Thursday, 26 November 2009


9th November 1989 the Berlin wall fell and triggered a whole series of events - accustomed patterns began to change in the light of freedom. Many would say a chain of events was started, which included walls falling here in South Africa. Three months after the remarkable events in Berlin, we watched another historic event unfold (admittedly from the comfort of our UK TV sets) - the release of Nelson Mandela. Five years later the wall of apartheid fell.

15 years on I should, however, as a follower of Jesus Christ, be less surprised to discover the existence of many more Walls.

Laws of separation may have been removed, but walls of separation have been erected to replace them. The significant problem, which remains is these kind are in our minds and hearts. The good thing is - we have the power to dismantle them. The bad news - the testimony of the human heart - we tend to take a long time to start to take them down.

The landscape of the human heart is difficult terrain in which to dismantle a wall - it can be such a difficult business to get across the barriers we’ve erected in the name of protection, separation, security, and any number of other ‘good’ reasons.

It’s not, however, only the walls of heart and mind, which are here – there’s plenty of real tangible walls, which I have to open with a remote key rather than anything psychological. I wonder how many of the walls I slept safely behind during this trip have been built during the last 15 years?

Two electricity workers I met in one guest house brought a degree of humour to the situation I was asking about. Both white guys, they told me a few jokes around the theme of ‘job creation’ - joking was the medium but they were deadly serious. Too many jobs, too big an industry is now at stake for it to be dismantled was their theme. How many degrees of truth entwined among the cynicism? Certainly, there’s plenty of truth in the extent of the security industry here. The signs on private household walls provide the telephone number for their ‘armed response.’ Practically every business – shop, restaurant, etc. has their own security it seems. In Nongoma the gun buys were on the roofs along the main street. They can shoot to kill now, but only if someone is robbing their property. Last month there was a shooting – there’s an armed robbery most months. Boys with guns across the road watched it take place – I wondered whether a decent camera zoom lens might be more helpful? I had the privilege of meeting and praying with a mayor – a pastor thrust into the political arena because people have looked to him as a man of integrity. Great news – I can almost imagine colleagues cheering him on, but he arrived with two armed bodyguards. Would I want his job with the deemed necessary ‘perks’ – they come as a result of almost daily death threats?

I think of the suspicions, which were voiced to me. Many were very happy to talk about their response to the last fifteen years from a whole variety of racial backgrounds and perspectives. I moved among people in four language groups, but there are nine official languages of South Africa which is but one insight into the fact ‘complicated’ was my first response to the social mix here.

I saw not a few tears forming in the eyes and certainly in the hearts of those who told me of their family who’d participated in the ‘white flight’ migration. I think of my glib and shallow responses to those I have met here in the UK. Unlike the swallows who commute annually between our countries, they don’t plan on a return. I million white South Africans have left out of a population of less than 5 million – reading just some of the history last fifteen years it registers again how easy it is to listen to the news, but not really hear it back home.

Barbara Holtmann - just a name to me, but who works in defence, peace, safety, and security at the CSIR - wrote in a newspaper whilst away ‘if instead of walls, we had built houses for those who needed them, would we need them today? It’s a really good question and one, which deserves an answer. I’m unqualified to provide it, but it strikes me looking back with hindsight will not solve it, but trying to move ahead without dealing with past issues doesn’t wholly work either – the Truth Commission post-apartheid discovered that. Bear in mind I’m next to ignorant about the situation here, but I spent some time in Zululand. This is IFP country and Mangosuthu Buthelezi has been around a long time – I couldn’t help feel they get a hard deal in terms of government grants etc. and wondered how much the past has been forgiven? Can social justice for become a reality by ignoring the past?

Walls remain. I didn’t hear much radio, but within such a short space of time I heard discussions about racism in a variety of walks of life. One I recall was within the advertising industry. You’ll know from a British perspective, some of the arguments. Surely with a majority black population you should have the positive discrimination policies here to reverse a total (unjust) imbalance. Does that, however, equal appointing people above their level of competence? Why should someone who would normally require at least 20 years experience to become an executive leap-frog others? etc.

Where’s the voice of the church? It’s a good question to ask. It remains, however, a difficult one for them to answer here. The only mention, for example, of the church on the Big Red Bus tour around Cape Town brings every tourist a reminder of the place of the Dutch Reformed Church here in apartheid. They simply point out the old headquarters of the DRC and state when the WCC kicked them out, ‘only one of their ministers agreed it was a good idea’. I should have checked out the accuracy of that comment, but that remains the perception of all churches in the minds of some. Some said the church needs to re-gain a prophetic voice – I notice the Cathedral – the once base of Desmind Tutu are trying. Some say the church feels paralysed like everyone else – they recognize someone needs to take responsibility today, but feel they’ve lost their voice. Some say they should start with unity among themselves – there are two main ‘reformed’ churches in SA, just as there are two main Baptist groupings, although now in an alliance, and they remain separate behind walls – largely it appears according to race. This may be wholly inaccurate, but I’m just commenting on what I saw. Neither ‘side’ seems particularly interested in unity - an anathema to the gospel, or just the way it is here?

There are tribal walls, political walls, racial walls, national walls, psychological walls, financial walls – Tutu’s rainbow nation is present, but some colours of it shine more brightly than others. Mandela’s image of a great river being fed by several smaller streams may be the better metaphor in my opinion, but some of the streams seem to be running in parallel still

Conclusions? – Complicated!

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