Laying down his staff

After the SABC banned an Afrikaans loveLife advert in 2002 because it featured Pieter-Dirk Uys using the word naai (fuck), an unexpected visitor turned up in the West Coast town of Darling.

Said Uys: “The window of the car rolled down—it was Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane on his way to a congregation on the West Coast. He said he thought he’d stop by and tell me two things. The first was that he admired my work around HIV/Aids.
Then he said: ‘One more thing … naai’ before chuckling mischievously.”

Those who know the Archbishop of Cape Town are familiar with his impish sense of humour.

He lacks the flamboyant mannerisms of his predecessor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu—the high-pitched voice, the rolling eyes and gesticulating hands—but shares his passionate humanitarianism. He has been particularly vocal on development, HIV/Aids, poverty in South Africa and Africa and debt cancellation.

As Archbishop of Cape Town and head of the Church of the Province of South Africa, Ndungane has led four million Anglicans in 26 dioceses in South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and St Helena for 10 years. Last month, he announced his intention of retiring in 2008.

Ndungane, who turned 65 in April, said there was nothing unusual about his decision, as most of his predecessors had not stayed on beyond 10 years.

“I have thought long and hard about it. Our canons say one can go until 70. [But] 2008 is a very significant year in the life of our church; we’ll be celebrating the 160th anniversary as a diocese. I think that’s a good time to change guard,” he says.

While Tutu gained an international profile as a fierce opponent of apartheid, Ndungane has had to deal with more complex issues in South Africa and abroad, some within the church itself.

They were highlighted this week at the three-yearly general convention of the American Episcopal Church, which resisted pressure from the worldwide Anglican communion to harden its stance on the ordination of gay bishops. The church also outraged conservative Anglicans by electing the world’s first female archbishop, Katherin Jefferts Schori, as its leader.

Conservative Episcopalians look for support to diehard African primates and Ndungane is the one African Anglican leader to swim against the conservative tide. But conflict between his personal beliefs and the church’s official position sometimes makes him appear undecided.

Homosexual ordination is the one issue that inspired Mail & Guardian cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) to take him on. “I drew a cartoon after the 2003 Lambeth conference of the archbishop wearing a mitre with the words ‘The Very Ambivalent Ndungane’. I felt bad about it because he has done such good work on poverty, HIV and Aids and debt relief. But cartoons are typically critical,” Shapiro recalls.

Later, he bumped into the archbishop at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2004.

“He was so warm and generous. I liked his attitude; he felt he was fair game. Later we saw each other at a party. He was wearing his purple robe and we twirled around the dance floor together.”

For someone who wasn’t too keen on becoming an archbishop in the first place, his influence has grown over the years and he is widely respected internationally.

Sitting in a wing-backed chair in his book-lined office—there’s Robert Guest’s Shackled Continent, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Leadership and many more piles on window sills and other surfaces—he says he will “lay down his staff” with a sense of satisfaction.

He is particularly proud of the successful subdivision of the “unwieldy” diocese of Cape Town and the launch of the African Monitor, a funding oversight NGO.

“For 40 years the church has grappled with restructuring and I am glad that under my watch we did it. Now, instead of one big diocese, we have three independent ones,” he says, twiddling the chunky gold and amethyst ring on his right hand.

The idea for the African Monitor was inspired by an encounter with a London cab driver last year. “He asked whether I agreed that Tony Blair was mad ‘taking all our money that would go to pensioners and giving it to those corrupt elites in Africa’.”

Ndungane says he didn’t respond, but that the cabby’s statement haunted him and inspired a new mission. In May, after more than 10 months of consultation with global and local representatives, he launched the African Monitor, which will track pledges and promises by donor countries and scrutinise how aid is managed and distributed by governments of recipient countries.

“I thought I needed to keep up the momentum after 2005 was declared the Year of Africa. So often people say billions of dollars have been poured into Africa, but they don’t know what has happened to it,” Ndungane says.

So his retirement will actually mean more work?

“Archbishops don’t work—they pray and other people do the work,” he says with chuckle.

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