In tin huts and bishop's palaces

The upcoming World Cup has reignited the debate on social justice in South Africa. An opportunity for churches to take a stand alongside the most vulnerable, says Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela. The executive director of the Christian Council of Kwazulu-Natal wants to see bishops, pastors and congregations at the forefront of the fight against poverty. 20 years after Nelson Mandela's release, the traditional churches are struggling to define their role in today's society.

When Mandela was released after nearly 28 years in prison on 11. February 1990 in Cape Town, the end of apartheid was heralded. The first free elections in 1994 sealed the end for the white minority regime. A success for the churches, too: The South African Council of Churches (SACC) was at the forefront of resistance to black oppression. He was a protective umbrella for banned political organizations and trade unions, he stood up for the persecuted and the imprisoned.Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, SACC general secretary in the 1980s, became a symbolic figure for the black struggle for equal rights. In 1984, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Today, church leaders tend to keep a low profile: The Council of Churches, which includes 27 churches, Christian organizations and associations, largely withdrew to itself and to religious activities. "The voice of the churches has become weak," criticizes Johannesburg political consultant Mohau Pheko. Demands on the churches have grown Church Council President Tinyiko Sam Maluleke admits as much. But South Africa has also changed. In the meantime, a whole range of social organizations, trade unions and political parties are expressing their concerns and demands, explains the Presbyterian theologian. In addition, the demands on the churches have grown: violence, poverty and unemployment are just some of the problems they have to deal with. And in dealing with abortion, AIDS and homosexuality, the denominations are not in agreement.According to Maluleke, the Church Council is currently in the process of redefining the direction of its work. A process that should be completed by the end of 2010. The relationship with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party also wants to be finely balanced again and again. In apartheid times, the ANC was banned as a liberation movement for blacks; it was an ally of the churches. Church council strictly neutral in terms of party politics "When we knew who our enemy was," it was easier for churches to take a stand, says council of churches executive director Zondi-Mabizela. She finds the social policies of the current ANC government lacking in solidarity and wants President Jacob Zuma to be held accountable for them. Leading church officials have joined the ANC breakaway "People's Congress" (COPE). This does not make it any easier for the churches to determine where they stand. But the church council, Maluleke emphasizes, is strictly neutral in terms of party politics.A new interreligious council founded a few months ago in South Africa has fewer reservations. The National Interfaith Leadership Council alliance is led by the Rev. Ray McCauley. The clergyman of the charismatic Rhema Church demonstratively cultivates a close relationship with the ANC. A fact that church council president Maluleke finds worrisome. "Otherwise we will cheat the poor" For Allan Boesak, the alarm bells are ringing even louder. The "fundamentalist theology" of the Pentecostal churches threatens to destroy all progress in the emancipation of women and homosexuals, warns the Reformed theologian, who in the meantime sits for COPE in the parliament of the Western Cape province. The Church Council would have to deal with it publicly and make it clear why such theology is harmful to society as a whole.At the same time, the Council of Churches would do well to keep a critical distance from the government and repeatedly call for social justice. Boesak: "Otherwise we are cheating the poor".

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Christina Cherry
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