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The Church and my human rights

South Africa's Human Rights Day is at risk of being regarded as just another excuse to gather around a braai and celebrate the fact we’re not at work. We rarely use the day as a time of reflection and consider how far we’ve come as the country, or if we’re still headed in the direction too many fought for. While our constitution may be among the best in the world, as a nation we’re still far behind in fulfilling its demands for quality education, health care, adequate housing, equitable land and economic income distribution, to name but a few. Struck by this thought, Mphuthumi Ntabeni had a conversation with his daughter, which led him to reflect on his journey to Catholicism and the role of the Church and the battle for human rights. 

A South African reality

While considering Human Rights, I thought about the level of poverty in the country. Today, 55% of South Africans live in poverty – a number that continues to increase. And while the number of people living below the updated poverty line of R441 per person per month has dropped, there is still a staggering 13.8 million that fall into this category, many of whom are youth. I questioned whether this could really constitute as progress.

I then discovered by personal experience that we’re also failing our youth with historical memory when my daughter, who matriculated with distinction in history last year, recently asked me if the Human Rights Day was because of the Soweto uprising. I had to explain its genesis to her – a little irritated, I must admit, that she would come out of high school without knowing about the Sharpeville massacre, where 69 people were killed by the apartheid police because they refused to carry their passes.

Furthermore, I had to expound the differences between the current identity document and the then dompas to her when she said, in cavalier attitude, that she didn’t understand the fuss behind refusing to carry a dompas; “since even now we’re made to carry IDs and car licenses.” I had to explain the humiliating aspect of a dompas to black people who were the only ones made to carry; how it was a symbol of shame, dispossession and control away from the urban areas if as a black person you had no gainful employment. And how the vagrancy laws meant black people could be arbitrarily arrested and sent to unpaid hard labour, building the roads and freeways we drive on today. How our fathers and mothers used to leave in search of work in the morning and not be heard of or seen for weeks and months only to turn-up with horrific stories of being indentured to farms and roadside work as prisoners. Only then the scales fell on her eyes. Again, while progress had been made, were we seeing enough of the impact and is there enough understanding of our human rights? The thought about human rights got me thinking about my own background into the Catholic Church fold.

A Catholic reality

I decided to personilise my history lesson with my daughter by explaining how the Catholic Church, in her quiet ways, has led the championing of human rights in the world. Since she was on her way to first year of university I thought it pertinent to tell her about my first real notice of then pope, now saint, John Paul II. It was 1988, my first year at Wits university. The papal aircraft to Lesotho, and other countries surrounding South Africa, had been forced to make an unplanned landing at the then Jan Smuts airport because of weather conditions. The pope refused to kiss the South African soil, as was his custom because of the apartheid system. This pleased us very much as black students, still a minority at Wits then. And the pope caught my attention. By the time he visited South Africa in 1995 he had my full intellectual interest. Though I didn’t attend the Mass he celebrated at Gosforth Park race track I was glued to the television during the live broadcast. To the pope Mandela declared; “You delayed your visit to this country because you viewed with disdain a system that treated God's children as lesser human beings.”

Having been raised a Methodist, educated in Roman Catholic and Methodist boarding schools, I spent most of my tertiary education years as an agnostic without necessarily losing my spiritual belief in God. But it was my love of reading that reignited the spark of Catholicism later on after university years. I fell under what in Catholic lexicon we call the dark night of the soul. Emerging from that, the person who drew me to Catholicism was the then pope, now saint, John Paul II. I was intrigued by the western secular world fame John Paul II for undermining the moral authority of the communist system. I enthrone him for being the clearest and most uncompromising voice for the human rights of peoples around the world in our age, especially through his papal writings. Many in the west, by emphasising his strong criticism of communism, tend to downplay his strong support for the political attempts to reform capitalism. Though he respected the right to form associations for economic activity, he criticised corporatism – the system of economic organisation that is based on unfair domination over the individual by collective various bodies, like business groups, firms and labour unions. He agreed with their need when it served the human spirit of freedom and enterprise. However, he was against them when they stultified enterprise – an act he considered in the same league as the state-directed economy he vigorously criticised when it trampled on individual human rights.

John Paul II promoted a democratic system, not because he thought it to be perfect, but because he considered it to be the safest political barrier against systemic abuses of human rights. No other leader of our era grasped the connection between democratic institutions and the protection of human rights as John Paul II. I came to him through the route of the philosophy of history before I encountered the soundness of Catholic theology through Karl Rahner, whose existential theology greatly appealed to me as the culmination of Soren Kierkegaard I was then enamoured with.

The papal writings before John Paul II had emphasised the right to education, health care, adequate housing and social welfare in case of illness, old age or accident. Most innovative was his linking of man’s basic rights to work, listing “the right of economic initiative” as a crucial premise for the common good. I liked very much that he refused to compromise the demands of justice and peace, placing them on the bedrooms of freedom, solidarity, the subjectivity of man and society, and the economic participation of the greatest number of citizens. With that, in my opinion, he unleashed the prophetic spirit of the Church to permeate all progressive human institutions that serve human development.

After underscoring human rights to the common good, John Paul II reminded us that its wheels turn on reciprocal duties and responsibilities between persons. He warned against the error of what he termed “erroneous anthropology,” which he regarded as the basic flaw of socialism that tends to reduce man “to a series of social relationships”. Its unavoidable consequence is not just inefficient economic markets, but the violation of human rights for ownership of property and freedom of economic activity.

In our country at this present moment, with the talks of land expropriation without compensation, we are at risk of overlapping into this erroneous anthropology if we allow only vindictive resentment to control our drive towards the much necessary restorative justice. Hence it is crucial the political narrative of this topic does not rest only with those whose impotent anger risks hurling us into the precipice through another Nongqawuse syndrome where a fatalistic millennialist spirit as the Xhosa nation had during the last of the frontier wars resulted in being colonised by Britain.

Speaking in the early 1980s – I was a young boy, with salt on my skin then, running on the lea of the Catholic boarding school in Libode – the then Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, Sir Michael Howard, suggested that there had been two great revolutions in the 20th century: “The first had taken place when Lenin’s Bolsheviks expropriated the Russian people’s revolution in November 1917. The other was going on even as we spoke: the transformation of the Roman Catholic Church from a bastion of the ancient regime into perhaps the world’s foremost institutional defender of human rights.” John Paul II was at the forefront of the second revolution, which not only triumphed over socialist materialism, but will also triumph – please God – over the capitalist kind also, in order to strengthen the foundations of God’s kingdom in this side of heaven.

Image: Winston Vargas

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.