April 7, 2016
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.
February 15, 2012
I didn’t follow the tweets and facebook discussions on the DA youth poster 3 weeks ago. Also decided to wait a while with responding, since the hype and emotions around it doesn’t necessarily create the ideal space for reflection. First: I don’t think they were necessarily wrong to create the poster. I don’t think there is anything wrong with what the poster is portraying either. On the contrary, I think the nerve that they touched with the poster need to be examined, and that we can learn a lot by slowly reflecting on our instinctive reactions to the poster. I do however think the poster is naive, and that if a romantic and/or sexual relation between a black man and a white woman is the symbol for the future that they are working for, then we need a new opposition party. So let me explain.
Some responses to the poster had so-called “moderate” voices fall back upon hard-core racist rhetoric. Comments such as “I am a DA supporter, but this is like cross-breeding a goat and a sheep” do reveal the depth of racist formation in South Africa. After a long history of attempting to convince the country that indeed that was some inherent difference associated with a few biological markers (primarily skin colour), it would be naive to think that 18 years of democracy would exorcise these ideas.
But responses on a “lighter” note is just as revealing. Decades after we have found consensus in academia that there is no such thing as “race”, that external biological markers are not revealing any internal qualities, we still find “caring” responses about the fact that the children from a mixed-race sexual relation would have no identity, or about the fact that cultures are incompatible. These attempts to justify our discomfort with an image need to be examined, its a deep reminder that we have a lot of baggage to work through.
However, what the poster are best at revealing remain hidden from public discourse. It is the instinctive feelings from those of us who have been trained on politically correct responses. I don’t use politically correct in the negative sense here! There is things that we know is acceptable (such as sexual relations between consenting adults regardless of the racial categories in which society place them), and therefore wouldn’t voice critique upon, yet continue to struggle with internally, on an emotional level. Deep within ourselves, hidden from the media, twitter or blogs, is the question whether we ourselves would be willing or able to disregard race when reflecting on our possible sexual relations, or those of our children.
I write the previous three paragraphs not as a kind of guilt trip about the deep racism which “others” still reveal, but rather as an attempt at an honest reflection from within the “own” position of white South Africans. To some extent our reactions to the poster does reveal the depth of what a racist past has done to us.
If we are to move beyond this poster, if we are to move towards the future which the DA imagine, then it might help to stop and reflect on where our instinctive responses come from. The relation between sex and race has been important throughout the development of racial notions during modernity. Studying this remain important if we are to de-racialize society, if we want to undo the effects of a system of white superiority. Within a system in which strict biological markers was associated with internal qualities, sexual relations across these racial boundaries create many questions on what the quality would be of the children born from these. The particular fear is that the “pure” white race, with its superior qualities would become extinct when mixed with “inferior blood”.
But more is at stake here. Black and white bodies is defined to some extent in relation to sexuality. The black male body being associated with a “sexual predator”, always seeking to prey on the white female body, to rape the white female. The black female body is defined as the tempter, responsible for tempting the white male body into unacceptable sexual relations. Furthermore, the black female body is constructed in the gaze of the white male as a sexual object, a body good for the gratification of white male sexual desires, as long as these remain out of sight, since the children born from these relations will be of “lesser quality”. In contrast to the black female body, the white female body is supposed to be “pure” (reminding that race and gender cannot be separated). And the white male body? Well, since it is white males that construct identities under a racist patriarchal society, these bodies are possible considered the most perfect beings, in perfect balance. But the modern history of racism is scattered with the untold stories of white men raping black women, to some extent being the act against which many of the above notions is constructed.
I point this out as a reminder that indeed the DA is on to something when they imagine a future where the racialised nature of sexuality no longer determine the social networks of society. On a side note this short reflection should remind us that if they changed the poster around so that it was a black male and white female, they might have found themselves with even more fierce reactions, but let’s leave it at that.
However, I found the poster to be deeply dissatisfying. Not merely because it was provocative (sometimes public images need to provoke reaction to stimulate public reflection), but because I find it somewhat conservative… and yes, I did intend this last statement. Let me explain.
The poster seek to reveal the depths of our personal prejudices and fears concerning race, and imagine a future no longer determined by these. This is its strongest as well as weakest point, as one of my mentors sometimes said. While I tried to point out the strength of this image above, the limits need to be discussed as well.
Let’s put is this way: while more difficult to portray in a single image, an image imagining a future where schools reflect the reality of the country, and where we don’t look twice at this might have been more radical. A future where if I drove past any primary school, the playground would reflect kids exhibiting features which once was used as markers dividing people, and where these markers would no longer determine who is in this school. In short, an image imagining a future where basically every school would consist of a majority of black kids and a minority of white kids, merely because race no longer determine where kids go to school.
Or what about an image of a South Africa where the super-rich no longer dominate in extremely expensive residential areas which exclude the majority. What about an image which imagine a future where my level of education and my position at work no longer determine who my neighbour would be, a future where the vast inequalities no longer exist. While the relation sex and race is indeed very important, and has been an important contribution to maintaining the racist social structure of society, exclusionary economic practices has been as important, if not more. Merely accepting a future where we don’t look twice when a white man is in a sexual relationship with a black woman to some extent simply reinforce the existing status quo, a status quo where a small, generally economically secure, white minority mix freely with the emerging black middle class and elite while assuring that the privileged position of some (although the image of exactly who the “some” is might change) remain intact and the majority remain in dire circumstances (the majority in South Africa remaining, and possible remaining for the imaginable future, the Black African population).
While I welcome the challenge the DA Student Organization bring concerning the way in which sex and sexuality has been racialised, and indeed I hope that they would do more than a poster, and contribute to a healthy public debate on the actual complexities involved with their image, the poster still leave me wondering whether they are willing to voice the necessary critique against exclusionary economic practices, internationally, but with its counterpart in South Africa. Will the DASA be willing to imagine a future where we will not allow residential spaces which exclude the majority and which are ecologically unsustainable, schools which are only for the elites while many rural black schools provide horrible education, super-salaries for some while unemployment remain a primary challenge. All these questions has as much to do with race as sex has to do with race, but they force us beyond the questions of personal prejudice. While the sex questions might contribute to renewed challenging of structural racism in the long run (a different argument, but I do think that it is indeed the case), on its own it might just comfort us into believing that racism is merely about not being willing to date a black or white man.
November 23, 2011
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.
April 5, 2010
On Saturday morning Eugene Terre’Blanche was part of South Africa’s history, a reminder of a time when far-right opinions still had power, a time gone by. Today some are portraying him as a martyr, and his death as the cry for a call to arms. Saturday he was the leader for a small, an extremely small, minority, yes a minority who were allowed an opinion, but nonetheless not seriously considered to have a major impact on the future of South African politics. Today some consider him to be a symbol of a South Africa that are still ruled by racial hatred.
On Saturday we were fighting racism. We were debating the fine intricacies of a multi-racial South Africa. We knew that sometimes there were racial tension. We knew that there were a thousand points on which we disagreed. We had intense political debates, argued about the future of the South African economy, the adequacy of the Zuma government, how to build a more healthy democracy. Next week we will continue our rigorous debate for this beloved country, but today, today the moderate voices need to be heard.
Terre’Blanche’s death on it’s own wouldn’t have caused the reaction it did. Newspapers yesterday was supposed to report another farm murder, something to get mad about, but not to start a war about. It should have had a short autobiography about a man who was a leader of a small extremist group, not debates about the future AET (After Eugene Terre’Blanche). But a number of circumstances has led to the current situation. Let’s be honest, most notably Julius Malema. No, he shouldn’t be held responsible for what happened in this particular instance, but he has been causing a rise in emotions among white South Africans, and definitely isn’t the favorite politician of all black South Africans either. The “Kill the Boer” argument currently running also contributed to the heated reaction, and I guess a better political analyst would be able to add many more factors that contributed to cause this event to be of sudden international interest.
Suddenly extremist views abound even more than usual. So today we need the moderates. Today we need everyone, from COSATU, the ANC, IFP, COPE, DA and FF+, black colored, white, indian, to condemn murder, to call for calm and reasoned reaction. Today we need to forget our differences and focus on the fact that we have a common enemy. Our common enemy is not white, not black. Our common enemy is violence, violence against all South Africans, in spite of race. Next week we will continue our work on the day to day racial tensions, but today we have a common enemy in extreme racial hatred. Today the majority of moderate South Africans need to be silent about their detailed differences, and unite to be a voice calling for peace. Allowing friends and family of Terre’Blanche of grief, together condemning voices that posthumously sentence Terre’Blanche to death and so belittle murder, and also condemning voices that call to arms and revenge.
June 29, 2009
After visiting the Apartheidmuseum while at Amahoro I made a kind of a personal vow that I will for the coming months take people their, and let them reflect on what they experience. Saturday was our first such a trip, with 11 people in their 20’s, 2 in their teens and one in his 50’s.
The museum has just too much to take in in one visit, so I picked about 5 stations which I didn’t spend time on last time, and really worked through them. The first was the Helen Suzman exhibition. What struck me was the part where she said that the stories of Jewish oppression (I think in the Holocaust, but it might also have been some other, or a few other, instances of anti-semitism) which she remembered was a strong influence in her fight against Apartheid.
For 13 years Suzman was the only member of parliament wholly against Apartheid, but she kept on fighting. Remembering Apartheid, not in order to experience guilt, but in order to change the future, has become very important to me, so Suzman’s remembrance of Jewish oppression and how this influenced her fight against Apartheid is a story which I also think should be remembered.
Well, will visit the museum with another group of interested people again in about a months time. Let me know if you are interested.
Steve Hays shared some remembrance from Apartheid, he still remembers.
August 9, 2008
OK, I’m not the countries best political analyst, and doesn’t often write on politics, but had a very interesting conversation last night with my old friend Weber, so let’s share some thoughts.
First, some background. We’ve been friends when on highschool, but I lost contact with almost everyone I were friends with back then when I went to university. By my fourth year I started really wanting to reconnect with everyone, but never got around to it. A short conversation here, and a visit there… but not much. So we took some time to sit and chat. I don’t think Sundowner, a bar in this little town of ours, has ever heard such deep philosophy…
OK, back to politics. Way back then Weber’s dad was into the more conservative Afrikaner politics (not AWB type, he is part of VF), and my dad was the missionary to the Swazi’s. Time has changed little, but maybe more than I thought. Weber is following VF politics, and myself, oh well, can’t say I’m following politics that much, but in conversation I’m always defending the more liberal positions.
How I see it, conservative Afrikaners lost there voice with Apartheid. No one is really taking them seriously, and they live with a lot of baggage. If you have a white-only voice, you basically have no voice at all. But liberals have problems of there own. I saw it in myself and some friends, we really lost the ability to critique the government. The ANC just had to work for us. For myself, liberation came the day when I had some conversations with black students, and I heard them deliviring critique on both Mbeki and Zuma, talking about an alternative, talking about justice…
I remember saying to myself that if they may critique the ANC, then so can I! And a lot need to be said against the current government, although I’ll be the first to admit when they are doing good, because I really want them to succeed.
At some point in our conversation Weber talked about how the ANC were united because of their common enemy, Apartheid. Maybe we can learn from that. I was reading Alan Roxburgh’s The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, & Liminality yesterday (brilliant and short little book, on which I might say some more later). He make the comment that churches of the West in liminality could learn from how black churches thought previoucly, because they were in liminality (or something like that). Many of us are now where the ANC was 30 years ago. I’m not yet sure what the common enemy is. It’s not the black people, many black people have the same problems I have. Maybe it’s a corrupt government we are against!
Can we learn from the ANC, and unite against this common enemy? But then bright political minds in the conservative Afrikaner community need to open themselves up to black voices with which they can take hands. Conservatives need to realize than liberals is able to critique when it is neccesary, and liberals that convervatives is willing to acknowledge mistakes of the past and the good things of the present when neccesary. And in this a new voice might arise.
Is it possible? Well, early on in the conversation Weber said he doens’t really want to talk politics with me. Why? Probably because he thought it’s gonna end up in a bad argument. But we talked politics for about 2 hours, and we found a lot of common ground. Many of it was when talking about postmodernism and new forms of organization which we envision. But still, we found possible ways on talking about a middle ground.
And the church? Well, if we are to be the alternative comminity today then I believe the church need to be the place that provide the example of where this is already happening, where these different groups of people are already taking hands, becoming a united voice against injustice in South Africa!