I wrote this during the week and initially decided not to publish. The response of church leaders yesterday gave me a place where I’m willing to position myself, allowing to more easily share my thoughts for a time like this.

Perhaps I’ve always been slightly skeptical of the things that “everyone beliefs”. Perhaps I just listened to some very good friends pointing out that the initial #Zumamustfall events were more about white people defending their rejection of black majority rule than about movements actually seeking the good of “we the people”. Perhaps I’m just inherently skeptical about party-politicians, or else overly optimistic about constitutional democratic processes. For whichever reason, I find myself in this awkward place where it seems like my entire facebook timeline, who usually cannot agree either on how the Bible should be read or whether capitalism is a good idea, is in agreement that Zuma Must Fall. So I’m driven to writing, perhaps answering the question of a friend on what I would have added to the 6 April declaration by civil society organization, perhaps just giving some substance to my awkward attempts at toning down the slightly extremist language I’ve seen flame up. So this is my attempt at explaining why I’m not overly optimistic about the fall of Zuma, even if I do suspect that this is an inevitable event.

Some disclaimers are in order. I have no party political affiliation. I’m an ordained minister of a church which clearly state that you cannot remain ordained while being in any kind of leadership position in a political party. Together with many others I tend to expand this regulation to imply that you cannot remain ordained while being a card carrying member of any political party. In short: as a ordained minister I consider it part of my duty never to uncritically support a political party. But I am a ferocious supporter of the vote, and think that people should vote and that their vote should be held close to sacred.

So why am I not getting caught up in #ZumaMustFall? I’m not going to even attempt to defend president Jacob Zuma. He’s made some inexcusable mistakes, even while not everything he did was a mistake. Personally I kind of assumed that he’ll be recalled for some reasons like “bad health” around the time of the election of the next ANC president. I’m not really in favour of recalling presidents. I think we risk creating the belief that we can always “fix it later” if we’ve made a democratic mistake. As a rule that shouldn’t happen. We should vote with the assumption that we’ll be stuck with the elected official for 5 years, and make sure we vote for people we’d want to do the job for 5 years. In South Africa the recall of a second president in a row would be particularly problematic. That said, perhaps we are in a particularly problematic situation, warranting exceptional action. But let’s remember, recalling, impeaching or retiring a president should be an extremely exceptional thing.

But since the Constitutional Court case I’ve really struggled to buy into the call for Zuma to retire, be recalled or be impeached. Perhaps it’s the huge grey-ness around what exactly the call is that’s partly to blame for my lack of enthusiasm. I mean, what do civil society want? Should Zuma announce that he is retiring due to health reasons (we’ll all know that it won’t be entirely true, although I think if he doesn’t have health problems given the recent stress he must experience then he would surely be an exceptional man)? Should the ANC get together and recall him? Should parliament vote that they have no confidence in him or should they impeach him? It seems like we really don’t care: as long as the chair of the presidents office isn’t being warmed by him, it looks like my facebook timeline would be happy.

Let’s intersect the argument by just noting that any call for the fall the fall of the president play into an ongoing party political discourse. Yes we know, certain political parties has for a long time been telling us that the real problem with South Africa is Jacob Zuma, or for those slightly less committed to democracy and more willing to question majority vote, the ANC. One problem with at least the official opposition is that they’ve been raising some serious concerns about whether they really want Zuma to fall. Let me explain it this way: each call for a “vote of no confidence” or “impeachment” by the official opposition insures that it cannot happen in the immediate future. Obviously the majority party in parliament won’t be voting in a favour of a resolution to get rid of their appointed president if brought forth by the opposition. But more than that, it forces a greatly divided majority party to close ranks and defend a deeply problematic president. But perhaps that is what the opposition really wants. It seems like it is entirely in the favour of the opposition if Jacob Zuma remain president, since they then have a perfect election platform. So excuse me for doubting whether the opposition is really trying to work for “we the people” even if that would make their election campaigns far more difficult. In short: I’m not quite convinced that parliament is divided between those who serve party political interests and those who serve the people. It seems like the lines are quite blurry, and that all parliamentarians are to some extend working for the good of their respective parties rather than for “we the people”. The latest impeachment debate is not necessarily an exception. Any civil society response will have to ask questions not only about this or that party, but about parliamentary processes which does not work for the good of people, but rather seek to score cheap party political points.

But obviously these are not the only reasons. My bigger concern is that the call for Zuma to fall seem to repeat the strange idea (strange for modern democracies) that the change of the individual at the “top” would somehow miraculously save a country. It’s either that if we just get the right guy at the top (whether Mmusi Maimane or Julius Malema) or if we can just get rid of the wrong guy at the top (in this case Jacob Zuma, with the default replacement being Cyril Ramaphosa) then somehow things will get right. But how can we belief this of a complex institution like a modern democracy?

Furthermore, this belief allow us to buy into a very easy civil society response. A clear call: “Zuma Must Fall!”, easily understandable (seen in the confusion around how exactly he must fall), easily visualized (ask the cartoonists) and something which seem attainable within the short term – let’s face it, getting civil society committed for the long haul is probably asking too much.

In the process we might risk not working for the really important things.

Focusing the problem on the fall of an individual assume that there really isn’t anything wrong with the presidency as such, with the checks and balances making sure that the presidency doesn’t overstep its function. It’s an argument that Jacob Zuma was really just an exceptionally bad guy, and that if we can get a better president, then all will be well. But perhaps we should ask whether we want a presidency with the power to tumble a country into so much trouble (I’ll get to the question on why we blame this on a single individual later)? Should we not rather mobilize civil society around some suggestions on how the presidency functions? How cabinet ministers are appointed?

But the focus on the fall of an individual has some other risks. Each Sunday Christians from a variety of traditions remind ourselves that the evil in this world, the injustice and oppression, is not only something “out there”, not only something found among a elect group of “purely evil people”, but something which we are all part of in some way or the other. We’ve all sinned, Christians confess. But our current public discourse seem to belief that the “innocent” are now calling for the fall of “prime evil” (even if individuals might not subscribe to this kind of theology – and a theology it is, even if secular). Apart from the excessive political metaphors (comparisons with PW Botha or Adolf Hitler or the likes) it also misses how we are tied into the injustice that lead to this point – and let’s just point out that those making the most noise are not necessarily the least tied to the maintenance of immense social problems in our country. It’s not simply that we’ve all participated in the “petty corruption” of South Africa, but that we’ve participated in building a culture of excessive greed – found in the lengths to which we go in order to acquire the symbols of wealth and power (the suburban home, expensive motor or overseas holidays, or the clothes burned in certain teenage rituals) to our tacit support of extreme inequality – the disingenuousness of calling out Zuma for the fact that South Africa is the most unequal country without explicitly asking questions about the processes through which the top 1%, 5% or 10% (gini-coeffient is usually calculated according to the top 10% if I’m not mistaken) attain and retain this wealth should leave us with immense discomfort.

But there is a flip side to the problem of a belief in our own innocence: we tend to create the perception of a part of a society which is ultimately “evil”. We’ve seen this over the past few days in the discourse associated not only with the president but with the ANC as a whole. When a well-known public figure describe the ANC (implying the entire movement) as a “spineless bunch of self-serving sycophants” then we should indeed react with some discomfort. Once we’re convinced that there is a single evil which should fall “at all costs” we risk allowing the inconceivable – such as soldiers questioning the presidency (look around you and see what happens when soldiers decide that perhaps it would be better if the president was removed!). While there has been moments in history where the language of excessive evil might have been appropriate, this is not it. This is a fairly well functioning democracy, and if we had any doubts about it, the past 5 months revealed this brilliantly, both in the reappointment of Pravin Gordhan as well as in the Constitutional Court judgement.

So beyond the question of the power of the presidency I would hope that civil society will start focusing on a number of other things.

We all love the Public Protector right now, and with good reason. But a new Public Protector will have to be appointed soon, and the brilliant ruling by the Constitutional Court through Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng made sure that the role of the Public Protector will be even more important in future. Civil Society should start mobilising to insure that the next Public Protector will have adequate funding and that whoever is appointed will be someone with integrity above reproach.

The presidency of Jacob Zuma has been shrouded by questions about the excessive power of the “security cluster”, harking back to some of the darkest days in the history of our country, as well as the undue influence of big capital. Marikana, Guptas, or the recent murder of Bazooka Rhadebe might all be examples of the intersection of these two forces. Civil society need to have some serious conversations about how we insure that our democracy is not run by either the powers of guns or capital.

We have to insist that the solution cannot simply be in the replacement of one president with another nor with one political party with another, but that we are committed to working for a well functioning democracy where we not only resolve the current problems (and problems we have) but where we insure that the chances that any such problems occur again are significantly reduced. Anything less is simply not good enough.

So, in order to not allow this crisis to go to waste, let’s insist that the anger of South Africans is not reduced to changing faces, but to building our democracy into something even more resilient – but if that is the goal, then I have to say, I don’t think we’re starting out from such a bad place. We seem to have a democracy which functions quite well.

But let’s also remain clear on one thing: Jacob Zuma should not be removed “at all cost”. There is indeed a cost which is too high. In the call for the removal of a president we can indeed legitimize things which will cause far more harm in the long run. Let’s always count the cost.


In large part I still don’t know I got here. I’ve seldom thought of myself as much of an activist. I’m probably as uncomfortable in a protest as the next white middle-class guy. But it’s clear that the students are right. They’ve been right all along (if you ever had doubts, you can also scroll down and consider the advise in the last paragraph). I can talk about the math on why they were right if you want, but we’ll have to grab a beer or a coffee for that. For now it’s enough to just say it: they were right and I knew it. The church supported them. Academics I trust supported them. So I knew that when the march go to the Union Buildings then I will join them. I decided to join as verbi divini minister – minister of the divine word – and the dress-code clearly revealed this.

Today I saw young students, beautiful young students, on the bus I took towards the inner-city. Their water bottles gave away their agenda.

Today I saw students gathering in a park. A joyous occasion. I saw white students learning the art of politics. Slowly, hesitantly, learning what it means to be part of a mass movement. I saw a massive amount of students, reflecting the demographics of this country, singing together, marching together, joking together, sharing space and company, dreams in their eyes about the future of this country. I walked with them and I knew: if these people represent where South Africa is going, then I want in. I want to be a part of this.

Today I saw ministers from different churches joining students. Some in liturgical wear, others indistinguishable from the students around them, representing a range of churches. When signs of violence started appearing I saw a senior minister tell us: “come, we need to go there”. “Isn’t is safer here?” another asked. “Indeed it is”, he answered, “but we have to help calm things down”.

Today I saw thousands upon thousands of students gathering with utmost discipline. Insisting on peace. I know that you’ll see thousands upon thousands of photos of a small group who might not fit this description, and I’ll get to them, but the norm of the day of peace.

Today I saw violence. Perhaps I’ve never seen violence in my protected existence as close as I’ve seen it today. For my white friends, today I saw a small group of both white and black male students instigating violence.

Today I saw pastors standing in front of a fence which students want to break down and occupying that space. At least for a while. I saw them promise to students that we are here with you. We support you. But insisting that this is not the way to go. And I saw angry, deeply angry, students respect that. I plead with my fellow pastors and church leaders: I saw students showing a cautious trust towards the church and faith leaders. Cautiously considering that the church does have the kind of integrity that we will stand with them. Please, we cannot let them down. Statements are great, but we will have to get together and think deeply about how we consciously journey with the young people of this country. I say this in particular to my own church, the Dutch Reformed Church, because, let’s face it, we are very very far removed from what the average South African is going through.

Yet, today I saw a Dutch Reformed minister standing with students, actually trusted enough that they would calm down around him, at least for a while, and repeatedly explaining the churches support for these students to every journalist approached him. And many did. Colleague, you know who you are, you earned my deepest respect today.

Today I saw how even with even this utmost discipline, even with student leaders from every party and group working for peace, it is really difficult to stop a small group of instigators. Probably impossible. Before you point a finger, stand in that space. Today I watched as a fire was started close to where the stage will be. Pastors around, lawyers for human rights around, and a massive amount of students working for peace around, without resorting to further violence it is almost impossible in the long run to stop a small group of instigators. And when a tire burn is burning it is burning.

Today I saw 10000 students (I guess the official number will be confirmed later) gathered at the the Union Buildings by 12:00. There was no problem by 12. But by 13:30 there was no sign, not even an announcement, from the people that had to speak. Nor by 14:30. We stood their shaking our heads. We could see how difficult it is becoming to contain those instigating violence. We knew that working through the program will give the majority of the students something to keep the peace with. We knew that what was needed was someone with the authority to speak to get onto that podium and speak. But it didn’t happen. Forgive me for getting the impression that someone wanted to delay this until there were instances with which to delelegitimize the students.

Today I some kind of armored vehicle driving through a crowd of students as if they are not there. To that driver: what were you thinking? There was absolutely no reason for doing that! I’m no security expert, and probably never will be, but I’m quite convinced that someone who is will be able to indicate that what happened today is simply not the way to work with a crowd of students.

Today I saw journalists on both side of the fence. I saw journalists among the students and journalists among the police. I know that you had to look at the conflict, but you will tell the story in the coming days. Hats of to you who can look beyond a single incident and see the broader movement.

Today I saw students regroup after teargas was thrown around. Not up by the gates where some clashes were happening, down by the grass where students were waiting. I saw students gather themselves, following leaders, peaceful with utmost discipline, preparing to occupy that space again.

Not everything was beautiful. Not everything was perfect. But you are going to make a choice whether you want to look at the thousands of students peacefully gathering or whether you want to look at the thousands of photos of the violence that did happen. I’m not blind to what happened. I stood as close to that fire as was humanly possible. But I know that this is not what defined today. Today was defined by the insistence of the majority that this will not be another violent clash. Today was defined by the two young woman who, deep into the day, took position right in front of me, where we were pastors were occupying the space next to a fence that some wanted to break open, to form their small part of a chain. It was defined by their insistence to each other that they’ll wait until tonight if needs be, but they will not engage in violence. You choose what you want to see. But it will probably say more about you than about what happened.

Today would have been a totally different story if someone walked onto that stage at 12:00 and made the announcement that was made at 15:00. It would have defined the story of this country in a way would have been far more hopeful. Alas.

That is what I saw today. I guess I need much more time to process this. I apologize if I can’t express this correctly. But this is what I saw. To the students I marched with this morning: if you are the future of this country, then I want in. You’re walk was a symbol of hope.

And to those who think the protests was unnecessary or even wrong. I sincerely hope that you’ll pay the 10% difference in you or your child’s university fees into some bursary fund.

It has become quite a popular quote in some church circles to remind that church is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. Your life from Monday to Saturday is where the real church happens, so we say. But what if that is wrong. What if it is all about Sunday morning 9 o’clock? What if everything that I’ve been reflecting on over the past 5 years on this blog (emerging churches, missional conversation, public theology, liberation theology, theology and racism) should not be a call towards the Monday-to-Saturday-real-life, but rather a radical call towards Sunday morning 9 o’clock.

On the ticket of it-is-not-about-Sunday, some of my friends has quit the church-on-Sunday’s system. They left that behind, since if the logic that it’s not-about-Sunday, but about my life from Monday to Saturday is correct, then why not take it to its logical conclusion and just end Sunday morning 9 o’clock (or whatever your equivalent of the central gathering of a community of faith is, whether Sunday evening 6 o’clock, or Wednesday evening 11 o’clock). but for most people however vaguely committed to the Jesus-story there remain a Sunday morning 9 o’clock, or equivalent event (perhaps not weekly, perhaps not in a church building), which give some kind of explicit form to their faith commitments, even though they, to some extend rightly, identify their whole of life as the place of faith.

The dark side of underplaying Sunday morning 9 o’clock is that we can use Monday to Saturday as a tool to divert the gaze away from the problematic nature of Sunday morning 9 o’clock’s gathering of a community of faith, and so underplay the very important symbolic moment which Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain, a moment which publicly reveal that which is real, and in this revelation is actually calling the church’s (and is this perhaps more than merely the church’s) bluff… or at least should be.

The form this might take is the following: “Even though we are a white middle-class community gathering on a Sunday morning, that is not our real identity. Our real identity is to be found Monday to Saturday, where members of this community of faith are through their work building relationships across racial lines, and in our outreaches building relationships with the poor“. Sunday morning 9 o’clock is therefore not our real identity, and the exclusivity revealed in this gathering should not be seen as central to the identity of those who are gathered. The church is therefore not simply a middle-class white Afrikaans community, since Sunday morning 9 o’clock is not a true revelation of who we are.

But what if Sunday morning 9 o’clock does indeed reveal our true identity. Does our choice for who should help us in heating pews on Sunday morning not reveal our relational commitments in it’s truest form? Perhaps not on an individual level, in the sense that I only choose my friends and romantic partners from those who attend church with me (although this remain common in some church circles), but rather more generally, in the sense that those who I join on a Sunday morning reveal the broader class, racial, ethnic or cultural group into which I commit myself relationally. I also do not wish to argue for simple causality (as in that the church is the reason why I have bound myself to this network of people), but rather that we need to notice that this particular commitment to a community of faith does indeed reveal our “true identity”.

Is this not perhaps in part why transforming religious communities is proving to be so extremely difficult? Not only in South Africa! Follow the North American discourse on race, look at how church from similar traditions remain separate when immigrants to Europe prefer their own communities rather than joining the existing church. On an even superficial reading of the Christian tradition we know this to be problematic, which is why we have a very long history of attempting to theologically justify this phenomenon. A mission policy which dictated that it is “more effective”, “better” or “biblical” for “each group” to have an “own church” was one brutal way in which we did this (an approach which has resulted in extreme shame as we had to acknowledge that this was built on racial ideologies masked as theological convictions), but why should a reinterpretation of Monday to Saturday necessarily be exempt from similar biases?

Don’t get me wrong, the theology which made Sunday morning 9 o’clock into the absolute symbol of religiosity need to be challenged! Insisting that Monday to Saturday (or perhaps just Monday to Sunday) should indeed be the place where faith finds its primary expression – in how we conduct business, where we choose to buy our homes, the schools we choose for our children, the way in which we do our shopping, the political convictions we have – is indeed an important shift (although not a new revelation, but rather something which we have a centuries long history of attempting to do). And using a small religious life as a way of diverting the gaze from how we continue our ruthless exploitation of others beyond our religious life might be on of the most important insights the church need to face in our day. But what about the opposite?

What if we use our public lives which is lived in a more diverse environment, or even our acts of charity across class divisions (to approach the Rollins parable used in the above link from another angle), to keep the critique out of our most intimate spaces. For us as religious leaders the most intimate space might be the church itself, and we might use the above kind of argument to divert attention from the very obvious symbols of exclusivity which our churches remain, while for members of faith communities the gathering on a Sunday morning is symbolic of our most intimate relations, and we therefore need to divert the critique away from this, even using some nice Christian notions like participating in development work or living out our faith from Monday to Saturday as tools in immunizing the local community of faith against critique.

The message of Jesus and Paul seem to be much more radical, and Sunday morning 9 o’clock might be the more important political event, even in our day. As I read both the gospels and Paul it seems like their social experiment, grounded in a particular vision of who God is, was to change the most intimate relations, which was also often found around religious gatherings. Jew and gentile, tax collector and zealot. These were not bound into a spiritual unity, but rather walked the same roads following the same rabbi, or gathered in the same community – or at least that was the ideal.

Most white South Africans have black colleagues, and we tend to at least “muddle through” these relations, and often have good relations. But the unwritten rules remain that I can leave these relations behind Friday afternoon. These relations can remain official. And we can volunteer at a local soup kitchen, but no one expect us to continue sharing a meal elsewhere with those who come to get a bowl of soup. But we perhaps know that the local congregation has a different set of rules. The local congregation to some extend assume that we will share a table at some point, perhaps give others access to our home (through various small groups or Bible studies for example) and that we should cry together when others experience pain.

What if we just started right here, at what seems to be the most difficult. What if CEOs and cleaners, black and white, Zulu and Shangaan, Afrikaans and English, were to sit next to each other on a Sunday morning. To listen to the announcement of the deaths of each others family members. To visit each others homes. Have our kids attend Sunday School together. Drink coffee together while we wait for the Sunday School to end. You know, just typical church stuff, but explicitly crossing the very divides which our particular context keep in place. Obviously we could find new ways of keeping the divisions in place even within one congregations, and a naive focus on the membership list should never be mistaken to relationships which transform our identities, but the very difficulty of doing exactly this might be a reminder that it might be the place where we should start.

Perhaps it is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. But as long as Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain a symbol of class, racial and ethnic divisions in a society, we might want to consider that the truth is that it is about Sunday morning 9 o’clock for most of us. This is indeed the place which illustrate who I am in all its obscenity. I am part of this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation. I am not the guy who is nice to my workers or who contribute to a soup kitchen. As a Christian I might actually be doing this exactly in order to divert the critique against this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation of which I am part.

For many of us the weekend was spent struggling with the question: how do we worship after Lonmin? I remembered preaching the Sunday after Eugene Terre’blanche was murdered, that Sunday was a difficult sermon, but at least many of us felt like we had some consensus on what had to be said. My sermon focused on reconciliation, and in the sermon I could point to many people from diverse backgrounds who all called for the same thing: reconciliation.

This Sunday was more complex. Do we pray for the police, striking workers, government leaders? Should we pray for an end to violence or for a more just economy? I insisted on Saturday that the ethical challenge facing us is to insist that this event be interpreted in the broader context of a South Africa culture of violence (and other aspects which we might discover allowed this to happen). In the liturgy I believed it was not the time to identity either the police or the striking workers as the root of the problem. Tom Smith suggested that the only thing appropriate for this Sunday’s liturgy was lament. To my mind this was correct, and following some guidelines on using the Psalms in liturgical lament, our small church service in the inner-city cried out to God that things are not going well, and we focused on the fact that at times the church pray “Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us”.

I reflect on this in order to say that the presidential call for a week of mourning has some overlap with an appropriate Christian response to Marikana. The overlap should be recognized, but the limitations for the church following government into this week’s mourning should also be noted. I don’t want to downplay the public rituals of mourning that will be visible throughout the country this week. I think those are important, and I support president Zuma’s call. But as Christians I believe there should be more to our week (week? and then?) of mourning.

Typically mourning involves an expression of deep sorrow for the death of another, often accompanied with public symbols such as the wearing of black clothes, and in this case flags hanging half mast. According to some reports, Zuma added, and again I want to agree entirely with the importance of this, that part of our mourning should include reflecting “on the sanctity of human life and the right to life as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic”. But I do want to add two things for the church.

First, when entering a time of lament, the church cannot only give expression to deep sorrow. Our sorrow cannot be disconnected from the plea that God will change our society. Our sorrow cannot be disconnected from a process of committing to justice. I don’t yet know what justice will imply at Marikana. I don’t yet know what exactly justice will mean in the relationship between rich and poor in the coming months and years. But I know that as a Christian I cannot enter into a time of lament following Marikana without simultaneously being formed towards a commitment to participating in the reign of God at Marikana and beyond.

From this I want to add a second aspect which I believe is crucial at the moment. In some way we are all connected to Marikana. Marikana was not merely a once-off event, but it was a mirror of our society. Our time of lament should call us into a time of self-reflection, not merely feeling sorrow for those who suffer, but also asking how we are embedded in what happened. I say this not as a way of pre-empting our analysis, but rather as a call that social analysis involve self-reflection. I don’t doubt that we will have to talk about police reform (again!) in the coming months. We will rethink our labour union systems and in particular how they are related to big businesses and political parties. We will have to (again!) fix our eyes on the growing economic inequality. We will ask questions from multi-national companies and wonder how exactly their future in South Africa should look. The list goes on.

But if we are serious about saying that “never, never again”, and about going beyond finding a guilty party so that we can go on with our lives, happy that someone will pay the price, then it will require that we also see how we participate in keeping aspects of society which lead to further violence in place. This is not merely the work of social analysis, it is an act of spiritual discernment. This week, I believe the text which should lead us might be “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). From such a spirituality we might be able to engage in a process of public social analysis and critique, something which is too important to merely leave in the hands of official committees, but which is too sensitive to allow the continuing throwing around of wild theories which merely implicate our favourite guilty party. We cannot speak of lament if we continue to act as if this tragedy might merely give us the final evidence for what we have been saying all along.

So we mourn this week. But our mourning involve more than sorrow, it involved the prayers “let your kingdom come, let your will be done” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Only in this way can be prepare ourselves to insist on and contribute to an uncovering of the injustice of Marikana and a more peaceful future.

A number of Lonmin posts have made it into my drafts. But I struggle to press the “publish” button.

I’ve spent some time re-reading parts of my dissertation handed in earlier this year, which focused on public responses to violence (or rather, to a very specific subset of this genre), and it stops my from pressing that “publish” button even more.

There is no shortage of attempts at finding the “true perpetrators” of this horrific event. Unions. SAPD. Sriking miners. Mining bosses. However, there is a sense in which it is just too easy to find a scapegoat. The comparisons to Sharpeville, although undoubtedly problematic, is a reminder that we have to take a broad historic view in interpreting the event. The London-listed company, an employer responding to the death of its employees from thousands of miles away, a reminder that this horrific local event cannot be disconnected from a global interpretation.

When writing on this last year, two aspects which I (following others more knowledgeable) considered key to understanding violent crime  (and for the moment I’ll refrain from commenting on which part of the event should be considered as “crime”, and simply insist that we focus on violence in general) in South Africa was the culture of violence established over decades, a culture tied specifically to the mining industry in South Africa, and the effect of economic inequality on violence. I summarized it in the following words:

Although final answers to why South Africa has such a high level of violent crime is difficult, no coherent explanation can be given without recognising that it is not a post-apartheid phenomenon. We have to connect it to a long history of violence in South Africa. South Africa has been exceptionally violent throughout its history of colonialism and apartheid. Extensive (often foreign) military power was utilised in the control of indigenous groups and the use of the police as an excessively violent force during apartheid is well documented. Urban violence connected to gang culture can be seen from the late 19th century around mining cities (particularly Johannesburg), with pass laws, migrant labour and the criminalisation of black labourers creating a constant flow trough prisons, many times the place where a violent culture was strengthened rather than defused, contributing to a culture of urban violence. Although developing later and to a smaller extent than in Johannesburg, a gang culture and a growing culture of violence also developed in other mining towns along with migrant labour and the cycling of African and Coloured males through prisons. […]

The history of colonialism and apartheid further affects the continuing problem of violence and crime through the peculiar levels of economic inequality in South Africa. It has been recognised internationally that economic inequality (rather than merely poverty) leads to higher levels of violence and crime. While this might at times be attributed to the fact that crime is a more effective road to generating income than the legal route of participating in the economic sphere, or at times the only possible option available to someone, this does not provide a sufficient explanation, since much of the violence and crime in South Africa do not lead to any economic gains. Rather, the psychosocial effects on the excluded individual and group, such as feelings of exclusion, resentment and anger, can sometimes translate into violence.


This is not sufficient, but sets the tone against which I would want to start thinking through the events of the past week.

This event must result in a thorough analysis of violence in South Africa, both historically and geographically broad, forcing us to go beyond finding a scapegoat to crucify. Our scapegoats tend to merely continue the stereotypical analysis which reflect the South African public discourse, with the choice of blaming unions or police or striking miners or multi-national companies seldom coming as a surprise.

Yes, many moments around Marikana contributed to this horrific event, many small signals found in the bodily movements of strikers and police, many split-second decisions. But the event was in the making for decades. It is an event resulting more from decisions made slowly, at times when its implications might not have been clear, and decisions made unconsciously, the implications of which we have to take note of in hindsight. While police, lawyers and courts will slowly work through the event in the months and years to come, and while this is indeed necessary, the ethical challenge facing us lies in insisting that such a focused analysis cannot provide us with a way forward. We have to take on the broader challenge of transforming the South African culture of violence and exclusionary economic systems (or whatever the other insights is that we come to when doing our analysis as broad and as deep as possible) which provide the background against which specific incidents erupts.

The broad assumption of public theology as the theology has implications for public policy and life in general. Public theology assume that theology does not merely speak about the spiritual life of the individual believer of community, but that churches and individuals can make a unique contribution to the well-being of society by drawing on our particular tradition. In short, we believe that by drawing on language reflecting on God we can point to ways in which society can be better.

The question on how this should be done has received a bit more debate: is our task to merely repeat the words of our tradition in public, contributing the tradition itself to public life, or should we translate our specifically theological vision into language which is accessible to those outside our tradition? Although we can’t say that there is consensus on this, my feeling is that in Ecumenical theology we are more prone to speak in words which can be understood and used even if those who listen do not share our tradition. Some would argue that there might be times when this is impossible (how do you translate the love of enemies into language accessible to the modern democracy?) and others that we should continue to enrich the public discourse by our own language as well (thus we draw a bill of rights to remind society that everyone is equal, yet add that we believe everyone is equal and valuable because they are made in the image of God). But I do find that more and more churches and theologians speaking about public policy do it in way which would be understandable to the broad society.

We might argue that this is a good thing. It imply that churches recognized their place in a pluralistic society, assume that they have to take others into account, and participate in a public discourse without asking all other parties to adopt their rules of engagement. It imply that the church recognized that society is not the church, yet also affirm that what happen in society is of importance to God as we understand God. I think there is a lot of value in this.

However, there is a danger as well. The danger is that we can participate in the public discourse and raise our voices on issues of public policy without drawing on our own tradition, but by merely affirming a political model or the view of a political party. By stating this as a danger, I’m not suggesting that political theories is inherently problematic, but I am affirming my belief that as church we have a unique perspective to contribute. What I am suggesting is that public theologians and the public church might at times need to commit to reverse engineer our stance on public issues and our suggestions for public policies, asking ourselves how this would sound if we state this as a theological position.

For example: if we as church take the stance that individual property rights may not be rejected in a process of land reform, what is the underlying theology? If we defend democracy, or a specific form such as a constitutional democracy, how would we motivate this to ourselves by drawing from our own wells? I don’t want a church writing a theological treatise to government on the issue of land reform, but for the church to engage with itself on our own suggestions on public policy, we need to articulate how this connect with how we speak about God.

This might not always be possible. Our theological tradition is certainly not the only, and often not the best, voice to inform our opinions on issues of public concern and public policy. But if this is the case we might want to admin among ourselves that we take a position on pragmatic grounds, or because of our commitment to this or that theory which belief has won the debate on what is the best for society. It might only be a thought experiment, but I do think it might be one worth engaging in: let’s consider for a moment what our churches’ stance on various issues reflect about our underlying theology. Let’s consider that our actions are a lived theology which can be engaged by seeing God in what we say concerning issues of public policy. So where public theology like to claim that we argue from theology to public policy (something which I have my doubts on how often it happens), I want to suggest that we argue from public policy towards theology, seeing which God is shining through the cracks of our participation in the public discourse on politics and public policy.


If there is a unifying thesis that runs through the bric-a-brac of reflections on violence that follow, it is that a similar paradox holds true for violence. At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance. This is the starting point, perhaps even the axiom, of the present book: subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence. First, there is a “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call “our house of being.” As we shall see later, this violence is not only at work in the obvious-and extensively studied-cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what I call “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.

Violence, p1


Third, there is the matter of violence. Support for violence is intrinsic to Marxism. Without condoning the violence of the status quo and Christians’ blessing of it (which is actually the bigger problem), one has to express concern about the support for revolutionary violence (which is actually the lesser problem, since it is really a response to the violence of the system) in some branches of liberation theology.

Transforming Mission, p441

They reflect on different aspects. But a common thread is an important reminder: the violence of the status quo is the bigger problem. I’m convinced we’ll achieve more if our public discourse tackle the issue of economic exclusion and inequality, inhumane living conditions and deep racism, elements of what I would consider to constitute the violence of the status quo today, almost inevitable by-products of the smooth functioning of our economic system. Violence, also in it’s “subjective” forms, is a serious problem facing South Africa. Yet the vigor with which we are tackling this issue might just be deflecting attention from the violence of the status quo, the violence that keep the the privileged the privileged, and the poor the poor. Creating the impression that the “real problem” is individual acts of violence associated with what is considered criminal, while this should be read symptom of a bigger problem of violence.