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A call for the Church to lead the healing of racism in South Africa

Reacting to the ongoing protests in the United States following the killing of George Floyd by police officers and the lack of political leadership to overcome racism, Mahadi Buthelezi reflects on the continued presence of racism in South Africa. She calls on institutions — including the Church — and individuals to acknowledge the harm of racism in our society and to make reparation as a sign of healing and transformation.

The brutal murder of George Floyd has reawakened the pain of racism and hatred by one race over another. Similarly, US President Donald Trump’s advice to state governors  — that they should dominate the protesters or “look like a bunch of jerks,” according to a Washington Post report on 1 June  – shows poor leadership at a time when the cry of the black people in America is for justice and not to be dominated by white supremacists.

This is a clear sign of the continued existence of an evil system fuelled by white supremacists, many of whom take their guiding principles from Adolf Hitler and his master race theories. Hatred and prejudice are signs of a weak character that cannot envision the world as anything other than a construct of misplaced, one-sided belief systems.

Racism comes in many forms. Some of it is legislated by governments, but a lot of it is the behavioural racism that plays out in daily interactions and personal attitudes. Even worse, is liberal racism, a dangerous lie that says ‘I have black friends therefore I am not a racist’. 

When I say black lives matter, I am not supporting an organisation or a movement but am simply stating the words that black lives do matter! It is insensitive to have a response like all lives matter at the time when black lives were taken by an evil racist police department in the US.

Subtle manifestations of racism in the South African Church

It is not just in the United States. Racism continues to be prevalent in South Africa. Unfortunately, even the Church is divided by colour and class in many places. This is a subtle racism that is difficult to perceive unless you are on the receiving end.

The lack of participation and attendance of white Catholics in South Africa at large Catholic events confirms that we are a divided Church.

For example, the lack of participation and attendance of white Catholics in South Africa at large Catholic events, such as the beatification of Blessed Benedict Daswa, and the 200 year anniversary celebration of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa, confirms that we are a divided Church.  At the launch of the Pastoral Plan in Johannesburg on 26 January 2020, Bishop Sipuka, the President of the Southern African Bishops Conference used the expression “Asiphelelanga,” meaning we are not all represented, in a reference to poor attendance by white Catholics.

Most white Catholics believe that they are not racist, because they have black friends, maids, and gardeners. Black South Africans also feel the stigma of further racial bias based on how they speak English and are classified as “clever blacks.” That is racism too.

Jesus came to reconcile us to God and to remind us all – without exception – of our dignity because God created us in his image. We are reminded of the words of Psalm 82, stating that “You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High.”

During the preparation of the gifts at Mass, just before the Eucharistic prayer, the priest prays: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinityof Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

God doesn’t simply want to share his life with us. God wants us to participate in his divine life. In such unity with God, there can be no exclusions, no degrees of participation based on race, class, or education.

In the same way as we need to reach and strive for Christian unity beyond racial lines, we must also acknowledge that we carry the history and pain of the sins of racism in the past.  Jesus condemned the hypocrisy of Pharisees who “shut the door of the Kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” and warned that “upon you may come all the righteous blood shared upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar” (cf Matthew 23). This includes the sins of racism, hatred, slavery, inequality, and murder — both those that happened in the past and the ones we see in our own time. 

To avoid the same admonition that Jesus gave the religious authorities of his generation, we must take responsibility for the actions of our forefathers and heal our land by understanding and reaching out to the victims of racism instead of being defensive. Even if we didn’t participate in the crimes of apartheid or support racism in its various forms, we are nevertheless called to accept collective responsibility for the harm inflicted on millions of South Africans, that still manifests itself today.

Even if we didn’t participate in the crimes of apartheid or support racism in its various forms, we are nevertheless called to accept collective responsibility for the harm inflicted on millions of South Africans.

In this regard, Holy Rosary School in Edenvale stand as an example. It was one of several Catholic Schools accused of racism and discrimination, mostly by former students. The school organized an external facilitator committed to social justice to assist it on its transformation journey. In response to the consultation, the school wrote and published a statement of apology to past and present students who experienced racism and discrimination at the school.

Facilitating Land Distribution

An expression of the openness to own up to the effects of racism is a real effort on the part of the government and the Church to undertake land distribution.

Historically, black South Africans have been dispossessed of their land, their wealth and their heritage. The issue of land remains a sore point, where 9% of the total population of South Africa owns about 72% of the country’s total property assets, according to Statistics South Africa. Unfortunately, the way I see it, white South Africans remain arrogant and oppose government’s attempt to redistribute the land. The white Afrikaner interest group AfriForum, for example, claims that 58.5 percent of South African land is black owned, because 24% is owned by the state and 34.5% is owned by individual black people, using that as their argument for why white people should not be dispossessed of their land.

One path toward racial reconciliation is for the government and churches to engage in land redistribution and reparation. The Church must donate any vacant and unused land back to the people.

Fostering true remorse

I find that there is insufficient remorse from white South Africans to try and repair the damage of the past.  The death of Her Excellency Ambassador Zindzi Mandela and comments made on social media platforms by racist white South Africans that celebrated her death further reminded me of the ongoing pain of apartheid.

Those who claim not to be racist use Nelson Mandela’s words promoting peace and reconciliation, saying that Mandela forgave them for apartheid and by extension, everyone should do the same. Forgiveness is one thing. But it also requires transformation from the perpetrator, who cannot continue the path of oppression and prejudice. Black people in South Africa continue to suffer from the psychological and economic damage of apartheid.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of their skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
Nelson Mandela.

All citizens of South Africa must share in the country’s land; resources and wealth and must be equally shared, regardless of race or creed.  We cannot achieve this with more hatred. I’m calling for healing and reconciliation for the scourge of inequality and racism in our country and our Church. The first step to healing is to accept that we are ill to the core as a nation. Most racists are in denial and I am simply asking them to accept this and begin the process of healing.

If we truly call ourselves Christian, we cannot be afraid to speak about racism or become defensive when the issue of racism arises. Instead, we need to accept, acknowledge and ask for forgiveness for the wrongs that we or our ancestors did in order to find closure and move forward.

A verbal apology alone is not enough. It takes action to show the true transformation of healing. Both white and black successful individuals and families must strive to uplift, educate and support those who are less privileged. This action will advance true peace and reconciliation in our land.

Let us hold hands and pray together against this evil system of racism in the Church and in our country.

* 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.

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Mahadi Buthelezi
Mahadi Buthelezi is a daughter, a wife and a mother of five children. She is the CEO of the Catholic Business Forum and the Group CEO for RB Property Fund. She is a member of the SACBC Marriage and Family Life Office's Working Group and the Archdiocese of Johannesburg's Marriage and Family Life Synod Committee. Mahadi is the lead organizer of the ecumenical Women's World Day of Prayer in S.A for the Catholic Church, is the secretary for the Southern African World Union of Catholic Women Organization. She is a member of the UN Women SA and The Department of Women, Youth and People with Disabilities' Generation Equality and FBO's (Faith Based Organization) National Task Team. She is a Marriage and Family Life Coach, and serves on the PPC of the Catholic Church of the Resurrection in Bryanston.

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