Religious experience and dimension in the process of reconciliation and peace in Africa

Card. Wilfrid Fox Napier O.F.M., Archbishop of Durban

Purpose of this Paper

       The purpose of this paper is to give a testimony on how the Church in Africa has played a role in the service of reconciliation and peace, in the particular case of South and Southern Africa.

      While I will relate what the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference has done, this does not take away anything that SECAM (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences in Africa and Madagascar) has done at the continental level or the various Regional Conferences such as IMBISA (Inter-regional Meeting of Bishops in Southern Africa) have done in the different Regions.

Introduction - A brief historical background

      What does the future hold for South Africa? Who or what is shaping that future?

      Interested observers often ask these questions as they watch the new South Africa struggle to find its feet as a free and democratic nation.

      Tension and conflict are part and parcel of change in any human society. How much more so in a society that has for decades suspended the norms of justice, truth and love, as it pursued a policy universally condemned as inhuman and unchristian!

      For brevity's sake I will posit that the struggle for a just and more human society began in earnest after the Soweto Students' Revolt in 1976; that the struggle took on a new expression in the early 80's and that it attained an irresistible momentum in the late 80's.

      As a result of increasing pressures from the international community and the internal civil disobedience and defiance campaigns mounted by Churches together with opposition groups, the repressive apartheid system became quite untenable.

How we got there

      These combined pressures eventually drove F. W. De Klerk to oust P. W. Botha as leader of the governing National Party and President of South Africa. But the future of South Africa became clearer only after de Klerk's historic speech at the opening of Parliament on 2nd February 1990. In that speech he committed his government to:

  • repealing all apartheid laws;
  • lifting the prohibition on the people's organisations;
  • facilitating the repatriation of political exiles;
  • releasing Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners;
  • starting substantive negotiations.

      By the end of the 1992 parliamentary session, Parliament had repealed the "pillars of Apartheid" namely the Group Areas Act, the Land Acts and the Race Classification and Population Registration Act, thus ending the era of legally enforceable racial discrimination

Removal of Apartheid laws

      Removing apartheid laws was in fact far easier than carrying the new vision through to its logical conclusion. A great deal of political will was needed. This was sorely tested as the "armed struggle" against the apartheid government was replaced by a murderous power struggle between the African National Congress and Inkatha. This struggle resulted in the loss of 10 000 lives between 1992-­1995. An extremely high toll by any reckoning!

Catholic Church's Role

      With this background allow me to sketch briefly the Church's response.

      When the Catholic Church took up the struggle against apartheid in earnest, it was guided by two principles:

a) what Gaudium et Spes has to say about the Church's role in the Modern World; and b) the bona fide needs of the people it served.

      The first concerted effort came in response to the events of 16th June 1976 when the students of Soweto revolted against the apartheid system. The Bishops found themselves faced by a challenge that demanded a comprehensive and co-ordinated response, indeed, nothing less than a direct assault on apartheid!

Declaration of Commitment

      The Bishops' response is found in their "Declaration of Commitment on Social Justice and Race Relations within the Church", a document that committed the Church to removing all traces of apartheid from all its life, institutions and practices.

      The first step was to bring all members of the Church on board by holding consultations at every level of the Church. These consultations culminated in The Inter-Diocesan Pastoral Consultation of 1980, This was the biggest gathering of Catholic Laity, Religious, Priests and Bishops in Southern Africa. It produced a host of recommendations, which were worked on through a pastoral planning process that extended over the next decade, eventually giving birth to a Pastoral Plan bearing the title "Community serving Humanity".

Pastoral Plan

      Launched on Pentecost Sunday 1989, the Pastoral Plan provided the Catholic Church with a clear vision as well as practical steps for removing apartheid structures, practices and attitudes from both the Church and society.

      Its two major aims were a) to build community and b) to transform South Africa into a more just and human society.

Aim One

  • to build a Church community in which everyone could feel at home;
  • to help overcome situations where people in the same congregation did not know or speak to each other, let alone care for or about each other;
  • to remove all forms of discrimination within the Catholic Community.

Aim Two

  • to become a church serving humanity by working for social justice;
  • to transform our parishes so that they make present the Christ who healed and cared for all in need;
  • to work for a change of heart that would move all South Africans from the discrimination, separation and segregation of apartheid to mutual acceptance and respect in a more fraternal society.

Churches together - Ecumenism at work

      At the same time that the Catholic Church took these measures within, it was fully involved in ecumenical efforts such as the "Standing for the Truth campaign". This campaign epitomised the Churches joint action against apartheid. It stemmed from a clear common vision that had developed over the years. And it gave expression to the realisation that in order to succeed in its repressive objectives, apartheid depended on the compliance and active co­operation of the oppressed themselves. If that co-operation and compliance were withheld, apartheid would not be able to function. Thus Church leaders took to walking hand in hand with anti-apartheid leaders, at the head of illegal but peaceful protest marches and demonstrations. These actions, if anything convinced domestic and international opinion of the emptiness of President PW Botha's efforts to make meaningful reforms to apartheid.

Mediating in moments of crisis

      Another key work of the Churches was mediation in moments of crisis. One such was the repatriation of the exiles. Since these were widely regarded as "communists" or even "terrorists" committed to overthrowing the government by force of arms, it was necessary for the Church to intervene, if only to allay the general fear and suspicion. Through its participation on the repatriation committee the Church was able to involve the United Nation High Commission for Refugees.

      Another moment of crisis came during the constitutional negotiations when de Klerk and Mandela engaged in a stand-off over the Constituent Assembly. This was resolved when the Church leaders managed to get De Klerk and Mandela to appear on TV to inform the nation what had gone wrong and how they proposed to resolve it.

Promoting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

     Given the gross violations of human rights under apartheid it was absolutely necessary that some process of healing and reconciliation should follow liberation.

      The crucial question was: what should it be - something like the Nuremberg Trials or a completely different process?

      Once again God intervened by leading us to opt for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Even though it did not, and could not deliver justice in the true sense of the word, it was better geared to bringing about healing and reconciliation. Anything else would have served only to polarise and alienate individual from individual and group from group.

Personal Misgivings

      I must confess to having had serious personal misgivings. I feared that full and public disclosure would ignite the already volatile situation in areas such as KwaZulu Natal. To expose someone to possible arrest and prosecution would be likely to cause further violence and death! Thank God, my fears were unfounded! Disclosure was done in such a way that instead of aggravating the situation it encouraged perpetrators to come forward who might otherwise not have dared!

Fruits of the TRC

     By all accounts the TRC not only afforded the victims an opportunity to tell their story and so release them from pent up pain and anguish, but it also enabled the nation as such to be cleansed and to work up the determination never to let such things happen again!

Lessons for the Global Church

      As stated at the beginning, the experience of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference is put forward as an example of a religious experience or dimension of working for reconciliation and peace. Now however it is important to highlight a major achievement of SECAM, namely the "African Synod".

  When Pope Paul VI was in Uganda in 1969 to canonise the Martyrs of Uganda, he challenged the African Church with these words: "It is time now for you Africans to become missionaries to yourselves". From those inspired words SECAM - the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar was born.

   Not many years later SECAM began requesting an "African Council" through which African Church Leaders could make binding decisions on pastoral questions such as marriage, ancestor veneration and inculturation.

   Years of consultation and debate ended with the Bishops of Africa coming together for the Special Assembly on Africa of the Synod of Bishops. The Synod took four years to prepare and when it eventually assembled in Paul VI Hall in April and May of 1994 it established a new way of being Church in the world.

Importance of African Synod

      In many ways the African Synod epitomised what the Church in Africa has to offer to the universal Church. For one thing the consultative process not only reached right down into every Diocese, parish and rural community, but it also produced the most comprehensive response to any Synod questionnaire. All but three of the thirty-four Bishops Conferences sent in the views of member Bishops. Surely a record for any Synod!

 Concluding Message

      It is my parting prayer and wish that we will take to heart and make our own the vision that God has for his people, as elaborated by the African Synod with its image of the Church as "Family of God" and enunciated by the Prophet Ezekiel:

      I will gather you from among the nations where you have been scattered; I will pour clean water over you: I will take out of you the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh instead; I will teach you to keep my ordinances; I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; You will be my people, and I will be your God!

May this be our experience of reconciliation with God and with each other.