“What we need is a bill of rights that will protect us against predatory governments now and for the next 200 years while we try to adjust ourselves to what freedom means and to resist all attempts to take it away again — which is the nature of all governments however democratically elected they may have been in the first place,” Sheena Duncan, 10 March 1993

Archbishop Desmond Tutu paused only once in an interview I had with him last week, it was when I asked what had happened to liberation theology, which had been powerful in South Africa in the 1980s.

Liberation theology was most significant here outside of Latin America and was a direct response to the church colluding with military and oppressive regimes in South America. It called for economic, political and social justice. In South Africa, Anglican churchmen like David Russell observed Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortation to suffer in their own bodies, he lived on rations of R5 a month, the same as what pensioners received then; Father Trevor Huddleston brought international attention for the forced removals at Sharpeville. Priests, nuns and rabbis globally pitted themselves against apartheid risking arrest and even torture and death. They refused to segregate churches as apartheid governors demanded, and as the Dutch Reformed Church did.

But as fragile democracies have emerged in South America and here, paradoxically, the voice of liberation theologians and the vibrant, challenging discourses about putting faith into action are muted. While Archbishop Tutu is without doubt the conscience of South Africa, he is now 79, why are there no new young advocates in the churches, shuls, temples and mosques for social justice challenging the corrupt, those who scorn the rights of others and who wage war against democratic principles?

The religious mobilised against apartheid, there were Jews for Justice, many Christian and Muslim groups against apartheid; yet ironically the same fervour to bite at the heels of those who fail democracy is not there.

This year religious officials have spoken out against President Jacob Zuma’s extra-marital affairs as a poor example in a nation combating Aids, and with Swedish church leaders they expressed concerns about corruption around the arms deal and US religious leaders expressed concern about Palestine. Is it enough?

My neighbour, an active church-goer and from a family that includes prominent members of the ruling elite recently challenged a young churchman: “Why did the (ANC) Women’s League not call out retired teachers and nurses to help during the public-sector strike? How could we have allowed babies to be abandoned? Look at the poverty, the corruption … ” She spun off a litany, many of us echo. He said little to her, but she says, he recently used her arguments in a Sunday sermon: “My cousin who was present at the service was breathless, there were members of government there, she thought they would stage a walkout, but they didn’t. He was so brave.”

But was he? Is it brave to speak truth to justice, as Tutu has oft asked. And is it not worrying that citizens consider those who speak out in a democracy, “brave”?

Is it ever brave for those who profess faith to counsel leaders about their failures? For those who are Christian, the examples of Christ railing against the corruption of the ruling classes, whether governors or religious hypocrisy, are many.

John Allen, a long time religious writer, a former aide to Tutu and author of a book on the Nobel Peace prize winning churchman, recalled last weekend that in the 1980s church leaders would say “apartheid is too strong for a divided church”. Are failures in democracy not yet enough for an engaged response from the most powerful force in South Africa aside from the state. Or do we have a situation Allen articulates where: “A lot of people go to church, just to go on a Sunday. A lot of the churches witness was deeply compromised” — he was talking about the past, is it relevant now?

Tutu observes: “I realise now how much easier it is to be against. How do you engage people and inspire them to have the same kind of passion and commitment for freedom?

“I realise now how the Dutch Reformed Church felt, there were times when we asked them why they did nothing against injustice, and they would say, ‘we talked to the government behind closed doors … ‘ I never understood what they meant until I was having dinner at Groote Schuur with Madiba. We were talking about the country. It felt special to hear what was happening on the inside. Then I said to myself, Tutu, ha ha, what were you saying to the Dutch Reformed Church? What are you doing? Now I was engaging with the government behind closed doors.”

There is no doubt that it is easier to oppose injustice than to implement social justice. Geoff Budlender, a human-rights lawyer in the 1980s worked for a major legal non-governmental organisation on some of the cases that hampered apartheid’s capacity to function. He then took up a senior post in South Africa’s first democratic government under Nelson Mandela as director general in the department of land affairs. Part of his task was to ensure the more equitable sharing of land, which until then saw 87% of land under white ownership, while the black majority was squeezed onto 13% of the land with limited ownership rights.

Governance was hard. “Previously I had managed 120 staff and now I had 4 000 under me.

“I think being inside government makes you think you can run anything and that the insiders can do it … I was in government for four years, they were the most challenging of my life. The non-governmental organisations were a bloody nuisance. There I was working every day, incredibly hard, I thought I knew what I was doing, and here were people saying don’t do this, don’t do that, and that becomes irritating especially if you are passionately committed and working hard. It is very hard to take a broad view and say these are our allies, we are working toward similar goals.

“On one occasion we were involved in a particularly difficult issue around restitution to a community. We had just managed to sort it out, then Henk Smith of the Legal Resources Centre (which Budlender helped found years before) came along and said unless you do this, that event will be disrupted, there are people who are dissatisfied. I was angry because we were almost being extorted. I then took a deep breath and started laughing. I realised I had done similar in the past, that is what civil society does, it finds points of leverage. I went to then minister of land affairs, Derek Hanekom, laughing and said Henk has us screwed. But that opposition forced us to come up with better policy.”

It was in 2000 that then president of the Constitutional Court Arthur Chaskalson, in a Bram Fischer memorial address, observed: “We seem to have lost our way, too many of us are concerned about what we can get from society, too few with what is needed for the realisation of the goals of the Constitution. What is lacking is the energy, the commitment and the sense of community that was harnessed in the struggle for freedom … power can also be abused by elected governments.”


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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