500 years. 500 years of protestant churches being drawn into this, that, or the other nationalist project. 500 years of ethnic organization of the church. To hell with Acts and Paul’s letters. We’ve known this all along. Why, we’ve become so used to it that we don’t even find it strange that “Dutch” is still found in the name of a church in South Africa (yes, “Dutch” in “Dutch Reformed” survived elsewhere as well). Forget the denominational fracturing of the one church that came in the wake of the protestant reformation. Probably more important is that the church was carved up ethnically, and in South Africa in a very particular way, racially.

It’s not new. We know this. When David Bosch tried to explain why apartheid was a specifically theological problem, it was this deep mistake in protestant ecclesiology, which allowed protestant ecclesiology to get so drawn up into social and national identities, which he discerned to be at the heart of apartheid theology, missiology, and politics. It was, at least in part, the reformation that made it possible for that fateful synod of 1857 to finally say that “us and the converts from the pagans” (in this formulation confirming the more recent thesis of Willie Jennings and Kameron Carter that our racial theologies are embedded in a supersessionist imagination) may go our separate ways at the table of the Lord.

More recently I reviewed Thomas Howard’s Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism. What makes Howard’s argument interesting is showing how commemorations of the reformation has itself been drawn into nationalist projects over the centuries. While he was writing primarily about the German context, I then mentioned that this is something that must be kept in mind in South Africa as well. Just how explicitly relevant this might become I couldn’t yet imagine.

Along came Ernst Roets, calling South Africa to protest farm murders. But Roets drew together Monday 30 October and Tuesday 31 October, in a single paragraph calling his audience to participate in both, and drawing the events around Luther into a strategic motivation for yesterday’s protests. The seamless way in which he could do it, and as a brilliant communicater know that his audience will experience no tension with his doing so, should leave us with a deep suspicion on what our commemorations symbolically do.

Boesak, Beyers, Belhar. And others could be added. A long list could be made of South African attempts at finding a specifically Reformed, generally Protestant, and broadly Christian identity not only no longer tied to white racism and European colonialism, but in active opposition to this. But we should not forget that the church, our theology, and yes, the 500 year celebration of the reformation, is a site of struggle. There is a theological struggle around what work today’s reformation commemoration (and that which it signifies more broadly) should do for us politically.

If rugby “united a nation and inspired the world” in 1995 (a slightly ludicrous claim when taken literally, and probably even figuratively, but nonetheless, symbols matter), then in hindsight we might remember 30 October as one of the moments which (at least symbolically) had some the most destructive effects on our struggling attempt at forming a new community after one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century. The brutal irony (or is that, sadly, no irony) that Afriforum claimed that they did this in support of the 1995 World Cup team should not pass us by (the original post on their website has now been replaced with a different message, but they claimed that they received a letter from the 1995 Springbok team).

But not only rugby was co-opted into yesterday’s events. It was liturgical. Bowing knees. Laying crosses. And yes, for Roets and Afriforum at least, drawn into the remembrance of the reformation. But the discourse on violence in South Africa has always been drawn into the construction of race and the process of theologically thinking through our identity.

It’s not that we don’t have an immense problem with violence in South Africa. We do. But Slavoj Žižek’s comments in Violence: Six sideways reflections on racism and hurricane Katrina is sadly relevant to our own situation: “even if ALL reports of violence and rape were to be proved factually true, the stories circulating about them would still be “pathological” and racist, since what motivated these stories was not facts, but racist prejudices, the satisfaction felt by those who would be able to say: “You see, blacks are really like that, violent barbarians under the thin layer of civilisation!””

Even if every statistic thrown around in the past few days was correct (and, most probably it was not), the discourse that was constructed drew from and played into an interpretation of post-apartheid South Africa (also found in a broader colonial period preceding this) which construct black people as fundamentally violent and murderous and white people as primarily the victims of violence (even if, today at least, the exceptions would be acknowledged from time to time).

But weaved into this is an idea of a Christian identity, a Protestant, and more specifically Reformed identity, which acts as symbol not only for white presence in South Africa, but for a God-sanctioned, missionary presence, sent for the salvation of African people, yet constantly opposing communion with black people. This salvific mission might be focused on souls, but it could just as easily be focused on bodies (“no farmer, no pap”?), and the lack of communion might be hidden by a shared photo moment from a march, yet persist in a fundamental lack of intimacy, and more specifically, lack of desire for deep intimacy – a break between soteriology and ecclesiology that has persisted throughout the colonial period and into the present.

We can argue on how many black people participated (from circulating photos it doesn’t seem like a lot) or whether old South African flags were doing the round (some photos are clearly from way before the IPhone, but the video of the singing of Die Stem isn’t being disputed as far as I can see). We can try and tell each other that it was about “all murders”, but the fact is that this twist was an attempt at making more palatable the fact that within days of the release of the national crime statistics, a national march was called to protest a very specific subsection of those statistics – a subsection that has for decades been drawn into the discourse on white vulnerability in post-apartheid South Africa. Individual symbols is not what made black Monday play into a long history of white supremacy, from its inceptions it was built on a longstanding idea that the problem of violent crime in South Africa is mostly the fact that white people are being killed.

In a chapter written some years ago I concluded that “Our rhetoric on violent crime can be seen as a barometer of racialization in South Africa, and it reflects a particular lived theology among white people.” I might have been putting it too mildly back then. It was part of a longer argument. But Christian faith, Reformed identity in a particular way, and white people making race while speaking about violence has a long, a very long, history in this part of the world. People sing Die Stem in 2017 in one moment, kneel down to pray the next, and celebrate the reformation the following day.

Ernst reminded us that commemorating the reformation as a particular moment in the celebration of whiteness still has immense currency in contemporary South Africa. Just as insisting that all deaths matter did not do the political work of undermining a white march protesting the murder of white people as of particular significance, so insisting on the reformation as a universal moment most probably will not do the theological work of undermining the way the commemoration of 500 years of the reformation are drawn into the construction of national and racial identities.

The answer, if there is one, will not be easy. I hold the reformation lightly myself. But it would be naïve to proceed as if this historical moment and the symbolism around it can function politically neutral. Whiteness, violence, Christian faith, and reformation are intertwined in South Africa, to the point where we will have to think about every one of these whenever we mention the other. The struggle for reformed identity continue to impact the present, and will continue to impact the future, and the way in which reformation faith can again (or still) be drawn into the reconstruction of a white supremacist is something we need to remain aware of.

So as Tuesday 31 October come to a close, it might be good to reflect on the work that our commemoration are doing for us both theologically and politically. Not merely what our intensions are, but where our commemoration might be being drawn into nationalist and racist projects which reveal some very old problems in protestant ecclesiologies and white theologies.

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It is probably safe to say that for the almost 1000 people attending The Justice Conference over the past two days it was a good experience. The cynic might easily say that this is just another big church event, with nice music, a nice vibe, lots of talking, and a spiritual high that will dissipate in much less time than it took to organize the event. The cynics wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but there is still much more to be said.

While a look from afar might have given the impression that this is just another big church event thing, I do suspect that a cautious listening to the language spoken reveal a slow change in the church – at least in South Africa. For the outsider, it seemed quite clear that The Justice Conference was a conscious attempt to draw in the broad South African church, with a particular emphasis on those that might not have historically spoken about justice as a core aspect of the gospel. So, we came from all over – Anglicans, mega-church Charismatics, Church of the Nazarene, Seventh Day Adventists, classic Pentecostals, and even the odd Dutch Reformed Church voice welcomed into the space.

As these events go, by now we’ve learned to bypass the numerous things that we’ve historically struggled to find each other on. Baptism, Eucharist, and ordination is left at the door – let each deal with this on their own. Interestingly the Bible is not left at the door – in this space, noting the place from which we are reading the Bible is immensely important.

But certain theological markers are emerging. Perhaps it would have slipped by many of the younger participants – we all tend to think that the way the church think at the moment is just how it has been always, and then miss the deep shifts that are happening over time. So what are some of the emerging theological markers of a justice theology, a justice theology shared by people across the many divides that shape the church today (so not just a simple liberation theology practiced by academics, but a justice theology that emerge from the diverse church community in South Africa)?

  • The future does not get higher priority than the present

For me one of the most significant aspects emerging is the emphasis on the present – on this world. This does not take away the chorus of different understandings of heaven, life after death, or a final new creation. It quite simply says that the next world does not get higher priority than this world. This world is not just an unfortunate temporary home where we merely prepare for another world. This world matters. That this world reflects God’s dream is at the heart of the gospel. Hearing this from those representing churches that historically would have given a clear priority to the future seems to me a marker of a justice theology in South Africa. Maybe Apartheid did teach us some lessons – on how the future can be used to sustain injustice in the present.

  • Souls do not get higher priority than bodies

Closely connected to how we think about the future is how we think about bodies and souls. A priority for the future over the present seem to inevitably bring about a priority of souls over bodies. Historically colonialism and slavery consciously emphasized saving souls as a way to morally justify the destruction of (black) bodies – although the horrors of emphasizing souls over bodies is far wider than colonialism and slavery. Jesus had a body. God created our bodies. Our bodies matter to God. Our bodily integrity matters to God. Looking after the bodies of people is not just an ethical response because we are thankful for how God has saved us (our souls?), it is at the heart of the gospel.

  • Humans are good

If bodies matter, it is deeply connected to the believe that humans are good. No, not that humans are without sin, nor that humans are incapable of committing great evil, but that human beings are fundamentally good. I find this one of the key points that Black and African theologies brought against the European colonial theologies – which started with “you have sinned” rather than “you are God’s creation”. It is the firm belief in the goodness of creation and of humans than become the mirror against which we see the horror of the present – what we made the world into is something which is not good. It is an obvious rejection of centuries of racist and colonialist theologies that considered “some” humans as good, “some” bodies as a reflection of the image of God. Yes, more could be said about the goodness of all of creation, and ecological questions should undoubtedly become part of a justice theology in the trenches, but I guess the South African moment we are in forces us into thinking about humans.

  • Where we see God in history matters

But we can emphasize the present, bodies, and the goodness of humanity while still standing aloof of the concrete questions of society. Perhaps the risk for those of us in the so-called “ecumenical” churches is exactly in this, since we did indeed emphasize the present for a long time, and have been slowly learning to emphasize bodies and the goodness of humans as well. Here, unfortunately, Helen Zille also enters the scene. Because how we understand history was never disconnected from how we understood the work of God. The idea that colonialism was really a well-intended, required, and even while contributing to suffering, at its heart a positive development cannot be disconnected from the idea that this phase in history was part of how God worked in history. Our ideas on where God is going with history, on where God stands, on who’s side God is on (or whether God takes sides) became a fundamental part of how we understood colonialism. While this difficult work of discernment is dangerous, since we obviously carry our theories of society and social change into our understanding of God, it is also important to this justice theology. This is a slowly emerging consensus that God is in a special way the God of the poor and the oppressed, and that God acts in history on the side of the poor and the oppressed (so that the historic process which contribute to the suffering of the poor and the oppressed is not the work of God, and against the work of God). Yes, and this is also where we that say ‘no’, it is not only about how all lives matter, or about how all bodies are beautiful, but about a theology that speaks to the particular: in this moment, we discern God standing in a particular place, and we seek to stand where God stands.

 

I know that more things could be added to this. We could tap into our histories of theologies seeking justice, and there is a rich history, and note other aspects that we need to think about. But if I listened well over the past two days, then these markers are where the church in South Africa is currently in building a justice theology that bridge church and academy and the various church traditions that we are from. It is easier to see the importance of theology in the negative: theology can justify apartheid, can convince people that grave atrocities are the will of God. But theology can also over time form us into a people that work for a just world, and the search for such a theology not just in the thick books of academic theology, but in the lives of people of faith and the spirituality of the broad church, is an extremely important quest. The Justice Conference was not the Kingdom of God, and there are critical questions that remain, but there is also a sense in which the church is giving words to a justice theology that is grounded in the lives of living faith communities, and we should not underestimate the long-term effect of this.

It is time we start thinking deeply about violence again. Then again, when has there been a time in South Africa that we should not have thought deeply about violence? That which we call South Africa was constituted through extreme violence. Ours is an immensely violent space. But at this moment we seem to have found an address for our call for non-violence. In a society as violent as ours, yet with a deep history of non-violent activism as well, calling for non-violence should not be considered strange. But why do we have such a struggle to do this consistently?

Two things are lying open, coming to my attention, through the great system of sharing which is the contemporary networked society, at about the same time (although being moments about a day apart). On the one hand reports that Shaeera Kalla wareports that Shaeera Kalla was shot in the back with rubber bullets 10 times. Yes, one more moment of the horror that was the past few weeks, but through the random fact that I learned of this moments after sending the Powerpoint for a brief presentation containing an iconic photo of her leading a march about a year ago, a presentation that I’ll have to give in a foreign space tomorrow morning, this horrific moment forces me to stop. On the other hand a call, drawing broadly on Martin Luther King, for students to maintain the moral high ground and wage a non-violent struggle.

I’ve always been drawn to non-violence resistance, and while I acknowledge that it continue to be a slow learning curve for someone formed by a deeply violent culture, and a church open in its support for violence, I continue to be convinced that this is indeed what I am committed to. Why? I guess I could make long and sophisticated arguments, and I don’t deny that they are needed, but the short version is probably that it is a remnant of my WWJD spirituality, and the conviction that indeed, non-violence and deep peace was indeed central to what Jesus was about, even when elaborated in more complex arguments, remain fundamental to my conviction.

But for all of this pious conviction, piety which hopefully overflow far beyond the walls of the sanctuary, I’m left tasking a bit of bile at much of the calls for peace amidst campus protests. The inconsistencies is becoming unbearable.

With all the horror we expressed after Marikana, few who mouth non-violence were campaigning active demilitarization of the police, and even of progressively reducing police carrying and using of weapons. We seem incapable of imagining a society which express absolute horror at every moment of police brutality, yet we have a rich repertoire of language to express our outrage at the kid who picks up a stone. We are convinced that students should not respond to violence with violence, yet lack the capacity to imaging a response to vandalism (I do not deny that there was instances of vandalism and intimidation, and I cannot condone this) which does not involve state-sanctioned violence.

We insist on non-violent strategies, yet we fail to consider our own role in this. Non-violent strategies rely on the ears, the conscience, the heart, of those of us who are touched by these actions. 15000-20000 students marching to the union building in an act of non-violent protest rely on the fact that government, business, civil society, academics, and churches will in this action take note of their concern and give the kind of weight needed to shift the priorities of society. How do we call for non-violent strategies without putting our bodies into positions which allow these actions to be successful? While we might differ on the details of policies every moral fiber in our bodies should acknowledge that it can never be justified that financial means determine access to or success in education. Yet every piece of research will tell you that financial means is directly correlated with access to and success in education, also higher education. We are faced with a deeply moral concern, a fight for the soul not only of universities, but of our society: education, a key foundation of a healthy modern society, has increasingly become a commodity. We talk about education as an investment, about increased salaries as a return on investment, yet when students become the conscience of us all, forcing our attention onto the deep inhumanness of our society, we fail to give the needed weight to insure that this concern is addressed. And then we express our disgust when a different strategy is used. We like quoting King, but we forget that “a riot is the language of the unheard”.

And then we haven’t started talking about the ongoing inconsistencies in how we respond to immediate moments of violent action verses the ongoing systemic violence. We claim it is about violence, but when economic exclusion result in directly shortening the lifespan of a vast portion of the world and the country we call for slow processes of development. When student activities risk destruction to property we call for the immediate response of security forces. My pointing this out should in no way condone the moments of setting light to property, of breaking a window, but how do we call on the moral conscience of students when our own moral conscience has become totally numb to the ongoing brutalities and overly aware of the moments on transgression? Such a distortion, obviously not disconnected from the function of the images that we see flowing through our facebook feed (it is difficult to take a photo of a board of directors buying land which results in an old women needing to walk even further to get access to clean water, taking a few years off her life), should, is nothing short of a crisis of discernment, and for those of us who are religious in general and Christian in particular, it is nothing short of a crisis of faith.

Yes, I acknowledge that I struggle to imagine a world without the monopoly on violence that we have given to the nation state. But how many rubber bullets will we justify through the argument that “some students were vandalizing property and intimidating fellow students”? How many bombs dropped from planes will be justify through the reminded that there was someone that strapped a bomb to their body. And in which world to be expect that our moral call for non-violence will be heard while we bracket the state from that call? If I heard Jesus correctly then indeed violence is not part of the agenda. Indeed, Jesus did think that the Kingdom will not come through the use of violence. Jesus also walked close to those who differed from him on this point. And Jesus, it would seem to be, was clear that it was the oppressive violence of occupying forces that was of deeper concern (Dominic Crossan’s The Greatest Prayer is simultaneously historically helpful and spiritually nourishing in this regard).

In this violent society there might be few things we need more than a commitment to non-violence. But in this distorted society there might be few things which disrupt the quest for non-violence and peace more than our inconsistent insistence on non-violence.

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…

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.

We often hear that “apartheid was a heresy”, yet what exactly made this a heresy is at times lost in our church discussions. For those of us in the Dutch Reformed Church this might be partly because nowadays we are looking at a tennis game between a group in the church who find heresy everywhere, and another who cannot work with the concept of heresy at all (I’m rather drawn to the second one, so if this post relate to the current conversations on heresy I’m responding to myself).

Russel Botman share the story of how their class of theological students became convinced that apartheis is indeed a heresy. Jaap Durand was the lecturer in systematic theology, and challenged his students:

“You have been quite explicit about the legal, sociological, psychological, and political science reasons for your judgment on apartheid. I want to challenge you to find the theological essence of the judgment on apartheid.”

The answer he then provides is that “apartheid has as its point of departure the irreconcilability of people of different race groups.” Apartheid assume that people are inherently irreconcilable, while the gospel assume a radical reconciliation which transcend all borders.

We might want to revisit this idea that arguing from a belief of the inherent irreconcilability of people is nothing but a heresy, since this continue to be such a common idea. Is this not what underlies every statement that two groups of people will “never be able to find each other”? If we normalize the divisions in society by saying that “our cultures differ too much”, “there will always be conflict”, are we not assuming that people are inherently irreconcilable?

Socially I think there are two ideas which we are holding to in order to keep this heresy going. The one is the belief in some kind of essential group identity. White people will always be white people, always act like white people, and always want to be part of a group of white people. The other is that conflict between groups of people that are different are inevitable and natural. Yet neither of these are true.

Groups are fluid, change over time, merge with others, die out, have individuals abandon that group, and are joined by individuals who it would be inconceivable in another context. Religions as a social group provide a good example, or nationalities, but cultures, ethnicities and the way the world are constructed as races are not essential and eternal either. Secondly, even where we do belong to different social groups, conflict and strive is not inevitable. Groups of people find amazingly creative ways of living in harmony together.

Yes, group identities are strong and will form us over generations, sometimes over thousands of years. But they are not permanent. Conflict do exist between different groups, but it is not inevitable. Reconciliation is difficult (and true reconciliation should be difficult, if it isn’t difficult we might want to suspect that we are not yet totally honest with each other), but always possible. So let’s start watching the language of “never” and “impossible” when it relates to reconciliation.

This does not imply that we will sort out our divided legacy in this country in one generation, or even in my lifetime. But it does mean that I will reject every movement which support an irreconciled society, or which work with the assumption that we are inherently irreconcilable, and trying is therefore worthless. Let’s agree to end that kind of talk.