Finding a voice again

2008-08-21 00:00

In the uncertainty that is South Africa today, there is a new voice emerging, and it is very evident here in KwaZulu-Natal. The voice is that of the Church. Perhaps new is not an apt description — it’s more about the Church finding its voice again.

It is hard to forget that the Anglican Bishop of Natal, Rubin Phillip, recently sent a ship loaded with arms destined for Zimbabwe scuttling away from Durban Harbour. There was a photograph of him, shown in newspapers across the country, leaving the Durban High Court clutching an interdict preventing the arms from being off-loaded. He cut a solitary figure, but his action carried the weight of churches across the province as well as a network of concerned organisations.

Local church representatives went unofficially to Zimbabwe to live with communities and show solidarity during the tense and fraught build-up to the elections being held there. More recently, church organisations were among the first to react to the xenophobia crisis, opening their doors and providing solace and material aid to displaced refugees. There were also KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council (KZNCC) peace monitors in Freedom Square during ANC President Jacob Zuma’s two-day court appearance earlier this month. Less visible are a multitude of programmes tackling HIV and Aids, poverty, skills development, crime, corruption and environmental issues, and strengthening South Africa’s fledgling democracy.

Supporting, initiating and co-ordinating many of these efforts is the KZNCC, headed by Phillip as chairman and Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela as CEO of the organisation.

Phillip describes what’s going on: “During the days of apartheid, the Church played a critical and prophetic role, it spoke out against tyranny and racism. With the establishment of a democratic South Africa, the Church lost that voice, it wasn’t sure what its real role was. We had to ask ourselves: ‘What is our role with a government that we know, where many of the leaders are our friends?’ As time went on, we also noticed that things were not going the way they should go and for what we fought for, like poverty elimination and skills training — our leaders were losing their moral compass. There has been a gradual dawning that we have to be reactive and challenge government,” he said.

Both Phillip and Zondi-Mabizela are mindful that there can be partnerships with government but say that they should not be in bed with politicians to the extent that they are blind to what is going on around them. They are aware that the government would like to co-opt the voice of the Church, and they want the politicians to know that they are doing them a favour by keeping some distance.

“This distance helps us remind you of the great values that we fought for. Right now our struggle is about values, what Nelson Mandela called the RDP [Reconstruction and Development Programme] of the soul,” adds Phillip.

Zondi-Mabizela says that churches are uniquely placed because they are the only movement that meets with their congregations from communities across the province every week.

“We are more in touch with people at a grass-roots level than any political party can claim. Right now there is a lot of anger, people are still mired in poverty, and there is frustration and disappointment at the slow pace of delivery. Our response has been to begin teaching our communities about democracy and encouraging citizen participation so that people can play a part in changing their own lives.”

She said the KZNCC has appointed an advocacy officer to make sure that churches are up to date on bills coming before Parliament and happenings in different government structures and municipalities, so that they can proactively respond to them.

Zondi-Mabizela believes that they are changing the image of the Church. As opposed to people who sit back reading their Bibles, their programmes are action-orientated. “We held an assembly last year and learnt that the issue of land is very big within communities. Human rights violations on farms is a project we are working on where church representatives within an area will be facilitating meetings between owners and farm dwellers to communicate with each other as partners and find ways to resolve the animosity that exists.”

The KZNCC continues to work on issues of xenophobia and is looking at the Home Affairs Department to identify bottlenecks and see what practical role the Church can play. Another challenge is the 2009 national and provincial elections. Phillip said the KZNCC will continue its role of helping to ensure a peaceful election in the province, but they also want to find ways to encourage young people to vote.

Phillip and Zondi-Mabizela stress that in most of what they do, they are not just serving any one constituency, but communities in general. They say KwaZulu-Natal is the only province where most churches are members of the council (see list of members).

For the bishop, the work of the KZNCC is about encouraging hope. He says the best way to inculcate hope is to act and have programmes that people can benefit from, programmes that restore people’s dignity and make them look forward to the future. “We’ve done it in the past in this country and, having found our voice, we need to do it again in a fresh, new and vital way,” he said.

• The KZNCC is holding its annual general meeting today in the Colenso Room of the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg. The meeting starts at 9.30 am.

KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council Member Churches

• Assemblies in Christ

• Church of the Holy Ghost

• Church of the Province of Southern Africa (Anglican Church)

• Church of Zion — Ithemba Lethu (Faith in Christ)

• Evangelical Lutheran Church (Natal to Transvaal)

• Maranatha Christian Fellowship

• Methodist Church (Natal Coastal and Natal West Districts)

• National Christian Assembly of God

• Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk

• New Africa Gospel Church

• Roman Catholic Church (Archdiocese of Durban)

• Salvation Army

• United Congregational Church of Southern Africa

• United Methodist Church

• Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa

• Zulu Congregational Church

• Zulu Congregational Church of South Africa.

Member Organisations

• African Enterprise

• CBS Ministries

• Church Land Programme

• Diakonia Council of Churches

• Evangelical Seminary of Southern Africa

• iJubilee ConneXion


• Practical Ministries

• Ugu Ministers’ Fraternal

• Ujamaa Centre

• Vuleka Trust

• Young Christian Workers

• Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)

• Youth for Christ

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