Since the arrival of democracy in 1994, South Africa has made a lot of progress in certain areas. Today, our democracy remains vibrant despite attacks on it. What is sad, though, is that we remain a divided and unreconciled nation with citizens who are not at peace with each other. We still struggle with, among other things, racism, hatred and inequality.
Although we all have a role to play in promoting democracy and a good life for everyone in this country, churches and interfaith communities can make a valuable contribution in our quest for meaningful forgiveness, reconciliation and justice. After all, through various actions, statements and documents such as the Belhar Confession — drafted in 1982 and adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in 1986 — and the 1985 Kairos Document, religious institutions and interfaith communities challenged the status quo and played a critical role in the political changes in South Africa.
As Naiema Taliep and her co-authors remind us in an article in the journal Religion, State & Society (2016): “Alongside other social actors in the resistance movements, religious leaders were at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle. Religious leaders were able to provide protected sacred spaces in the struggle for freedom and democracy, especially when liberation organisations were crushed and political leaders were either imprisoned or exiled.”
It was, therefore, not surprising that Nelson Mandela invited religious leaders to contribute to the process of South Africa’s nation building through, for instance, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the Reconstruction and Development Plan of the soul.
Fast-forward to today and the important question we have to ask is: How do churches and interfaith communities deal anew with the reality of racism, inequality and various social ills, especially at a time when government and civil society are sceptical about the integrity of the church? An equally relevant question is: Can the church, through its prophetic witness, help to bridge deep divisions, eliminate injustices and promote social cohesion among South Africans?
It seems as if many church and faith leaders have been co-opted by government and have lost their prophetic voice along the way. They can’t be critical of government and hold it to account for some of its glaring failings. As things stand regarding the relationship between church and state in South Africa, it will become increasingly difficult for the church to critically discuss with government issues of national concern.
So, what can churches and interfaith communities do to make their prophetic voice heard and see to it that all South Africans taste the fruits of democracy?
A good starting point would be for the church to realise that it cannot be disconnected from its calling to witness and service in a country that suffers from divisions, racism, hatred, demonisation of people, limited peace and reconciliation, stigmatisation of people with HIV and the abuse of women and children in a world where millions of people are exploited.
Churches cannot always resort to public statements pertaining to issues of concern. They need to stop being reactionary and become more proactive, and guide the country and government in the right direction.
As churches and individual Christians, we need to get involved in our communities and in our democracy at all levels.
South Africans cannot enjoy a good life if churches ignore injustice and inequality in all spheres of life. Churches and interfaith communities are able to address these problems because their members belong to these communities that suppress justice.
Churches and interfaith communities have a crucial role to play in enhancing the good life in the country by encouraging all South Africans to participate positively in our democracy.
In our democracy today churches and interfaith communities should serve as a moral compass for South Africans. In this regard, they should take the national development plan 2030, especially the part on active citizenship, as key to keeping the government accountable.
A unified voice of the church proves to be one of the fundamental tools in finding ways of dealing with societal evils that destroy the meaning of the good life in society. The church needs to regain its prophetic voice and try by all means to be there with those who are on the margins of society.
If churches and interfaith communities can come together and speak with one voice on ethical issues of peace and justice in society, they will make an indispensable contribution to South Africa and the world.
If the church and interfaith communities and government start to work together we would be well on our way to achieve real and lasting national unity, reconciliation and justice for all in South Africa.
Dr Sipho Mahokoto is a lecturer in the department of systematic theology and ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University. This is an abridged and edited version of a paper delivered at a conference at the university recently