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State and Church out of sync with the Times

As we condemn xenophobia and vigilantism, we must not lose sight of why they are on the increase or even too glibly blame the despicable actions and the explicit actors behind them. Guilty and inexcusable as they may be, there is something far more sinister happening.  Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya suggests that the State is the enabling mastermind, whether or not it is entirely conscious of this. President Ramaphosa was right in saying to COSATU that our only agenda should be in favour of the poor – but is he putting his money where his mouth is? 

Schoolboy stabs teacher to death. Johannesburg schoolboy points gun at teacher. Foreign tuckshop owners looted. Inner City buildings and motor vehicles hijacked, read the headlines.

Calls for the death penalty after crime stats reveal that on average 57 people are murdered in South Africa every day. This makes South Africa the most violent place outside of a war-zone.

A picture of a teenager with a tyre around his body ready to be set alight as punishment for being a member of a gang terrorising locals shocks the country.

These are some of the items that have been dominating the South African news cycle in the past few weeks.

The government, media and civil society organisations’ response to those seeking a suspension of liberties has been predictably progressive.

Placing a limitation on civil and constitutional rights will be a slippery slope whose building momentum will bring us crashing down, and make it very difficult to ever climb back up. This would be a short-term solution with long-term adverse effects.

It is, however, critical for us to understand why there are these calls: for the return of the death penalty, vigilantism, repatriation of foreigners or for the State to get “tougher” on criminals are not decreasing. This despite campaigns and exhortations against xenophobia and capital punishment. In fact, such campaigns seem also to be on the increase.

The Church does not do itself or the faithful any justice if it reads the questions of the day like the death penalty, migration and refugees, premarital sex and abortion and even democracy as ends in themselves. Especially, when it provides stock answers that everyone whose opinion on doctrine matters already agrees on.

For example, whatever ambiguity there was about the death penalty, Pope Francis resolved this when last month he approved changes to the compendium of Catholic teaching on the subject.

“The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” this is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church now reads on the question of whether the State is entitled to kill those it believes are beyond redemption on this side of eternity.

Until this change, the Church’s position, approved under Pope John Paul II in 1992, left room for manoeuvre.

The position was that “assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor”.

Pope Francis’s take on the death penalty was hardly surprising given the Catholic Church’s long tradition of social justice activism and teachings.

That said, the Church and civil society movements have focussed on either the actual words of teachings/laws or actions instead of reading the underlying feelings of anger, fear and hopelessness at play when citizens suddenly find barbaric behaviour an option.

Jesus said to the crowds: “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?” (Luke 12: 56).  We too seem to be missing what the age is asking of us.

I do not mean this to say that the Church and civil society must humour xenophobes, political opportunists and other populists. But, we have to know what we are really dealing with so as not to address the leaves and leave the roots intact.

When the Israelites ungratefully expressed their desire to return to slavery in Egypt. In our servitude, “there we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” God did not give them a lecture on the sociopsychological-economic demerits of slavery. He sent manna because their issue was what Maslow would in his seminal 1943 paper as the most basic in the hierarchy of human needs – physiological needs.

Similarly, when we look beyond the words of South Africans, black and white, clamouring for the 'good old days' we might fashion a solution that is more tangible and satisfactory than dismissing them for their foolishness or bad memory.

We have become a people more concerned with theory than lived experience. In the process, the inarticulate and under-educated are taken to have no view worthy of entertaining.

Guinean revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral’s words come in handy here. “Always remember that the people are not fighting for ideas, nor for what is in men’s minds. The people fight and accept the sacrifices demanded by the struggle in order to gain material advantages, to live better and in peace, to benefit from progress, and for the better future of their children. National liberation, the struggle against colonialism, the construction of peace, progress and independence are hollow words devoid of any significance unless they can be translated into a real improvement of living conditions.”

The Church and progressive civil society movements already play an important and critical role in arresting the spread of the irrational fear against the foreigner, the desire to see the blood of criminals on the floor and their heads rolling in the streets.

Nonetheless, its intervention cannot end there. Otherwise, it would be postponing the problem, which in simple terms is: to live better and in peace, to benefit from progress and ensure the better future of their children.

As things stand today, the State is failing dismally.

The psychosocial and socioeconomic factors that bring about xenophobia and bloodlust are before our very eyes.

The rich are getting richer and flagrantly showing off their wares to the poor, the elite and the crafty get away with murder (sometimes literally), job cuts have become the norm across the economy and education does not seem to be producing better life opportunities.

Under these circumstances, it is the State, and not the poor and inarticulate, who must account for the rise of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia, vigilantism and crass materialistic culture.

* 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.