Former South African president Thabo Mbeki today criticised the country's churches for ‘demobilising’ after the end of apartheid and called on them to become more active in responding to the challenges faced by society.
He was addressing the three-yearly Provincial Synod of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, which is being held in Benoni, South Africa.
Before his address, he lit a candle in memory of a lay representative to the Synod, James Thomas, who was killed in the al-Shabaab attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi on September 21.
He also joined in lighting two further candles with the Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba, who also offered prayers, for Nelson Mandela’s continuing well-being, and for the continent of Africa in which Mr Mbeki has been involved in various mediation and diplomatic initiatives.
Mr Mbeki said that during apartheid, ‘one of our principal fighters for liberation here was the church.’ But since liberation, ‘one of the things that has happened here is that the church has become demobilised ... It has distanced itself in a way from responding as it used to respond to national challenges and has disappeared somewhere over the horizon.
‘My sense is that the voice of the church is not as strong now as it used to be at a time when we need that strong voice.’
He said that not only churches but civil society had tended to say in effect: ‘We have now elected our government... and the government must deliver.’ But, he added, ‘The idea that the government will deliver and we do nothing is wrong.’
Asked for an example of how the churches should act, Mr Mbeki said many crimes of violence against persons in South Africa were committed between Friday and Sunday evenings, were clearly linked with alcohol, and the ‘overwhelming majority’ of victims were people who lived in black townships.
There were churches in all these communities: ‘What intervention does it (the church as a whole) make?’
Saying that ‘The leadership of the church is sorely missed’ he expressed gladness that the Synod had been reflecting on this, and on how to contribute to tackling the particular challenges of the education sector.
Extending his criticism to churches on the rest of the continent, he asked what the continent's principal ecumenical body, the All Africa Conference of Churches, was doing.
‘I don't know where it is. It was one of your major African voices which is no longer heard... in a situation in which in reality Africa needs to speak louder about itself and its concerns than ever before.
‘It is clear that because of the reduction of that voice, that African voice on African issues, there are others in the world who have designs on our continent and who will no doubt carry out their programs whatever we think.’
Criticising ‘weak leadership’ in Africa, he added that ‘there used to be a time when the rest of the world had an African agenda, at least they said they tried to address an African agenda, which agenda had been verified by Africans.’
Now, however, forces outside Africa ‘no longer have an African agenda’ but one ‘they have set themselves.’ He cited the United Nations Security Council's authorisation of the use of force in Libya as an example.
In response to a question, Mr Mbeki confirmed that he was engaged with Swaziland, though doing so ‘without calling press conferences’.
Agreeing with a comment that South Africans, through the media and through other channels, were not well informed about the rest of the continent, he spoke about his own role in Sudan and South Sudan.
He and his fellow panel-members were optimistic that both countries were moving further away from the possibility of renewed conflict, even if there were complex outstanding issues to resolve.
He warned that South Africans must ‘learn the lesson of South Sudan’, and not ‘retreat to tribalism … We should look at South Sudan and see that we must not sacrifice the national cohesion we have built over a long time, just because it might bring something to my pocket.’
He commended the initiative for reconciliation and nation building among South Sudan’s many strong tribal identities that is being spearheaded by the Archbishop of Sudan, a guest at Provincial Synod.
Issued by the Office of the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town
Inquiries: Ms Wendy Kelderman, 021 763 1320 (office hours)
The Revd Canon Dr Sarah Rowland Jones, 082 856 2082 (during Synod)