, current rector of the Anglican College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, features in Trewhela’s writings, which state Pityana’s understanding of “black theology” prompted that “the quality of (the theologian’s — Pityana’s) awareness may be judged by his encomium (eulogy) on the relation of Swapo to Christian virtues”. Trewhala contends that Pityana’s kind of writing facilitated priests into an intimate and subservient relationship with a “nationalist political party, with its own army, secret police, prisons and torturers”. Could the same be said for ACSA priests who decided their services were needed by MK? According to Trewhala, when the Swapo detainee torture controversy first emerged in 1989, the churches of Namibia, including Anglicans and in South Africa, too, like the priest and levite, averted their eyes.

During the eigthies, white Anglicans were cajoled to reflect carefully about doing military service, let alone supporting or praising anything the NP (or even the PFP) said or did. Most of what ACSA clergy preached then about the need for Christian justice in South Africa, was correct and absolutely in accordance with biblical teaching. The problem was (and remains) the incomprehensible blind spot of so many clergy and laity regarding the ANC. White Anglicans were asked to pray about what they could do to make South Africa a more just country. Is it not time for all Anglicans, white and black, to question whether they were or remain ANC apologists and all things considered, is such not well out of joint with Christ’s teachings?

• Dr Rodney Warwick is an historian with a doctorate in historical studies from UCT.

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