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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.
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Entries in South Africa (28)

Monday
Apr022018

A politics of forgiveness in South Africa? Is forgiveness even possible?

In my new book 'The (im)possibility of forgiveness?' I present the complexity of notions of forgiveness in South Africa. South Africa's apartheid history (and current reality) is extremely traumatic. It continues to dehumanize the majority of the citizens of South Africa. 

I tend not to speak of a 'post-apartheid' South Africa since I feel that even though we live in a democratic dispensation where apartheid laws have been dealt with, the daily reality of most of our citizens is that apartheid is more entrenched than ever before. Except, now instead of it being primarily a political system in which an unjust state is the supposed enemy, it is a subtle economic system that is deeply entrenched in the social imagination. Some find it extremely difficult to imagine a South Africa in which no person has too much while another person does not even have enough to survive. The 'enemy' we now face is so seductive. It runs across racial and class barriers, seducing us into greater and greater sin. We want to own more possessions, gather more wealth, live in greater opulence, and experience so much more freedom and pleasure. And so, the rich grow richer, while the poor grow poorer.

It is primarily Black South Africans continue to be systematically oppressed through this unjust (economic) system, with unequal ownership of land, and the dominance of whiteness in social spaces and the media. If you want to hear more about my reasons for advocating against the use of 'post-apartheid' as a reasonable statement, or category of thought, then please watch this short video. Simply stated, if I were to claim that we live in a post-apartheid society it would not be true in relation to the daily experience of most of South Africa's citizens. Not only would it be a lie, but it would be a callous lie since it would deny the reality of hardship, suffering and pain that people experience every day.

Hence, while South Africa is closer to democracy (where citizens have the right have to rights), the reality is that politically and economically those rights remain out of reach for most. We are in 'most apartheid' South Africa. In this context, forgiveness becomes a deeply political concept.

Hence I ask, for what reason would White South Africans wish to be forgiven? Is it so that we can be set free from the guilt of our past, and the ongoing guilt of our present way of living? Nathan Trantaal speaks of the 'gif [poison] in vergifnis [forgiveness]'. Forgiveness can be a weapon that creates wounds. A White South African can seek it from a place of power and dominance - asking to be set free without having to face the consequences of our sin (economic sin, racial sin, social sin).

So, if we were to think about a polis in which forgiveness was not only a belief, but a reality, what would it look like? What would it take to get there? I am inspired by Miroslav Volf's idea in 'The end of memory'.

I am often asked when I speak about forgiveness, whether when we forgive, are we expected to forget? I think that forgetting altogether can be dangerous. However, what if we were to live for a world in which a memory of justice, reconciliation, mutual respect, the celebration of diversity, and true wholeness was what we remembered instead of our brokenness, enmity, greed, and fear? How would we need to start living today as a society, a polis, to make such a memory real in the future? This is what Stanley Hauerwas would call a political eschatology.

In this reality forgiveness cannot only be only as a spiritual or a theological reality. It must be concrete, it must be real. The content of true forgiveness should be experienced in a society of justice and grace.

However, it is also inadequate to think that once a political or economic 'transaction' has been enacted that forgiveness would have been achieved - the transactional view of forgiveness is as inadequate as the purely spiritual view.

Please don't missunderstand me - I firmly believe that we need a redistribution of land in South Africa, we need a transformation of our economy, and we must work for a reality in which the majority of our citizens benefit from the bounty and beauty of our land. However, when these necessary things are achieved, we will not yet be reconciled - forgiveness will not yet be achieved. These social, political and economic realities are not the 'end' of forgiveness (its fulfillment or achievement), no, they are the beginnings of forgiveness. Beyond the transaction we need something more, something gracious, something spiritual, something that is shaped by justice but achieved in grace.

I hope that you can see why this notion of forgiveness is such a complex concern? I long for us to be honest about the complexity of the politics of forgiveness in South Africa. It is only when we are willing to count the cost, and even more, to live with grace, that we can move beyond poisonous forgiveness to life giving, life affirming, and real forgiveness. A forgiveness that heals instead of harms.

Here is a copy of the Stellenbosch University Forum lecture that I gave on this topic in September 2017. I was honoured, and very grateful, to be invited by the University to deliver this lecture. The lecture was entitled 'The (im)possibility of forgiveness? Considering the complexities of religion, race and politics in South Africa'. The lecture has been reworked and will soon be published in a book on Religion, Violence and Reconciliation in Africa (published by SUN Media).

Here is a direct link to the youtube link below.

Friday
Oct062017

Graduating with a 2nd PHD in Holland - the possibility of the (im)possibility of forgiveness!

I am so grateful to be traveling to the Netherlands tomorrow (with my wife Megan!) to graduate with my 2nd PHD at Radboud University, Nijmegen in Holland.

The graduation ceremony (and defence) will take place at 16.30 on Wednesday 11 October 2017 - if you read this beforehand you can watch the ceremony online via this link.

I started my research at Radboud University in December 2013. I worked on the project, and spent some wonderful months, at Radboud University between then and May 2017 when I completed the manuscript / dissertation. You can read all of my posts from Radboud and about this research (in reverse order!) via this link.

The research project is entitled:

The (im)possibility of forgiveness? An empirical intercultural Bible reading Matthew 18:15-39.(Click the title to read an excerpt from the book and see the table of contents).

In Holland it is required that the dissertation is published as a book. It has been published by African SUN Media in the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology series on public theology.

Here is the full reference:

Forster, D.A. 2017. The (im)possibility of forgiveness? An empirical intercultural Bible reading of Matthew 18:15-35. 1st ed. Vol. XI. (Beyers Naudé Centre Series on Public Theology). Stellenbosch, South Africa: SUN Press.

 

You can read the abstract below, and see copies of the cover of the book and the commendations in the attached images. If you would like to purchase a copy you can do so via African SUN Media.

I have some sections of the book under review for publication, and have already published the following article which is a shortened section of the Biblical exegetical component of the study:

 

Forster, D.A. 2017. A public theological approach to the (im) possibility of forgiveness in Matthew 18.15-35: Reading the text through the lens of integral theory. In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi. 51(3):1–10.
In this article I also discuss (in summary) the other theoretical component of my study - namely integral All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) theory.

 

 

I made one or two short videos of some of the central concepts (see the bottom of this post for a discussion of the empirical qualitative aspects of the study, and a discussion of one of the primary theoretical components).

I am truly grateful to my promoters, Prof dr dr Jan van der Watt and Prof dr Chris Hermans. They were encouraging, supportive, and wonderful guides along the journey. I learned so much and I am so grateful for the findings of the research and the fruit that it will bear for the participating communities.

Here is a video I recorded at my home University (Stellenbosch University) where I discuss how I worked with the participants to gather and analyse the theological (qualitative empirical) data on forgiveness.

In this video (recorded in Nijmegen at Radboud University) I discuss one of the primary theories that I used in the study, namely inter-group contact theory.

Here is the abstract from the dissertation:

This project engages the complexity of understandings of forgiveness in Matthew 18.15-35 within the context of an intercultural Bible reading process. The study shows that concepts of forgiveness among South African Bible readers are diverse, containing nuanced, and even conflicting, expressions and expectations - a politics of forgiveness. Some have suggested since such entrenched differences in understandings of forgiveness exist in South Africa, that forgiveness may be impossible. However, in spite of this complexity it is suggested that South Africans, and South Africa, could benefit from a rigorous academic engagement with the theologically and culturally diverse understandings of forgiveness that emerge from reading Matthew 18.15-35 in an intercultural Bible reading setting. The knowledge gained from this study may help persons from diverse histories, cultural identities, racial identities, and economic classes, to gain more integral, shared, understandings of forgiveness. In this sense, at least, the possibility of forgiveness may emerge. 

Considering the above, the aim of this study is to produce rigorous, textured, and credible theological insight into the complexity of differing understandings of forgiveness in Matthew 18.15-35 from 'ordinary' Bible readers of different cultures who are members of the same Christian denomination - the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Helderberg Circuit. This is achieved through structuring the study as a practice oriented research project in empirical intercultural Biblical hermeneutics.

Three theories informed the research design. First, Ken Wilber’s All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) integral theory is used as a philosophical framework that provides language and structure to ‘plot’ the theological understandings of forgiveness in the text, and in the reading of the text. Second, intergroup contact theory is used to identify the mechanisms and processes for positive intergroup contact that inform the intercultural Bible reading sessions. Third, the Biblical text is engaged in a scholarly exegetical process so as to avoid collapsing the thought world of the text into the contemporary context. This is a critical aspect of a credible engagement with the Biblical text. This process allows for the construction of a hermeneutic bridge to link aspects of the text to aspects of the interpretive insights of the contemporary readers engaged in this study.

As anticipated, the findings of the research process agreed with some aspects of the research hypotheses and varied from others. The findings of the post intervention research data and analysis shows that to a large extent (except for minor variations which are discussed in the study) the participants of the intercultural Bible reading intervention developed more integral understandings of forgiveness. This means that participants were far more open to accepting understandings of forgiveness that were not held within their in-group, but were more common among members of the out-group.

The primary conclusion of this study is that more integral theological understandings of forgiveness are evidenced among the majority participants in this intercultural Bible reading process which was conducted under the conditions of positive intergroup contact. Moreover, this study shows that one can give credible empirical content to, and explicate, the theological perspectives, and the hermeneutic informants, of readers of the Biblical text. This helps the ‘problem owner’, (i.e., the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Helderberg Circuit), to understand what some of the barriers to shared understandings of forgiveness may be. Moreover, it allows for the design of intercultural Bible reading interventions under the conditions of positive intergroup contact. The data shows that in this case, the participants of this study mostly became more open to a more integral theological understanding of forgiveness with the ‘other’.

This project makes the following novel contributions to scholarly knowledge and the construction of theory: In New Testament studies the research contributes towards a number of new hermeneutic opportunities that arise from reading the Biblical text from a social identity complexity perspective (informed by Ken Wilber’s integral AQAL theory). Moreover, in relation to intercultural Bible reading, the project provides new insights into how persons who hold different socially informed views of forgiveness may encounter one another constructively under the conditions of positive intergroup contact. In terms of empirical cultural Biblical hermeneutics this study is the first of its kind to provide insights into how Black and White South African Christians understand the concepts and processes of forgiveness in relation to Matthew 18.15-35. The findings show that there is a logic behind the socially informed theological understandings of forgiveness that are expressed by the participants. This holds value not only for Biblical Studies, but also for Systematic Theology in general, and South African Public Theology in particular. Then, from a methodological point of view, the interdisciplinarity of the theoretical approach that is employed in this research stimulates new avenues for scholarly theological study in relation to problems in practice.

Thanks for checking in and sharing in my joy! I appreciate it.

Wednesday
Mar082017

Is the Church failing the nation? On Minister Dlamini and South African social grants

In our 3rd year Public Theology / Ethics class today we discussed the notion of a just society in which all citizens have the right to have rights, and the resources of the nation are shared for the common good.

We considered that a just society is one where power is used to safeguard the rights of the least powerful, and where economic policy is implemented, not for the benefit of the privileged or the elite, but for the benefit and protection of poorest of the poor. 

John Rawls's theory of justice was discussed, as was God's preferential option for the poor. In particular, however, we pointed out that in a country where 83% of our citizens say that they are members of the Christian faith, denials of justice and the abuse of the less powerful are failures in our witness and work as the church! 

Minister Dlamini is a member of a Christian church. Has her denomination held her to account for her poor servanthood, for her failure to be a good steward of the trust of the South African people? Have the members of her family, her community, her Church, reminded her that a nation is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, not its richest and most powerful?  

Christians in South Africa, we have so much work to do to witness to justice and work for the common good. We are called to do so - it is a responsibility.

I am grateful to be able to wrestle with these issues with colleagues and comrades in Christ. Thank you for your companionship on the journey!

Here is the article that prompted this post:

PAYMENT CRISIS 

Dlamini unwittingly gives grants support 

08 March 2017 - 06:57 AM Steven Friedman 

Poor people across the country owe a debt to Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini. Entirely by accident, she may have produced a national consensus in support of social grants.

Dlamini presides over perhaps the most disgraceful incident in the past two decades, an exercise in breathtaking contempt for 17-million people who receive grants. There are two possible explanations for the crisis her ministry has created for the grants programme.

Either it did not care, over several years, about making sure grants would be paid after the Constitutional Court overturned its agreement with Cash Paymaster Services — or someone sought to benefit financially from ignoring the order. Both explanations mean her department sees the people who are entitled to grants not as citizens with rights, but as a means to some other end. Which, of course, makes it all the more ironic that it has given grants an unexpected boost.

Before the grants story became national news, the programme’s only friends were a handful of academics, activist nongovernmental organisations and the poor themselves.

Elites here are divided on most issues, but not on prejudices against social grants, which are often derided as hand-outs that create dependency. The right complains that they place a burden on middle class and affluent people, who are expected to sustain others who lack their abilities. Many on the left, and within the governing party, see them as an embarrassing admission of defeat by a state that should be running employment programmes rather than giving money to the excluded.

Commentators across the racial and political spectrum join in this assault on grants, sometimes by spreading legends. A former ANC Cabinet minister claimed, without any evidence, that rural people avoided working the fields because they receive grants. A bank economist claimed that tens of thousands of women fell pregnant simply to receive grants: when asked for his information source, he said a friend told him.

Dlamini’s disaster may have changed all that. None of the commentators or politicians who have criticised her, which means everyone outside the ANC’s patronage faction, have questioned the need to pay grants. It could be a long time before it will again be fashionable to denigrate them. If the assault on grants ends, Dlamini’s scandal will be a disguised blessing for the economy as well as the poor. Grants are, with the programme to provide treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS, the country’s most important success story in the post-1994 era.

Research shows that, contrary to the urban legends, grants are not only a lifeline for poor people: they also help to kick-start local economies. Few people fritter grants away — they are more likely to use them to meet social needs. In some towns, before the grants programme was rolled out, men stood in line for a handful of mining jobs. After grants arrived, people were more likely to be standing in line at stores or, more importantly, buying and selling on the streets. No wonder that studies have found that grants are the most effective antipoverty tool introduced since democracy arrived.

One reason grants are effective is that the decisions on how to spend them are made by the recipients rather than policy makers.

One of the greatest blocks to development here is the gap between what many policy makers think poor people need and what the poor know they need. The more people are able to decide for themselves what their priorities are, the more likely is it that the money will not be wasted.

An end to the campaign against grants might also help the debate to focus on the real world. As this column has pointed out, millions of South Africans will remain outside the formal job market for a very long time, whatever we do and so they will require support to enable them to live productive lives.

Finally, the political costs of harming the grants programme may be severe. Research shows, predictably, that people who receive grants value them and would be angered if they did not receive them, so protecting grants is essential to maintaining a semblance of social calm. The fact that no one in the debate has denied that failure to pay grants would be a catastrophe suggests that this reality too is now accepted.

For all these reasons, if Dlamini’s indifference to those who receive grants has made them a source of national pride and their protection a priority across the spectrum, she will have made, despite her best efforts, a real contribution to the campaign against poverty.

• Friedman is research professor in the University of Johannesburg’s humanities faculty

Tuesday
Oct182016

Dangerous echoes of the past as church and state move closer in South Africa

Dangerous echoes of the past as church and state move closer in South Africa

Dion Forster, Stellenbosch University

The Global Values Survey shows that religious organisations remain among the most trusted institutions in South African society. They enjoy higher levels of public trust than either the state or the private sector. This trust should not be abused or manipulated.

This is a challenge in most societies in the world. South Africa’s particular circumstances are complicated by a difficult historical relationship between the church and the state.

The state has often abused the church to garner votes and misinform, or to silence, its population. The church, on the other hand, has at times given moral and religious sanction that allowed the state to perpetrate significant injustices.

The issue of church and state relationships remains important for a number of reasons. First, South Africa is a deeply religious society. About 85% of its citizens are Christian, while a further 3% belong to other faiths.

Second, it has a clear precedent where an inappropriate relationship between the church and the state led to wide scale human rights abuses in the country’s apartheid past.

There appears to be a reemergence of the abuse of the trust that South Africans place in religions. This is a dangerous situation. An example is the governing ANC’s courting of the largest mainline denomination - the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

When it does not find favour there, it reaches out to independent churches, which are the fastest growing religious groupings in the country.

The church and apartheid

The rise of apartheid politics in South Africa was inextricably linked to apartheid theology. It was the heretical theological views about how society should be structured, and whom God favoured, that gave the moral and religious sanction for a so-called “Christian” nation to perpetrate unimaginable human rights abuses.

At the turn of the 1900s the fledgling Afrikaners nation (Volk) developed a theology in which they viewed themselves as chosen by God for a particular task.

When the National Party came to power in 1948 they had the firm backing of the white Afrikaans churches. The churches – on the Nationalists’ behalf – used the bible and covenantal theology to construct a view that white Afrikaners had special rights at the expense of black South Africans, who according to the policy of apartheid, had none. Particular moral and religious values practised in the church and the home, became the laws of the nation.

Given the close relationship between the church and state, the moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church was jokingly referred to as the “second most powerful man in the country”, while the Dutch Reformed Church was referred to as the “National Party at prayer”.

This dangerous relationship detracted from the role of the state to protect the rights of all of its citizens, regardless of their faith. It also eroded the ministry of the church, which should hold the state accountable for its service to the people. The church also needs to be free to exercise its religious and moral mandate without political interference.

These religious and moral convictions separated people according to race and privileged a minority at the expense of the majority. We are still facing the consequences of those actions and choices.

Abusing public trust in religious institutions

Many gave a sigh of relief when the state and the church were disentangled at the end of the apartheid era. Sadly, that form of separation was short lived. Once again a governing party, in this ANC, is crossing that line.

Recently, Reverend Vukile Mehana, the ANC’s former chaplain general, defended President Jacob Zuma’s claim that people who voted for the ANC would go to heaven, while those who voted for other parties would go to hell.

Just before the 2014 elections Mehana, who is a very senior Methodist minister, encouraged pastors in Cape Town to solicit votes for the ANC, saying:

You cannot have church leaders that speak as if they are in opposition to government … God will liberate the people through this (ANC) government.

He would have done well to heed former Methodist Bishop, Peter Storey’s warning that:

the years since 1994 have surely persuaded us that democracy is not to be equated with the arrival of the reign of God.

So, how did this happen again? Of course there are many complex reasons that lead political parties to want the trust, and moral sanction, of large constituencies such as churches.

On the other hand, there are many church ministers and members who seek the power and opportunity that comes from being connected with political parties and party officials.

Mandela, the Methodists and unintended consequences

My 2014 research, showed that the path for the current abuses of church and state relationships came from former President Nelson Mandela’s relationship with his church.

It was not Mandela’s intention to co-opt the church, or abuse the trust that society places in religious institutions. But in a period in South African history when the narratives of reconciliation, forgiveness, hope and reconstruction were so central, he found a natural partner in the church for the project of rebuilding South Africa. He said:

Religious communities have a vital role to play in this regard [nation building]. Just as you took leading roles in the struggle against apartheid, so too you should be at the forefront of helping to deliver a better life to all our people. Among other things you are well placed to assist in building capacity within communities for effective delivery of a better life.

Mandela worked with faith leaders and church communities, and because he was viewed as a “good person” and a trusted leader, he won their confidence. Senior church leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, worked alongside President Mandela in nation building initiatives.

The state also became accustomed to working with faith-based organisations, which in many poor and rural communities are important, and necessary, sources of support, development aid, and social identity.

But, as successive political leaders, and their political parties, came to power, their intentions seemed less honourable. Many outspoken activists and church leaders had been co-opted into senior government and party-political posts. And formerly trusted allies, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, started facing a backlash whenever they challenged political corruption or ineptitude.

And so, South Africa once again finds itself in a precarious position where a powerful and important social institution is being co-opted by political power. Political leaders are losing their religious and moral impartiality to serve the interests of particular churches and denominations at the expense of others. Political independence and religious freedom are once again under threat.

Of course there are many honourable religious politicians, independent and prophetic religious leaders. But, South Africans would be wise to heed the caution of motivational speaker Rob Bell:

A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage.

Dion Forster, Head of Department, Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Public Theology, Director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology, Stellenbosch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Monday
May092016

The cry of freedom - happy 101st birthday Beyers Naudé

 

Tomorrow we will celebrate the 101st anniversary of the birth of Beyers Naudé.

He was a courageous prophet against injustice - living for a better future for all of South Africa's citizens.

The reality is that not much has changed for the majority of South Africans since 1994 - we still hear the cry for freedom in our land.

We are facing rising economic inequality, increasing enmity between the races, and the continued subjugation of the rights of the most needy and disenfranchised members of society by both the state and those who hold economic and social power.

Please can I invite you to watch this powerful documentary on the life of Beyers Naudé in celebration of his life and witness, but also to remind us of the important and critical task that we face at present?

Tomorrow we shall celebrate his legacy in the residence at Stellenbosch University where he was a student - Wilgenhof. My colleague and friend, Rev Jaco Botha will speak about the legacy and witness of Oom Bey and remind us that his work is not yet done.

We have so much work to do, and it is the work of citizens. We cannot wait for the state and political parties - we are the people we have been waiting for.

 

Thursday
May052016

Is there something we can do? The church and social change (in South Africa)

Human rights might just begin to become a reality with 'right humanity'! Today I interview Dr Braam Hanekom the Director of the Centre for Public Witness of the Dutch Reformed Church. We talk about what can be done by privileged Churches to help make South Africa a more just society for all our citizens. You also get to see some beautiful scenery between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek in the Western Cape as I drive my trusty old BMW F650 GS.
What do you think? Can you make some more suggestions?
We mention the following books:
Church in hard places http://amzn.to/1q2ifFR
Oneself as another http://amzn.to/1T3MWbg
Road to daybreak http://amzn.to/1rwQiaw
I'd love to hear your ideas, feedback and comments!
Remember, this is not a lecture... just a thought!
Please subscribe and like the video! 
Friday
Mar182016

The eschatology of politics, (losing) our civil religion and Žižek's analogy of canned laughter

The media cycle in South Africa, for the second week of March 2016, has been dominated by the supposed influence that a very wealthy foreign family (the Gupta's) have exercised on the South African state through Jacob Zuma. There have been rumours that the President Zuma, his family and cronies, have been on the Gupta 'payroll' in exchange for political favours. This week some senior political figures (deputy ministers among them) came clean, admitting that members of the Gupta family had offered them senior ministerial and state positions (such as minister of finance), while Jacob Zuma was supposedly in the same building.

Some are calling this a capture of the state - only the President can appoint persons to such posts. If a private citizen (a member of the Gupta family) can offer to get someone appointed, then it logically follows that they have power over the President to either coerce or instruct him to make the appointment they have promised.

It does seem that there has been some clear family benefit for the Zuma's since Mr Zuma's son suddenly received a 'gift' of shares in a mine that is owned by the Gupta family - see the Bloomberg report here. Of course the 'personal favor' that the President granted the Gupta family by allowing them and their foreign guests to land without permission or papers at an air force base in order to attend a Gupta wedding was also widely publicised. Many suggest that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of corrupt activity, special favors, and the erosion of state autonomy.

So that is the background - I would like to reflect, however, on how I have read and understood the misguided media reports and public sentiment around this political issue.

Of course there have been calls from some South African citizens and opposition political parties for the resignation (or recalling) of President Zuma. In South Africa a politcal party is elected to office, the party deploys a president - as with Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, if the person does not perform as expected the party has the right to recall them and replace them with another person.

Here is my first observation - I found it interesting that the largest majority of persons calling for the resignation or recall of Jacob Zuma are from the South Africa middle and upper middle classes. Now there are probably many reasons for this - they are the ones whose wealth is under threat as a result of corruption, economic downgrades etc. But another interesting intersection is that these persons are predominantly white. I don't hear the same urgent calls from my middle class black friends. So, I wonder if we (the white middle class) are not in some ways just as bad as the Gupta's? While they hold the President to ransom, white wealth, power (prominence) and privilege holds the nation to ransom in other ways. We see that privilege and power waning and so we, and media we control, are making our voices heard. Of course I could be wrong.

Second, I was struck by the naivite of the expectation that the resignation or removal of Jacob Zuma will solve South Africa's problems. Yes, what he is doing is problematic and harmful to our political system, to public confidence and it has economic consequences. However, I think we are falling into the trap of what Scot McKnight called the 'eschatology of politics' in his book 'The Kingdom Conspiracy':

Many fall for what I call the “eschatology of politics,” the belief that the next candidate or vote can bring in kingdom conditions.

I am of the mind that it is a naive mistake to think that the change of one corrupt politician will resolve the complex intersectional issues that we face in South Africa today. The intersection of our condition is ongoing racism, massive economic inequality, simplistic identity politics and a lack of political imagination for a possible future in which all South Africans enjoy the fruit of our beautiful land. Why is it, as Slavoj Žižek has said, that we have the imaginative capacity as human persons to creatively and vividly imagine our destruction and demise (through killer viri, natural disasters and world wars - to mention but a few narratives in popular film and television), yet we do not have the political imagination to imagine a world in which we can all flourish - a world in which each has according to what they need, and each one gives according to their ability, a world where no one person has too much while another doesn't have enough to survive?

Barack Obama used a very powerful line in his political rhetoric of his first and second campaings 'We are the ones we've been waiting for'.

It is a beautiful sentiment. What few people know is that it comes from a Poem written by June Jordan called 'Poem for South African Women' (presented at the United Nations on August 9, 1978) which commemorated the courage and commitment of the South African women and children who marched on mass to confront the Apartheid government on the 9th of August 1956 - you can read the poem here, and about the use of it in later political rhetoric here.

I think it is important that we heed these words - we are the ones that we have been waiting for! Yes, change corrupt leaders, yes, expect your elected officials, and civil servants, to work for the common good of your nation. However, in South Africa at least, the revolution of change will come when you and I start living the alternative. It will come when I find creative, tangible, and significant ways to share my privilige, to develop wealth for all, and the deal with my prejudice and ignorance. I need to live the alternative and not expect others to change society in spite of me.

Žižek once again helped me to understand how flawed it is to expect a political system to solve all of my problems - he likens it to contemporary religious participation. Let me explain. In his typical 'off the wall' style he says that America's greatest cultural contribution to the world is 'canned laughter', i.e., the kind of laughter that one hears on sitcoms on TV. He says you come home, you are exhausted, you flop onto the couch and turn the TV to your favorite sitcom. At certain moments in the comedy narrative the producers have inserted laughter as a cue - but you are so exhausted that you don't laugh. The television laughs on your behalf. And when the show is finished you say to yourself, 'That was so funny' - but you never even laughed. You have given over your responsibility to choose when, where and how to laugh. He says that religion acts in this way - we give over our beliefs. We expect our pastor or priest to do the right thing. And when we have been to Church, yet not done anything, we believe that we are faithful.

I think the same applies in our politics. In South Africa we have fallen for a false and subtle 'civil religion' - after the 1994 democratic elections we began to believe that God has miraculously brought us into a new social dispensation - the new South Africa. We had faith in it. Our Messiah was the forgiving figure of Nelson Mandela, our high priest was Desmond Tutu (and the content of his sermon was the talk of a 'Rainbow nation'), our text was the constitution, and our liturgy was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These are wonderful ideals, but they take work, real people, sacrifices, and commitment to achieve. We cannot just give over the achievement of transformation, healing and renewal in South Africa to politicians - this is the work of citizens.

Sadly, 22 years after the end of political apartheid we still do not live in a post apartheid South Africa. We remain as divided, if not more divided, than ever. When I meet with younger colleauges, students and friends on our University campus, I can see that they have lost their civil religion (perhaps not a bad thing! If your religion is killing you with slow violence, perhaps it is time to seek a truer faith?) These young people are impatient for change. It has been 22 years and very little is different for them. They no longer trust the 'big leaders', or the 'super narratives' - they are not sitting back and letting the television laugh for them. They are taking matters into their own hands, and sometimes the intention and outcomes are positive, and sometimes they are not.

So, yes, please do agitate for political change. Please do speak out against corrupt leaders in politics and business. Make your hard won vote count.

However, please don't fall for a false civil religion - live for something bigger, something more transformative, something more powerful. Please don't give over your right to transform South Africa for the common good of all to the state only - politics can become like canned laughter, it can become a naive form of eschatological politics. As we have seen all over the world, the next political leader, and the next political party, are unlikely to be much better than the one we have.

Please can I invite you to be the person you have been waiting for? Don't wait for a change in political leadership to live with love and grace in the presence of fellow citizens. Give of what you have, cross the boundaries that divide, seek creative and lasting ways to build friendships of trust, and relationships that are deep and honest. Be willing to discover 'the other', and in doing so you may just find yourself becoming a little more human, a little more like who you are, who you are meant to be.

I'd love your feedback, insights and ideas! What am I missing? What don't I understand?

Friday
Jan012016

Let us all, together, struggle for the New South Africa - Happy new year (2016)

It is a new year. Of course nothing is different from yesterday. However, there is something special about a marker in time, a change of dates; it allows one to reflect, to take stock and to resolve to live more intently, perhaps even differently, beyond that point.

We ushered in the new year with friends. We talked, laughed, prayed, and even argued. I guess that there was hardly a gathering in South Africa that didn't have some conversation about the challenges we face in South Africa - many of which were exposed in 2015. We remain economically unequal. We remain divided by race and class. We remain suspicious and fearful of one another. We long for change.

I said to my family and friends that my commitment in the year ahead would be to work more ardently for the common good of all South Africans, and for South Africa. I am inspired by the following quote from Desmond Tutu's sermon at the funeral service of slain anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko in 1977:

We are experiencing the birth pangs of a new South Africa, a free South Africa, where all of us, Black and White together, will walk tall, where all of us, Black and White together, will hold hands as we stride forth on the Freedom March to usher in the new South Africa where people will matter because they are human beings made in the image of God… for the sake of our children, Black and White together, let us dedicate ourselves anew to the struggle for the liberation of our beloved land, South Africa. Let us all, Black and White together, not be filled with despondency and despair. Let us Blacks not be filled with hatred and bitterness. For all of us, Black and White together, shall overcome, nay, indeed have already overcome.

- Desmond Tutu (at the funeral of Steve Biko in 1977).

The task may be challenging and complex. It will require courage, sacrifice, perhaps even robust engagement, and above all grace and love. But just because it is complex we must not, and should not, shy away from doing what we can do. We should find ways to address what we can see needs to be done. We must move from a modality of blame to a modality of working together for the common good.

Rich blessing to you and your family, your community and our people and land in 2016. May the end of 2016 show that we have laboured well and achieved much.

Hope is hearing the melody of the future. Faith is to dance to it.

- Rubem A. Alves (Brazilian educator and liberation theologian).

Thursday
Dec172015

#ZumaMustFall - the strength of democracy and the weakness of whiteness

South African social media has been abuzz with another catchy hashtag this week - #ZumaMustFall.

Thousands of South Africans reacted to President Jacob Zuma's shock announcement that he had axed a (relatively) trusted and responsible finance minister, Nhanhla Nene, and replaced him with a completely unknown small town mayor with no suitable experience or qualification for the post, other than patronage and loyalty to the President and his corrupt cronies (David van Rooyen).

It would seem from media reports that Mr Zuma decided to axe Mr Nene since he (Mr Nene) had refused to allow the treasury to approve a shady deal to replace Airbus planes for the beleaguered national airline carrier South African Airways (SAA). There is widespread speculation (including pictures and reports from persons close to the President) saying that Mr Zuma is involved in an inappropriate sexual relationship with the chairwoman of SAA, Dudu Myeni (who has been shown to be inept in her position and suggested to be corrupt - the deal in question seems run through with irregularities in the tender process, shady suppliers and middlemen getting payouts and financial kickbacks). It would seem that Ms Myeni allowed a contract with Airbus to expire by mistake (or through carelessness) with massive economic consequences for the national fiscus. When Nene said the nation would not pay for her mistake and it seems that Mr Zuma lost his cool and fired Mr Nene.

The repercussion of this decision - in a week where South Africa's economic rating was downgraded to just above Junk Status - was severe. Within hours the Rand fell to its lowest rate against the Dollar, Pound and Euro, since the early 1990's (over R22 to the pound, almost R16 to the Dollar and close to R17 to the Euro). The banking sector lost billions of Rands in value (as did other shares) as the currency was rapidly devalued. I read yesterday that Barclays Bank is now looking to sell it shares in ABSA bank in South Africa as a result. It is sure to have further direct and severe economic consequences. As with all such events the rich will loose value, but the poor will suffer most.

The reaction to Mr Zuma's clearly irrational and politically motivated decision was so sudden and strong that within a number of hours it seems he was engaged by political parties, business leaders and the labour movements - by the end of the weekend he had overturned his decision and appointed a previous minister of finance Mr Pravin Gordhan. Three ministers of finance in a single week. That must be a new record?

The Rand is now slowly recovering to its levels before this debacle (which was already a low value as investors have lost confidence in the South African economy, economic governance, labour unrest, and the openly corrupt national and business leadership).

Public sentiment - at least among those who control the media and have access to social media (which is still largely white, brown and black elites and the middle classes) was clear: #ZumaMustFall

The question is, whether the removal of Jacob Zuma is really a solution to the current social, political and economic crisis in South Africa?

I am always a little cautious of placing so much hope on dealing with an individual person. What is clear is that Mr Zuma is not solely to blame for the woes of South Africa. He clearly has support within the governing ANC party, so they should share some of the blame (and so should the population who keeps them power by their votes - which includes me). Moreover, the reality is that the challenges that we face in South Africa are not only political problems, they are social and economic in nature. Racial enmity, intolerance, ongoing racism and of course the massive challenges of poverty and economic inequality are huge concerns. In this regard the powerful and the privileged must share the blame for our current problems.

Craig Stewart spoke at the United Against Corruption public march in the Company Gardens in Cape Town yesterday. He made a very valid and important point:

Mr Zuma had used his privilege and power for personal gain and corruption. We have continually called for him to 'pay back the money' (R250 million used to upgrade his private home). 

White South Africans (who hold both power and privilige as a result of Apartheid) continue to use their privilege and economic power to enrich themselves - Stewart said it was time for these elites to find ways of 'paying back the money' for the common good of all South Africans.

I think his analysis is very helpful. Indeed, we will not solve South Africa's current problems only be removing a corrupt political leader. We need to take responsibility for our part in it.

White South Africans will have to be courageous in finding ways to redistribute their privilege, power and wealth among all of South Africa's citizens. I wonder if we will have the courage to support a movement #WhitePriviligeMustFall - or whether those who hold power and privilege can only see it and address it in others?

Indeed, as Tshepo Lephakga, a friend and colleague from UNISA points out - the majority of the South African population are not immediately and directly impacted by fluctuations in currency exchange - the present discontent is a problem for the priviliged (who are predominatnly white). Most of the black South African poor suffer the slow violence of poverty every day - the value of the Rand will only impact their lives further down the line. Those who are most vocal are the ones who currently have wealth and fear loosing it. Here is Tshepo's post:

 

Are people touched by the decisions made by JZ or the reactions of the global capital to the decisions made by JZ?I...

Posted by Tshepo Lephakga on Sunday, 13 December 2015

 

You can listen to Stewart's speech at the bottom of this post.

The further insight that shaped my thinking so far is that from Prof Steven Friedman the prominent political analyst.

Prof Friedman offered a very helpful insight, namely that in a very significant manner these recent events showed that perhaps Mr Zuma and his cronies are not as powerful as they thought they were. When they make irresponsible and bad decisions that have such visible negative effects democracy still functions - Mr Zuma was forced to undo his decision. Friedman further points out that what this shows is that there are (among the many factions in the ANC) clear fault lines between the rural political leaders and the urban political leaders. Friedman feels that it is far more important to have robust systems that can engage corruption and irresponsibility, than simply personalising politics (as is happening in the #ZumaMustFall movement) in the hope that removing one person will solve all of our problems. There still seems to be some power in our democratic system, as this last week's events showed. This is hopeful. We need to work to protect these freedoms.

So, this has been a tumultuous week!

I am thankful that the people of South Africa are finding their voice - the #FeesMustFall and the #ZumaMustFall movements (although very different) have shown that the general populace are finding ways of expressing their discontent with leaders (who should be servants) who are only out to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

It has also helped me to understand much more clearly that the vocal minority do not represent the daily concerns of the majority - this does not mean that the concerns of this vocal grouping are not valid, but merely that we need a more nuanced solution to the problem. That solution will involve not only addressing the corrupt other, but also addressing the privileged self.

Here is Craig Stewart's speech - I encourage you to watch it. It is very helpful.

 

Craig Stewart (Director of The Warehouse.org.za) stood in front of hundreds of protesters today and gave the most inspiring, challenging and godly address I have ever personally heard someone share at a public rally. Thank you Craig for being a brave and faithful leader who with Liesl, Zach, Eliza and Vivian Stewart are inspiring and leading us forwards and Miles Giljam (@unitedagainstcorruption) for his leadership in uniting the church and citizens to stand up and call for justice and a new leadership to achieve it #ZumaMustFall #SouthAfricaMustRise #TheChurchMustSpeak

Posted by Annie Kirke on Wednesday, 16 December 2015

 

Here is Steven Friedman's post:

 

Thwarted attack reins in the ANC’s rural baronsby Steven Friedman, 17 December 2015, 05:48 SOMETIMES, failing to...

Posted by Steven Friedman on Wednesday, 16 December 2015

 

 

Tuesday
Oct062015

#ChurchesUnitedAgainstCorruption - #UAC @SAChurchesUnite why it matters

A week ago (30 September 2015) thousands of Christians gathered in cities across South Africa to show their discontent with increasing corruption in government and business in South Africa. It was beautiful to see women and men from a wide variety of denominations and theological traditions uniting to show that they are not afraid to act against persons who use prominence or power in politics or economics for personal and unjust gains. I was pleased to participate in the gathering in Cape Town, and know of friends who participated in Durban and Johannesburg gatherings.

Of course there are various forms of corruption - persons who pay bribes, and persons who solicit them, so that deals can be done. These drive up the costs of products and services, meaning that less can be done for the common good.  Fewer schools can be built, fewer hospitals staffed, fewer meals dispensed, fewer persons brought to justice, fewer crimes are solved, fewer communities are safe, and it is the poor and the powerless who suffer first, and who suffer most.

Someone asked me whether marches like this matter. Of course on some level they don't. In truth, nobody will admit to being 'for corruption', even the most corrupt have a public rhetoric against corruption - it is what they need to retain the trust and inactivity of those who allow them to remain in office, or conduct corrupt business.

On the other hand events like this are of critical importance. They matter because we cannot be silent in the midst of injustice.  Events such as these matter because we are showing that more and more sectors of South African society are impatient with the injustices and inequalities that are upheld by corrupt persons and corrupt practices.  Events such as these matter because they show that we have a moral conscience, and that people from different religious groupings, and different traditions, can stand together.  They matter because they show that we are not powerless or voiceless.  They matter because they show that we are citizens who are engaged.

So, I would encourage you to act. Recognise that you have a right, even a responsibility, to speak out when things are wrong. Call those who abuse their office or position in business for unjust means to account. Remind elected officials that they are civil servants of the people, not civil masters. Remind businesses and business people that we, the consumers, are the ones who hold the wealth that allows them to operate, and if they will not do so for the common good we can exercise our right to choose someone or something else.

If you are a follower of Jesus it is important to remember that submission to his Lordship has political, economic and social consequences.  What we believe must change how we live - and it should always be for the common good. This is the way of the servant King. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, the church does not have a social ethic, it is a social ethic - we are to become what we believe, our story, our witness, our worship, is to reflect what we believe and what we hope for.

I would like to invite you to visit the Churches United Against Corruption website, or consider joining the campaign Unashamedly Ethical.

Wednesday
Jul152015

Back in Holland - Radboud University, Nijmegen 2015

On the 30th of June 2015 I boarded an Emirates flight for Dubai, heading to Schipol airport in Amsterdam.  From there I caught the train out to the beautiful Dutch city of Nijmegen (where I have been for the past two weeks to work on the completion of my 2nd PhD).

Of course I brought Doris my Brompton with me from Cape Town in the same way that I always travel with this amazing little bicycle - safely wrapped in the Brompton cover, clamps removed, draped with my clothes over the bike cover, and socks and shoes, and toiletries in packets packed around the spaces in the frame. I put a folded towel over the front fold, and a scarf or some socks or such over the left folding pedal. hen all of that goes into the Brompton B Bag.  At the airport I get them to wrap the B Bag in plastic to protect it.  My T Bag (that fits on the front luggage rack of the Brompton) becomes my hand luggage with my laptop and a few other bits and bobs in it.  Once the bike has been checked in for the flight I put the T bag on the luggage trolley and have a rolling hand luggage bag.  It is all quite convenient!  Here is a picture of Doris the Brompton, all wrapped up, with my T Bag on the train platform at Schipol airport waiting to catch a train to Nijmegen.

So, as mentioned already, the reason that I have been coming to Nijmegen for the past three years is to work on a second PhD.  I was very fortunate to receive a European Union 'Sandwich' scholarship for study at Radboud University, which is one of the world's top research Universities (in the top 100).  If you scroll through my previous Nijmegen / Radboud posts you will see that I am doing an interdisciplinary study on the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation between black and white South Africans.  I am using a particular approach to reading the Biblical text (particularly Matthew 18.15-35) in a process called intercultural Bible reading and then applying two theoretical lenses to understand what happens in that process.  The two theories are social identity theory (particularly intergroup contact theory) and Ken Wilber's Integral AQAL (All Quadrants, All Levels) to 'map' the reader responses to the reading of the text.

I am pleased to say that I have the end of this project in sight! I handed in a very large portion of my study as a first draft.  I am busy working with the empirical (qualitative) data that I gained from the research participants in structured interviews and focus group meetings.  The findings are fascinating! I hope to be able to give Churches, communities, and even private and public organisations, some new insights into mechanisms that can help to bridge racial, cultural, and class distinctions.  The intention is to facilitate greater social cohesion and harmony between painfully separated groups (such as black and white persons in the post-Apartheid South African context).  Here is a picture of some of the commentaries that I have been reading to get to grips with the theological nuance, texture and depth of the Biblical text we used in our intercultural Bible reading process. It was quite hilarious to see the librarian's face when I walked out of the library with 17 books in my Brompton T Bag, unfolded my bike, hooked up the bag to the luggage mount and rode off into the distance!

I have been using a piece of software to work with my empirical data - I'm sure that anyone who works with empirical data in a qualitative manner will know ATLAS.ti?  It is all new to me! My goodness, but it is a very powerful software package that allows me to load my interviews, transcripts of the focus group meetings, documents, reports etc., into the software and then draw quotations, trends, networked relationships, hierarchies, nested meanings etc., from the data.  Based on those outputs I then test my theories in a deductive manner to see what worked and what didn't, why it worked or didn't, and can then hypothesise what may be useful for others, and what can be done to augment or correct the variance on my theory for my context.  As you know I am a committed Apple Mac user! For some years now I have only used Macs - I tried working on the little Lenovo Windows 8.1 tablet that I have from work, but my goodness, it just never seems to work! It hangs, quits the software, the touch screen stops working, the keyboard stops working... I am afraid that I can't work with it.  So, I have been learning how to use ATLAS.ti on my old 2011 Macbook Air!  Here is a picture of my Lenovo in the Radboud University Library next to the Erasmus Building.  

This is a beautiful space to work! For the first week that I was here it was SO hot, in fact the warmest they have had since they started recording temperature.  On the Saturday when I went to watch the first stage of the Tour de France (the individual time trial in Utrecht!) it was over 40 degrees! Unbelievable.  The weather has been much milder since, with three days of rain this week.  That makes for great productivity on my Thesis since I can't really do much riding in the rain (or at least I don't feel like doing much riding in the rain!)

The Tour de France in Utrecht was an experience of a lifetime.  I caught an early train from Nijmegen to Utrecth, the train was packed with cyclists and cycling fans.  Of course I had Doris my Brompton with me and we found a little space to sit, once at the station I unfolded and rode down to the time trial route which for some part ran along the beautiful canals and bridges of Utrech.  I stood around and watched some of the riders warming up and riding past, but the sun was SO HOT that it was almost unbearable!  So I decided to retreat to a shady spot on the other side of the canal and watch the action sitting on a grass bank, with an ice cold beer.  It was magnificent.  Certainly a memory that I will cherish for a long time!

Here are one or two more images from that special day.  I had a dinner appointment with some other post doctoral students and one of our Professors that evening, so I didn't stay for the whole afternoon.  I came back to Nijmegen and watched the 'big guns' ride the stage on TV and got ready to cycle to the dinner appointment.

And here's Doris on the canal bank.

This weekend I will be going to Munster to visit some colleagues who are there on sabbatical - Robert and Julie. I love that city as well.  It is just so beautiful, and of course it is a cycling city!

For now it is back to work. I am pleased to say that there are a number of other South African academics here in Nijmegen. This has made my stay so fun and not as lonely. We have eaten together a few times, done a great cycle out on the Ooij Polder, and even did a Zotero Master Class to share our 'jedi secrets' for citation management!  Here are a few guys in my flat learning how to sync their references and attachments from their computers to their iPads or iPhones using PaperShip.

Well, now it is back to work for me.  I am doing my best to get as close to a full first draft done before I head back to Stellenbosch at the end of this month.  Once I get home my teaching load is quite heavy, and I have a few post graduate students who want to hand in their theses this year as well, so I will be very busy with teaching, supervision and research.

Below are two last pictures of Nijmegen - on of the 1944 town square and beautiful old buildings, and another of the Nijmegen bridge which was the historical site of the Nazi defeat (depicted in the movie 'A bridge too far').


As always, I would appreciate your prayers for my family back home.  I miss them so much, and as Liam gets older he feels my absence so acutely!  Thankfully Courtney has been busy with Church and social activities.  Megie, my darling wife, has been holding the fort with work, kids, her studies and home! I am so thankful for her.  Please also pray that I make significant headway with my studies and do work that is not only academically valuable, but that can make a contribution towards the common good in South Africa.

Friday
May222015

Bram Fischer on white privilege (still true 50 years later!)

What is needed is for White South Africans to shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination. Unless this whole intolerable system is changed radically and rapidly, disaster must follow. Appalling bloodshed and civil war will become inevitable because, as long as there is oppression of a majority, such oppression will be fought with increasing hatred.
SACP. “Letter sent by Bram Fischer to his Counsel in February 1965 when he went underground, and read to the court My goodness! This was written in 1965 and it is still as true for South Africa today (and particularly for me as a white South African) as it was 50 years ago! I spent the morning with Bram Fischer’s daughter and a group of concerned citizens at an AHA (Authentic Hopeful Action) meeting to strategize for a better future for South Africans and South Africa coordinated by my friend Paul Verryn. We must find a way to move forward with change for the common good of all South Africans! How is it possible not to act when we live in a nation where 20 million people go to bed hungry at night?