Through Oom Bey’s eyes

2013-05-21 10:00

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Dr Beyers Naudé would have turned 98 last Friday. What would he have made of the current state of our nation?

At his funeral in 2004, I quoted from John F Kennedy’s inaugural address as a senator. He said the worth of a person is defined by four things: courage, judgement, integrity and dedication.

Oom Bey, as everyone knew him, certainly did have the courage to stand up to his opponents and associates.

He did have perceptive judgement about the future and the past. His integrity was apparent from his stand, against great odds, on values and principles.

And he was devoted to serving the public good beyond sectarian interests.

This is exactly what Oom Bey did when he preached in the US in 1985.

His sermon can be found in a new book, Vreesloos Gehoorsaam – ’n Keur uit Beyers Naudé se preke 1939-1997 (Fearlessly Obedient – A selection of Beyers Naudé’s sermons 1 39-1997).

He spoke of the “kairos moment”, or moment of truth, that he experienced at the time of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.

The death of 69 people at the hands of the police during a protest against the pass laws strengthened his growing awareness of the injustices of apartheid.

Remember, at one time he was the youngest-ever member of the Afrikaner Broederbond and a supporter of the National Party.

Yet his principles compelled him to take a stand against injustice, regardless of the price.

He explained that another kairos moment had come.

This was during the state of emergency in 1985, and, as with Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976, the country was again at breaking point.

He pointed to the political dimension, the problems in education, the economic sphere and, finally, South Africa’s moral crisis. Together, these led to a kairos moment for the country.

If we look at the world today, we can apply the same test and ask if there is a political, educational, economic and moral crisis.

Look at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the marches by students in London to demand stronger state support for higher education, Occupy Wall Street in New York and anticorruption protests in India. The world is facing another kairos moment.

In Oom Bey’s 1985 sermon, he said: “There comes a time in the life of every individual, institution or country when a decision has to be taken in the sphere of what is just or unjust, good or evil, the outcome of which choice will determine the future destiny of those involved.”

In 2003, James Wolfensohn, then World Bank president, said: “It is time to take a cold, hard look at the future ... The demographics of the future speak to a growing imbalance of people, resources and the environment.

“If we act together now, we can change the world for the better. If we do not, we shall leave greater and more intractable problems for our children.”

This is our challenge – to move away from these imbalances, these huge inequalities, for the sake of future generations.

In South Africa, we obviously are not isolated from and are experiencing our own political, educational, economic and moral crises. Protesters were shot at Marikana. There is a crisis in our schools threatening the future of millions of young people. The large gap between rich and poor means economic injustice.

And there is a moral crisis when some of our leaders and civil servants are only interested in enriching themselves.

What are we to do? Where are the signs of hope? Dr Naudé explained that a time of crisis is obviously associated with suffering and despair, but is also a time of hope.

Why? Because it forces us to return to our values and to create a new vision of the future from these values.

What are the values on which all South Africans agree? These have been captured in our Constitution.

The emphasis falls on democracy, unity, social justice, human rights, an open society, equality before the law, a higher quality of life and freeing the potential of each person.

Looking at where we find ourselves now, 19 years after our liberation from apartheid, it is clear we are lagging behind in the realisation of our ideals.

But we should not jettison everything for which we fought.

Instead, the time has come for us to put shoulder to the wheel again – with courage, judgement, integrity and dedication.

» Botman is rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, and was the founding director of the institution’s Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology

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