an alternative story to a proposal for a responsible future (RE: Dion Forster)

September 30, 2016

My colleague, friend, and at times sparring partner Dion Forster has been sharing some thoughts on our contemporary losing of faith in Mandela. But his argument require some push-back, so Dion, here is the push-back. I guess we have a bit of a history of pushing back against and together with each other. Let’s continue thinking deeply on this.

Dion’s argument is that post-1994 South Africa has adopted a civil religion. No, not the Methodist Church of which Dion and a large group of high profile ANC members are members, nor a particular form of Charismatic Christianity that many think was drawn into state sanction through the National Religious Leaders Forum (as opposition to the South African Council of Churches who wasn’t towing the line). Rather, this civil religion was our very politics and public ideology itself. To argue this Dion reads major figures and events through religious analogy (and perhaps more than analogy). Mandela as messiah. Tutu as high priest. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission as symbolic ritual and national reconciliation its eschatological (or is that teleological?) goal justified through a doctrine of the rainbow nation. It has a sacred text (the constitution) and hymn (Nkosi sikelel i’Afrika).

In the process Dion repeats a number of criticisms which would have been quite shocking (at least in the mouth of a white university professor from Stellenbosch) until a few years ago, but which has become common today. Mandela’s role in the negotiation process is questioned. The TRC’s forgiveness of perpetrators and lack of compensation for victims is mentioned. The constitution as protecting the privileged is mentioned (Dion does not connect this to section 25, the property clause, but since this is where this critique is most often pointed towards, I would assume that is what he is aiming at) as well as its perceived lack of restorative justice.

In many ways this is a dominent narrative of contemporary critical discourse. What is not entirely clear is whether Dion consider the problem to be in its excesses (it becoming religious, in a sense) or whether he agrees that there is a fundamental critique that is valid, and if there is, what exactly it is? For example, Dion, are you arguing in support of changing the constitution? Perhaps of rejecting the constitution and starting over? Should the so-called negotiated settlement be rejected or renegotiated? What does this narrative make of proposals that a so-called “Nuremberg trial” would have allowed for a deeper resolution to our problems?

But I have a deeper question about the narrative. Two things happen in this narrative. Firstly, the alternative theologies are silenced by presenting this as civil religion on the one hand and by discerning its rejection primarily through recent events. Secondly, the silence on how present critiques draw on alternative visions from the past leaves the future open in this narrative, and Dion then fills the future with a particular vision. Let me explain.

First, 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. These are broad strokes. I’m not yet equipped enought to indicate how each contributes to the alternative narrative, and where they reject the narrative that became dominant or bought into the dominant narrative at later stages. The point is that reading our story as one of consensus with later disillusionment is skewing the picture. The skewing becomes more clear with the second point.

The little bit that I do understand from the student movements (and related movements) is actively drawing from this alternative narrative. Biko in particular (the alternative messiah?), but also Fanon. Marx and Lenin (not always sure how the EFF relates to this, but it is right there in its constitution). Rick Turner seem to be appearing as well. Black Theology seem to be making something of a return. Noting this makes it clear that the critique is not merely of the excesses of our dominant narrative (that it became religious), and that a general Christian or atheist (on this point the two might not be that far apart) conviction that such a false religion should best be lost is therefore appropriate. Rather, the critique is of a very particular kind of dominant narrative, and the proposal is that particular alternative voices be listened to.

There is a very strong historic dimension. There is a tradition behind the protest. This tradition has been with us always.

This brings be to my main point: “I am of the mind that South Africans should lose their false civil religion and exchange it for an ethics of responsibility”. This statement is perhaps only possible by silencing the alternative tradition that is being drawn upon in current critiques. If it were mere disillusionment we could perhaps have made a variety of proposals on what is needed. But we are confronted with an alternative narrative and eschatology, and we need to take this seriously.

I’m not opposed to an ethics of responsibility (I was a students of and assistant to Etienne de Villiers for many years, so I guess something rubbed of), but it would be irresonsibly (excuse the pun) to use student movements, and even the voice of the Qwabe’s, to suggest that an ethics of resonsibility is what should be called for. Dion, would an ethics of responsibility not be quite at home with the compromises of the negotiations, with the constant reminders of the global limitations to economic policy proposals, and the narrative of slow and incremental change as opposed to a revolution? Perhaps you should help us with the details of what an ethics of responsibility would be, but I think that a good argument can be made that it is exactly an ethics of responsibility that is being rejected…

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2 Responses to “an alternative story to a proposal for a responsible future (RE: Dion Forster)”


  1. […] 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: […]


  2. […] 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: […]


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