I'm still jetlagged – awake before my children for the first time in years. I’ve just returned from Cape Town, South Africa, where I spent a week “drinking from a firehose” – taking in the amazing social, political, geographical and cultural sights and sounds. It is a country of contrasts. I was amazed by the upfront honesty in the system, the recentness of the history of this country and the remarkable things that have happened and are happening in reconciliation - along with the incredible disparity that still exists, and the deeply ingrained racism that will take generations to eradicate. But the openness about things is truly striking - and just opening the "world" section of the Cape Town paper is very telling. The articles yesterday said nothing about wars, violence or natural disasters (what my local paper would have reported). Instead the top stories were all snippets from other countries about racial equality, struggles for independence, leadership owning their issues, and the like. It is a very interesting lens through which to view world politics.
We spent one day at Robben Island - where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, guided on a tour of the prison by a former political prisoner, who goes every day to work in this place he was cruelly confined, to give tours and teach about the past, about the importance of forgiving but never forgetting. Each morning, he leaves his comfortable house where he lives now with his family on this same island where he was tortured, and waves good morning to a former guard, who also lives and works on the same island for the same reasons.
We visited a former Methodist church, which is now the District Six museum. District Six was a dynamic, multi-ethnic neighborhood that was razed in the 70s after being declared an "all white" area. There we met a Muslim man named Noor Ebrihim, whose family had lived four generations in the neighborhood. He had experienced true harmony between religions and races, closeknit connections with neighbors and community, sharing each other’s holidays, even. And then one day he watched bulldozers destroy his home and saw the family next door split up – husband sent to the colored township, wife and children to a black township, allowed to see one another once every few weeks, only if the pass was approved, for the next twenty some years. Noor worked at the District Six Museum to tell his story and the story of his community, and to preach the message of hope – that such racially and culturally diverse communities could exist and thrive, as he had known in his childhood in that very place.
As part of the government reparations, Noor is having a new home built largely by the government, where his old home once had stood, and he is beside himself with joy at the thought of moving back into District Six. Finally new construction is dotting this barren spot in the center of the city. Many whites had refused to build and settle there as their own protest against the injustice of apartheid and the relocation program.
The next day we visited one of the largest townships, Khayelitsha, where 1.5 million people live in abject poverty in shacks with sparse electricity and many still sharing bucket toilets. It bumps up against the main freeway that still has World Cup billboards up, and we drove past it on our first night as we left the state of the art airport and headed towards the million dollar homes on the coastline.
The system has eradicated racism in its policy and practice, but in reality, in this once all-black township 55% are unemployed and 40% are HIV positive. There are new immigrants moving in every day, and with millions still living in these race-segregated townships, racism is a deeply ingrained issue that seems to have almost insurmountable obstacles before it. For me it shed new light on the civil rights struggle in America, and made me think again about our own Indian Reservations, and the racism we often proudly act as though we've long moved past, (even in the midst of such things as the fervor and debate over the Islamic Cultural Center near the former World Trade Center site). Standing in South Africa and looking over at my own country, our politics and history, the American church, and our national self-understanding made me feel both ashamed and challenged. I fear that we are, as a whole, an appallingly dishonest and self-righteous people.
I read Mandela's (long) Long Walk to Freedom while I was there, and am now reading Archbiship Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future without Forgiveness, where he describes the astounding work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He talks about an African concept from the Bantu language of South Africa that is deeply theological and profound, Ubunto. He describes Ubunto as, “the essence of being human.” Tutu says,
Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
Our guide through Khayelitsha township was a man named Monwabisi Maqog, who fought against apartheid, trained as a soldier in Angola and returned to continue the struggle through violent opposition. He was one of those who believed that all whites should be “driven into the sea.” He was captured by the police and tortured, which damaged his body permanently, and he lived for a time in deep depression, nursing hatred for his captors. It was in this dark place that he first met Jesus Christ, who was tortured and suffered alongside him, and he embraced ubunto and forgiveness. He later tried to find each of his captors so that he might forgive them in person.
One of his former captors would not meet with him and insisted Monwabisi would never find him. Monwabisi discovered where this man lived, went to his posh white neighborhood, and stood behind his house. His wife was doing dishes at the kitchen window and when she looked up from her work, he waved at her and she waved back. That evening he phoned again, asking to meet the man so that he might share his forgiveness. The man refused and insisted again that he would never find him. He said to him, “Man, I do know where you live. I was at your home today. Ask you wife if a black man waved at her in the window. I could do anything to you, but I do not want to harm you. What I want most is to look you in the eyes and forgive you.”
Monwabisi now lives in Khayelitsha with his wife and children and works widely in the community for reconciliation and forgiveness. He is the pastor of one of the thousands of small churches nestled amid the crowded shacks, with a dedicated ministry to those suffering with HIV and AIDS.
Monwabisi, Noor, the former prisoner and guard, our generous hosts (white Afrikaaners training people for youth ministry in their context), an Afrikaner family we ate dinner with one night who had given up a lucrative job and a church position to instead work with women and children in a township in a job and education empowerment program, the young Afrikaner woman who told me about her generation’s experience of racial reconciliation and self-understanding as a nation – these were just a handful of the faces on the story of South Africa that amazed and inspired me.
“We are all in this together,” they all said. “What happens to one of us affects us all. We are connected.” And so, there is Christ. Christ is present as we are connected to one another in forgiveness and shared suffering, Christ is present in Ubuntu, in Koinonia; in the Kingdom of God unfolding among us. And I am a witness that God’s kingdom continues to break into our world and call us to participate. May we be both humble and brave enough to join in God’s kingdom, in koinonia, in ubuntu, as it breaks into and seeks to transform our own lives and communities.
Photo above: Post World Cup, children playing soccer on the edges of Khayelitsha, near live electric wires lying on the ground.