Our group of pastors with the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program have returned from our study tour to South Africa and have begun the reintegration and reflection process. Since I was blessed to participate in this study tour twice – in 2012 and this year – several people asked what I noticed different this time, either in terms of deepened reflections or changes in South Africa over the past two years. While I am still processing and reflecting on the experience, here are some initial thoughts:
- This year, 2014, marked 20 years since the first democratic elections in South Africa, and many of the people we spoke with made reference to this milestone. Additionally, many people lament the fact that these 20 years have not brought the complete change that had been hoped for – unemployment is still staggeringly high (around 25%), corruption is rampant at both local and national levels of government, the educational system is broken, and millions of black South Africans continue to live in extraordinary poverty, especially in the Townships. Several people we spoke with thought it important to remember that these 20 years of democracy need to be put in the context of 300+ years of oppression and that it takes time to change both systems and people. But many people are becoming weary of waiting for change.
- At the same time, especially on this trip more than in 2012, I sensed a passing-on of leadership and public voice for social justice to a younger generation. The major figures of the anti-apartheid struggle are dying or stepping out of public leadership roles – people like Nelson Mandela were so iconic in South Africa that as long as they were living, even if not in public office, the entire country looked to them to set the vision of freedom and justice. But now, following Mandela’s death, the torch is being passed to a new generation. We met some extraordinary young adults who are stepping forward into leadership roles in their communities – I think of the Social Justice Coalition in Khayelitsha and some of the young adults working for the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office. This hand-over of leadership is a sign of great hope.
- If there is one issue that seems to be predominant in South Africa today, it is education – and while I sensed that fact during my 2012 visit, it was more obvious during this year’s study tour. The apartheid government used a purposely-designed weak education system to subjugate anyone who was not white, and the country will feel the effects for generations. Many of the non-white adult South Africans today are woefully uneducated, and the current system is overwhelmed with lack of resources, untrained teachers, and a general malaise about the importance of learning. If South Africa is to truly embrace democracy, freedom, and justice, it will need to engage in a total transformation of the educational system, and I’m not sure if there is much hope among South Africans that such a transformation is imminent.
- A major reason for the success of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa was the presence of major figures who had an influential public voice – people like Nelson Mandela, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Methodist Bishop Peter Storey, and others. Many of those voices came from the churches. Today, I don’t sense that there are many people who have taken their place as having an influential public voice, especially from the churches. Perhaps the one exception is the current Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba. But the South African Council of Churches, which had been so instrumental in the struggle against apartheid, is all-but defunct, and the religious leadership – although they are doing wonderful ministry on the local level, like Roman Catholic Bishop Kevin Dowling in HIV/AIDS ministry in Rustenburg – don’t have a public voice in the community as they once did.
So there is a starting point – I’m sure more reflections will come, but these are the things that strike me at first. One of our goals in the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program is to take the lessons learned from this international study tour and apply them to our own communities and ministries here in Indiana. That’s the next step for the 15 pastors who made this journey, and for all of us who accompanied them along the way. And I don’t think it is that difficult to see the parallels.