Encounter between the shackdwellers and the Archbishop
Yesterday, 31 August 2011, the churches were told in no uncertain terms that they need to get back on the side of the poorest in South Africa.
The occasion was an encounter in Khayelitsha between the leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo, Mzonke Poni, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town, Fr Stephen Breslin. This encounter was arranged by the South African Council of Churches, the Centre for Christian Spirituality, the Restitution Foundation, the St George’s Cathedral Crypt Memory and Witness Centre and the Institute for the Healng of Memories.
In introducing the discussion, the Rev Siyabulela Gidi mentioned that we are sitting in a circle (there were about 100 of us) so that we may be equal.
Mzonke Poni of Abahlali started his presentation by saying that “we are not equal”. He spoke about how the churches have aligned with government against the communities and how NGOs become involved in development in the poor areas, and raised the question: “For whose development is it?”. He spoke about the situation where they live and how there are 6 taps for 80 families.
Poni kept on emphasizing how the group he leads is called various names by government officials. They were called “anarchists” or even “mindless people”. “When you cry out, no one cares. When you take to the streets, everyone is vocal.”
He spoke about the slogan they developed, since some people wanted to represent them without their consent: “Without us, there is no us.”. If the church was amongst the poor and vocal, we would not have been condemned, he said.
He spoke about the way the Mayor of Cape Town wanted to meet with them on her terms: She only wanted to meet with 3 of them, and they said no: “We are 36 in the leadership and we want you to come and address us”. At the end of the meeting someone made the suggestion that the church leaders could bring the Mayor and accompany her to meet with the shackdwellers.
Poni gave credit to one particular church leader, Bishop Reuben Phillips of KwaZulu Natal, who accepted them without judgement and stood with them consistently over many years.
Breslin responded, asking the question “where does the church align itself?”, and mentioned that the alignment is presently with the Establishment. He mentioned how some church people ask him “what does this have to do with the church?”.
He spoke about the theological importance of land, and how all land belongs to God. While he agreed with the need for private property, he said that there needs to be limitations on private property.
Pastor Skosana challenged the Christian leaders present to re-read the Bible, but from the perspective of the poorest. He referred to Mzonke Poni as “my teacher”. He spoke about the need for the churches to engage in struggles, to enter into a space of tension, “not in the corridors of power, but with communities”, to be prepared to be misunderstood, and to learn the “art of justice”. This kind of insight, humility and passion was amazing to see and hear..
Rev Otto Ntshalanyana spoke about how the church used to be one with the community and that we need to return to that.
One of the other speakers from the community (Loyiso) spoke about their “systematic exclusion by those in power….it is as if we are not from South Africa!”. When you meet with government, the “meeting is cooked before you enter the door”. He called on the church to simply make time to listen to their story.
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba made the comment that the Church does not have a choice – that we have to fulfil the imperative of justice and asked how the Church could play an effective role without necessarily representing them as they need to represent themselves.
Braam Hanekom mentioned that a meeting between Premier Helen Zille and the Religious Leaders forum will happen soon and some of these issues could be raised there.
There is a need to understand why the church is in the position it finds itself: we seem to have aligned ourselves with a new “state theology” where the State determines the role of the Church, and we are still caught up in “church theology” where we want to be everyone’s friend and neutral, and we need to seriously think about how we once again move to prophetic theology.