Part of the Church’s mission is to be a prophetic voice in the world. However, as Fr. Stan Muyebe points out, a prophetic voice must always be accompanied by a prophetic presence, especially among the most marginalised. He highlights some of the work that the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference’s (SACBC) Justice and Peace Commission does with social movements and explains the challenges it faces in working with communities.
The prophetic ministry of the Church should be seen as a two-pronged process, namely prophetic voice and prophetic presence. The first prong entails speaking truth to power on behalf of the marginalized. The second involves journeying and accompanying the poor in their fight against economic exclusion.
During the plenary of the Catholic bishops in February, Bishop Sipuka called on the Church to rediscover its prophetic presence. In the complex political and economic challenges that South Africa is facing, prophetic voice alone, including issuing statements condemning the government, is not enough. Prophetic accompaniment of the poor in their communities should be seriously considered.
In particular, given the upsurge of social movements in the country, some of which are involved in violence, there is a need on the part of the Church to develop a prophetic ministry of journeying and accompanying the social movements. This prophetic ministry already exists. It is, however, weak and limping. There is a need to strengthen it.
Pope Francis and the social movements
The pastoral praxis of Pope Francis clearly shows that he is a close friend of the social movements that the poor have established to fight economic exclusion. On a number of occasions, he has convened meetings with the representatives of these movements, including communities adversely impacted by injustice in the mining industry, to offer support and accompaniment.
The Pontiff is credited for strengthening the platform for global movement of social movements, by calling a world meeting of popular movements. Recently, he showed his solidarity with them by writing a preface to their book, The Emergence of Popular Movements: Rerum Novarum of our time.
Justice and Peace’s outreach to social movements
Following the footsteps of Pope Francis, the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission is also involved in the accompaniment of social movements among the poor. The late Bishop Barry Wood established this ministry. In 2007, when he was the chairperson of SACBC Justice and Peace Commission, he and his staff attended the Bishops’ Conference in Brazil to experience first-hand the role of the Brazilian bishops in establishing social movements and accompanying the poor.
At that time, the SACBC chose Brazil for its study trip because of notable similarities between Brazil and South Africa. In both countries, the upsurge of social movements for the poor were a result of the disillusionment of the poor with leftist governments (the ANC in South Africa, the Workers’ Party in Brazil) that promised socio-economic structural change. In both countries, the elected leftist governments failed to fulfil their expectations, hampered by slow economic growth and corruption. Both governments were also timid in implementing radical and transformative policies for fear of scaring off investors and international financial institutions.
After their return from Brazil, the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission started working closely with social movements fighting for land justice in South Africa. Twelve years later, the scope of the pastoral accompaniment to social movements has expanded exponentially. The Commission is now involved in accompanying several social movements among the poor, including sick miners, informal settlement dwellers in the Free State who are victims of the bucket toilet system, rural communities who faced forced removals during apartheid, unemployed young women in informal settlements, non-unionised workers in sectors of the economy where there is systemic exclusion of trade unionism, and victims of land grabbing by mining companies.
Preaching the Gospel of non-violent resistance
Prophetic accompaniment to social movements is also an important tool that the Church can use to challenge the prevailing culture of violence. Following the social trauma of apartheid, the strong sense of economic exclusion and youth unemployment escalate and fuel violence. Meanwhile many secular social movements believe that violence is the only effective means to get the attention of the government and businesses to listen to their grievances. Preaching the Gospel of non-violence should, therefore, be an integral part of accompaniment to these movements.
One of the lessons that the Justice and Peace Commission has learnt is that preaching of the Gospel of non-violence to social movements is a complicated and difficult process. This is particularly the case in informal settlements in the big cities, where political parties or factions have hijacked the genuine grievances of the poor to further their political agendas.
Despite all these challenges, experience has shown that it is possible to convince social movements to adopt non-violent resistance to overcome structural injustice. It requires developing a relationship of trust, patient listening, persistence and prayer. The SACBC Justice and Peace Commission has had some successes in this regard.
The Commission has, for example, convinced social movements representing communities who lodged claims against the Kruger National Park and a small game reserve in Maphumulo in Kwazulu Natal to refrain from resorting to violence. In some instances, the Commission has convinced social movements to adopt litigation as an effective alternative to violent resistance to injustice. Other examples of civil action as a solution include court cases seeking reparation for sick miners, communities who are victims of bucket toilets in Free State Province, and non-unionised workers.
There will also be a need to develop resource materials showing Gospel passages that promote the message of non-violence. It is important to convince these social movements that their commitment to non-violent resistance to injustice will lead to a deeper encounter of Jesus Christ who promised: “Blessed are the peace makers for they will be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9).