View from South Africa

Last night I watched a brilliant documentary about Nelson Mandela on TV with my daughter. She was gripped by the story of his life. And shocked that we, a mixed race family, would not have been allowed in the old South Africa. A lot has changed.

Over the last few days and all this week there are unending articles, tributes and reflections on the life of the worlds pre-eminent statesman. One of the best I read was by Andrew Rawnsley and you can read it here.

So, I asked my friend and colleague Phil Bowyer to write something for this blog from a South African perspective. Phil and Rachel live in Durban and lead the Soul Action South Africa ministry.

Africans love their dancing – I don’t think I’ve seen our political leaders appear on TV without a song and a dance. Fitting, then, that as we mourn Madiba’s (Nelson Mandela’s) death, the scenes outside his home are of people dancing.

Our family first learnt about the events of December 5th after waking to Facebook messages from family and friends, who live overseas, asking, “…how’s things there in SA?” and “How will it affect things in SA?”

It’s too early to tell; the thing about South African dancing is that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether it’s a celebration or in protest.

One view of Madiba’s death is that it will unite the country and we will see the integrated ‘Rainbow Nation’ that he dreamt of, but sadly hasn’t materialised yet. Another view is that people will wake up, realise not much has changed in two decades, decide enough is enough and revolt – it will be interesting to see how this plays out as we prepare for our forthcoming general elections that are due around April.

As a family we were all shocked by research our 13 year old son carried out recently, where he interviewed various people who lived through Apartheid about their thoughts on it. One young black woman shared how she felt that Apartheid was, “fine.” As we reflected on this together as a family, we wondered whether this was because she had been born into Apartheid, grew up in the system, and therefore didn’t know better, or whether she felt things haven’t changed that much in terms of education, living conditions, job prospects and opportunities, for her or other black people.

I am writing these words from home; a three bedroom house, with lights and water, located in a secure estate – with key code access – surrounded by two perimeter fences (one electric), accessed by boom gates controlled by 24 hour security guards and proximity cards. At the same time, some of my friends, many of the people Soul Action works with, live in one room shacks in communities where rape and violence are not uncommon. My wife, Rachel, works in these communities, with schools where as many as 90 pupils share a class, compared to 20 pupils per class at our sons High School! In our different ways we’re all still living with the consequences of Apartheid – we’re all trapped by its legacy, to some degree.

Some Christians talk about the need to be more ‘downwardly mobile,’ a way of living simply, that ranges from rejection of technology, embracing ecology, moving house, changing jobs, or campaigning for equality. Although, Rachel, Zac and I left the UK, our family, friends, church and the security that comes with well paid jobs, choosing to live by faith – through the support of others – it still doesn’t feel very downward compared to the way the majority of South Africa still live 20 years after the ‘end’ of Apartheid.

I am not saying we should all move to townships, I don’t think anyone should have to live in those conditions, and many people that I talk to who do live there wish they didn’t.

As one local church leader that we work with put it recently, we see our role as Christians who’ve chosen to move to South Africa, not so much as ‘downward’ but as, “…raising the bottom.” A Facebook friend sent me a message today: “My prayers are with those who are striving to build a just and peaceful society in South Africa today.” We accept these prayers and one’s like them.

Have a just and peaceful Christmas!