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SA Bishops discuss political crisis in South Africa

Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town gave his final address as president of the SACBC. Ricardo da Silva SJ, reports on his speech and the ensuing discussion, which was particularly scathing about South African politics and the bishops’ role in the national dialogue.

The outgoing president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Stephen Brislin, who is also the archbishop of Cape Town, delivered his final address at the first plenary session of 2019, taking place at Mariannhill Monastery, KwaZulu-Natal.

The foremost issue raised by the archbishop was that of the “sexual abuse scandals of minors by clergy” — an issue which, he said, “will continue to dominate the scene for the foreseeable future”.

Given the disgrace and embarrassment of the Church in light of present atrocities, it is “imperative that we ensure that our protocol is being followed properly”, said Brislin.

He appealed specifically to metropolitan archbishops, stating that it was their express responsibility “to ensure that professional conduct committees are properly constituted and sufficiently prepared to handle cases [of sexual abuse] should they arise” at the diocesan level.

The archbishop underscored the need to ensure that “our parishes are safe, joyful places, where our children will not come to any harm”. “The Church must be a sanctuary for them [children]”, he begged.

He also made mention of the upcoming meeting called by Pope Francis, to seriously discuss this matter as it affects the worldwide Church. He said that local bishops “will have to study the outcome [of this meeting] with great care”.

As a particular response to the worldwide crisis of clergy abuse, Brislin reminded his brother bishops that Hans Zollner SJ, a priest-psychologist who has extensive experience dealing with the sexual abuse of children in the Church, will address their August plenary. Around the time of the next plenary, meetings will be held with Zollner, across the region, to ready local dioceses and ensure they respond adequately to reports of abuse as they may arise.

The archbishop then turned to the political crises playing out in the region covered by the Conference.

Brislin referred especially to South Africa ahead of elections in the throes of the Bosasa revelations at the Zondo Commission. He warned of the “volatile and complex socio-political situation” and “the extent of the rot that has set in the political and corporate worlds”. All this, he says, is a “fertile field for populist and irresponsible rhetoric”.

Brislin did not shy away from naming some of the issues threatening South Africa’s democracy and its local Church at this time either.

He referred to the Church’s “major pastoral and socio-economic concern” for refugees and migrants as well as “white monopoly capital” and the need to become one church, in a real way.

He said, “there is still a racial divide and an experience, somehow, of living in a separate world. And this is a pastoral challenge that we [bishops] have to face head-on with patience and faith in God”.

Brislin commented on the “need to develop the vision for an economic future, to offer relief and greater opportunities to South Africans, particularly young South Africans. […] And that the need for economic change and transformation is urgent and cannot be neglected”.

The archbishop also highlighted the importance of maintaining open, mutual and respectful conversation between different sectors of society: “others of faith” and of “cooperation with government at its different levels” and “trade unions and NGOs”, which he said appears to have gained momentum in recent times.

To describe some of the progress he sees in relations with government, he mentioned that he had been invited to attend the South Africa President’s forthcoming State of the Nation Address (SONA), which will take place on Thursday, 06 February 2019.

In eSwatini, the political situation seems to be just as dire and at a serious crossroads.

Brislin referred to a “powerful statement” issued by the Council of Swaziland Churches in October 2018. Therein, the government is called to take a “zero-tolerance approach to corruption”, “prioritise social spending in next budget” and “enact laws to provide for the social security of the elderly and those with disabilities. The statement came amid reports of “electoral fraud”, “ritual killings” a “poor economy”, “multi-billion domestic debt” and “hospitals running out of drugs and food”.

He concluded his report with brief feedback on his January 2019 visit to the Holy Land, before thanking the Nuncio for his presence at the plenary, and the outgoing and incoming ‘troika’ (executive committee of the bishops).

The focus of his most recent trip was on Israeli Christians, many of whom are trying to reconcile multiple identities being Arab, Israeli and Christian. As a result, they find themselves in a political and religious quagmire.

SACBC Bishops in first plenary session at Mariannhill Monastery, KZN. // Ricardo da Silva SJ,
SACBC Bishops in first plenary session at Mariannhill Monastery, KZN. // Ricardo da Silva SJ,

Following Brislin’s address, there was time for questions and comment. Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban was the first to speak. He responded candidly to the political situation in South Africa and in particular to the recent revelations of corruption and the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma,

“I’m just wondering, Why didn’t we see this coming?. Why didn’t we see it coming? We seem to have been caught off-guard. And we are all surprised now, the extent to which the corruption has gone”, he said.

Having said this, the Cardinal went on to make “a self-accusation” saying that when Jacob Zuma was elected ANC and then national president, he remembered commenting: “I do not believe the man has the moral qualities to lead our nation.”

He went on to say that he and the bishops should have “been more alert to be looking out for those signs that we were going to honour down the downhill slide. The fact that he [Zuma] had been put into office, largely, through the machinations of Julius Malema should have been a warning enough” The Cardinal went on to lament the situation and the seeming oversight of the bishops in regard to the national scene and called bishops to be more “hands-on”, “take appropriate action” and “be more proactive rather than reactive.”

The Cardinal’s comments appeared to fix the mind of the room and some discussion followed.

Bishop Abel Gabuza, now archbishop-coadjutor of Durban — but still currently responsible for the Justice and Peace Department — responded with a particular challenge to bishops concerning public statements made within the Conference.

“Perhaps, we should speak together as bishops. If we issue statements, let all the bishops sign the statement. And it will indicate that they speak as one voice for the Catholic Church.”

Gabuza said that bishops have at times been “too cautious” and that they shouldn’t ever “compromise” but be “forthright” and be able to “say things as they are” and not be “delayed” when “responding to what is happening in the country.”

This seems to speak to a tension among bishops when it comes to making public political commentaries that would need to be resolved if the bishops’ want to have a univocal voice of national import and weight.

* 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.