Thabo Makgoba, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and president of the South African Council of Churches, shares his reflections–and a message–during the 40th anniversary of the founding of the anti-apartheid movement, the United Democratic Front
Celebrations are about, or ought to be about, looking at where we come from, where we are today and what we want to become in the future. My input will attempt to follow that format, ending with seeking hope for the future.
Until 40 years ago, I was a relatively quiet science student who enjoyed tennis and squash and fun at varsity. Then I joined my fellow Wits students and travelled from Johannesburg on a bus to Cape Town, where at the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain, the formation of the United Democratic Front was not only about our political freedom, but became a critical part of my own conscientisation.
Every kilometre in that bus was fraught with tension, the possibility of arrest, of being turned back and becoming subject to the range of persecutory tricks that the government of the day used to attempt to smother the flames of freedom which burned in our hearts.
Nothing had prepared us for the dynamism, the energy, the revolutionary power that emerged from that gathering in Rocklands. Seeing and being in close proximity to the iconic figures who had inspired us for years, and drawing from their courage in what was a very dark hour in the apartheid dispensation, was what I can only describe as a touch of God. And nothing prepared me for the oratory, the insights, the spirituality and the sound theology of Dr Boesak’s famous “three little words” speech.
Many of you will remember it when in that inspiring rhetoric, he spoke of the rights we were demanding. He told us that we didn’t have to have a vast vocabulary to understand them. We didn’t need a philosophical bent to grasp them. No, his message was simple, he declared: “We wanted ALL our rights, and we wanted them HERE, and we wanted them NOW.” In response to his speech, the chant that Capetonians came to know so well went up: “Boesak! Boesak! Boesak!”
His words stirred my heart. In the chemistry of that moment, I knew in my own inner being that my service to the nation would be through the heart of the church but indelibly linked to the work of changing the course of this country’s history; as Luke says in his gospel, of raising those bowed down, providing food, and the necessities for a dignified life, to those who hunger; and of unmasking those who cannot see from every blindness and prejudice that bars the way to freedom.
His speech gave me goosebumps and indeed transformed my lukewarm student politics into a deeper activism within the Release Mandela Campaign and in establishing contact with cadres in Zimbabwe. It fired me up, and the fact that Allan Boesak was a cleric helped enable me to work within the leadership of the Anglican student movement.
Eighteen months later, when the UDF hosted a celebration of Desmond Tutu’s Nobel Peace Prize in Jabulani Stadium in Soweto, I joined a delegation of the Wits Black Students’ Society, and in our yellow T-shirts, we toyi-toyied as we chanted the praises of Albertina Sisulu, Madiba, and OR Tambo. Again, seeing Desmond Tutu shining out amid the crowd in his long purple cassock, I realized the relevance of the church in the midst of pain and struggle, and the presence of Helen Joseph and Frank Chikane on the platform underlined the point.
I am proud to say that I am a child of the UDF, part of its undeniable, unquenchable legacy, part of the generation in whom the fires of hope burnt steadily and who took responsibility to pass it on, undimmed, to others. My own predecessor, Archbishop Tutu, used to repeat in those conflicted times: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.” So if we are now able to see further, if we are able to vote in free elections, if we are able to walk our streets without a “dompas” then it is because, for generations, others, and indeed the UDF, have passed on those lamps of hope.
Forty years later, we can say we have those rights which we and Allan Boesak were demanding. But now we have to ask: What have we done with them?
Yes, we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights which are the envy of the world. Yes, we have a democratically elected Parliament, and we are led by our fifth democratically elected President. In the language of my predecessors, like Moses and the children of Israel in the Christian Bible, we have escaped the bondage of Egypt.
We have achieved much, in housing, in health and in education. We are a beautiful country. We have accomplished these achievements through the efforts of organisations and individuals who risked everything, even life and limb, to let freedom ring. A friend sent me a quote by Marshall Ganz the other day, which I found useful in reflecting on these tumultuous events during this 40th anniversary:
“Movements have narratives. They tell stories, because they are not just about rearranging economics and politics. They also rearrange meaning. They are not just about redistributing the goods, they are about figuring out what is good.”
That, for me, on this 40th anniversary, seems to be of utmost importance. Against the background of all that has gone so horribly wrong in our country, and despite many bold initiatives, we need to work out, here and now, what is good. We need to mobilise our energy, our courage, our imagination, our skills and our political will, and channel them into a mighty stream, just as we did against the apartheid state, 40 years ago.
I don’t have to tell you that we are mired in the mud of corruption. We are a country marred by the most glaring inequality in the world. Services we built for our people have collapsed in some areas, and too many public servants have forgotten they are servants of the public. We need to marshal all that we are into hearing and answering the cries of the poor, completing half-finished tasks and responding to the new obstacles that have emerged.
We need to ask again what is good for the women and children who are battered daily, for the poor who can only dream of going to bed with a full stomach, for the unemployed who stand along the streets of our cities and the rural poor whom the formal economy does not reach. We need to ask again what is good for those who are deprived by the seemingly unending spiral of corruption that robs our people of the hard-won victories of our struggle.
Every act of corruption is an act of theft from the poor. We need to ask urgently what is good for the whistle-blowers who are so vulnerable, exposed and in real danger as they seek to put an end to acts of wanton corruption. We need to ask what is good for the foreigner who lives with insecurity as the dark clouds of xenophobia continue to hang low over those looking for hope in SA. The struggle is not over; we cannot sit back simply to revel in past victories. Too much remains to be changed. I know that for myself I will only be able to hold my identity as a child of the UDF with pride, if in the here and now we resolve to end the blight that still mars the landscape of our country.
Yes, we won our rights, but like Moses and the children of Israel, we’ve escaped the bondage of Egypt only to go astray, wandering in the wilderness. Now, are we, like them, condemned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years?
No, I say, No. That cannot be so. I believe, and Christian hope compels me to declare, that we must rise again from the current ruinous state of our nation and get back on track to achieve the ideals and values that our Constitution promises. As both Allan Boesak and Popo Molefe, our fathers in the struggle, have pointed out in their recent public exchange, we need to be brutally honest with one another about our failings, and we need to work hard to reset especially the moral compass of our country.
How do we do that? I want to renew my call, issued to the churches: we need a New Struggle, a struggle to replace the old struggle against apartheid with a new struggle to regain our moral compass, a struggle to end economic inequity, a struggle to bring about equality of opportunity.
And I want to address the young people of this country. You are correct when you tell us that the promises of democracy are not being realised. We can understand your disillusionment, we understand why you are opting out of politics and public life. But that is not the answer to our crisis. That will not secure you and your children’s future. No, the answer to our crisis is for you to roll up your sleeves and make the New Struggle a new struggle for a new generation.
Please, young people, for the sake of our country’s and your futures, dig deep into the radical roots of the old struggle against apartheid, and dare to dream and work for a country in which there is justice, equity, and equality of opportunity. Organise amongst yourselves, and those of you who are old enough, register with the Independent Electoral Commission, then campaign and vote in next year’s elections. We need a peaceful revolution in which young people stand up, reject corruption and self-dealing, and help get involved in the political process.
And the older cadres among us need to use our resources to help young people in this struggle. In faith communities, religious leaders need to make our houses of worship “voting sanctuaries”, where young people can receive guidance on how to register. We can host workshops on voter education and provide instruction on our electoral system. Civil society needs to partner with business to raise funds for an historic effort to revitalise our democracy and get us moving again, so that we can realise the promises of our Constitution.
Let us not have to repeat this litany of social and economic pathologies in 40 years’ time. Let us rather ensure in the spirit of the UDF that these things become a footnote in history. We have the power in our hands, let’s use it now.
Thabo Makgoba is the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and president of the South African Council of Churches.
This article originally appeared on Daily Maverick and is published with permission.