My Africa Problem ... and Ours

October 1, 2004

“Africa makes a mockery of what we say, at least what I say, about equality and questions our pieties and our commitments because there’s no way to look at what’s happening over there and it’s effect on all of us and conclude that we actually consider Africans as our equals before God. There is no chance.”

–Bono of U2, Commencement Address at the University of Pennsylvania, May 17, 2004.

ARRIVED in Canada on January 1, 1998, having flown as far from Johannesburg in South Africa as it is possible to fly before turning back around the curve of the globe. I came to Canada because I was broken and needed a break, but the way in which I was broken were as nothing compared to those that I had spoken on behalf of others in the previous two years.

I had worked for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by a saint with the foibles of a saint, Desmond Tutu. The Arch, as we all called him, would hug us as we came out of our booths at the end of the day, and once, in a red-dirt town where an angry mob danced their vengeful anguish, surging hurricane-like around the hall in which the hearings were being held, he prayed through the noon hour in my booth, seeking and finding guidance to bring peace – or at least calm – to the situation. My job was not a lofty one; I was not a commissioner or a lawyer or an investigator; I was a simultaneous interpreter.

We interpreters were a small but dedicated crew. We bounced three or four languages among one another to enable an audience to hear the testimony of a survivor or a perpetrator of gross human rights violations – abduction, torture, murder – in their own language within two to four seconds after it was spoken in the language of the witness or applicant for amnesty. Many of us drank hard; some of us found harder ways of numbing the pain and horror we spoke every day. For me the worst was the phone calls late at night between me in my hotel room and my young wife at home, when, exhausted – she after a day in the valley of the shadow of the diapers and I after a day of a woman telling of relentless violation or a man telling of testicles and bare electric wire or a mother telling of the sweaters of her infants scarlet with gunshot or a father telling of finding only a scrap of skin after three days of looking in the place where a mine shredded his son – we would curse and slam down the phone, too tired to listen and too worn out to care.

When I came to Canada I thought I would be going back. Soon. Maybe after four or five years, with another academic degree certifying me for the ministry of word and sacrament in my home church. Eighteen months later the strange configuration of calling and debt moved me into the work I do now with delight and an assurance that it is what I should be doing. Africa faded, slowly. Asked some months later if I would not help found a leadership school back in South Africa, I collapsed into a profound vocational crisis – perhaps the most profound yet. What are my duties to Africa? Should I abandon the work I do here in North America – holy work, as far as I can tell – and turn to the cries of the beloved country? Should I return with my wife and young daughters to a country that at the time had the highest incidence of rape as reported to the police of any Interpol member country?

My Africa problem is not whether there is something wrong with Africa, or whether something should be done about it if there is. Both reliable research and my own direct experience assures me that something is indeed very wrong with Africa, and I have no doubt that something should be done about it. My problem has to do with what should be done, and by whom. More particularly, what is my own personal responsibility toward Africa, and how does that responsibility weigh up against my other responsibilities?

I grew up in an all-white residential neighbourhood where I was told during my childhood that black people could only live in the outbuildings if they had an employment document as a house servant or a gardener, and that a sunset to sunrise curfew for black people kept our streets safe. I was told that people in my neighbourhood enjoyed a quality of life unequaled in the world, except perhaps in Sweden. Health care was excellent by the standards of the time. The streets were paved, and regular watering kept the parks green and filled with flowers, even though our city was on the edge of an arid semi-desert. Schools did a fairly good job, and music lessons – if you wanted them – were virtually free, because they were offered as a normal, albeit optional, part of the education system. (I learned to play the viola, poorly.)

In my teens, after my cataclysmic conversion to biblical Christianity (as distinct from the racist pseudo-Christian heresy of my childhood and the Buddhism Lite of my early teens), I became involved with an avowedly apolitical youth evangelism group in my home town that for all its intended denial of politics nonetheless had an enormous political influence on me and my friends. This group was the only inter-racial Christian youth group we could find in the city, and its evangelistic outreaches and youth camps brought me face-to-face with people of my own age who lived in very different circumstances from my own.

My black teen friends lived not ten minutes by car from where I lived. Their neighbourhood had no electricity and only cold running water made available at public water taps, each shared by four residential blocks. Their streets were not paved, and night waste was removed by a truck that came by every few days. The schools were poorly supplied with books and hardly supplied with anything else. As one of the architects of this racially based political system – Hendrik Verwoerd – had explained some years before I was born:

“When I have control of Native education I will reform it so that Natives will be taught from childhood to realize that equality with Europeans is not for them … People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for Natives. When my Department controls Native education it will know for what class of higher education a Native is fitted, and whether he will have a chance in life to use his knowledge.”
Many of my black friends, but especially their parents, managed to strain considerable dignity and a simple beauty of life out of the sordid circumstances into which they had been pressed. But to my young eyes the inequality between them and us was obvious, and obviously a grave injustice.

I remember discovering – with shock that turned into deep conviction – the prophecy of Isaiah 58.

“… day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. … Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? … Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”

My friends and I poured ourselves into the resistance against the apartheid regime. Our involvement in that resistance was no great shakes – we were very young, we had no idea what we were doing, and our connections into the existing resistance movements were very weak – but it was enough to get us into tepid water. I was invited to go and discuss my activities with the security police a few times, where it became clear that they had reliable information from one of my good friends, and my parents were reminded by someone or other that my activities might have negative repercussions for their careers. But nothing like the hot water that the black teens in our circle endured: 90-day detentions without trial, beatings with sand-filled nylon-stoking tubes, disappearances, and as we discovered years later, worse.

We thought we would spend our lives on resistance against a racist tyranny. We struggled terrifically to understand the connection between our deepest loves (for God, for one another) and our duties as citizens. We read – Ron Sider and John Howard Yoder, at first; later Francis Schaeffer and Bob Goudzwaard; eventually Herman Dooyeweerd, Abraham Kuyper, John Calvin, and Augustine of Hippo. We argued. We prayed. At first we became pacifists and therefore understood our political duties to demand non-violence. I served three and a half years of a six-year community service assignment as a religious objector against military conscription. Later, toward the end of the 1980s, some of us turned to Just War doctrine and tried to figure out an understanding of just resistance against a tyrant. We never got very far theoretically, but we persuaded ourselves that the ever more vigorous violent oppression practiced by the then Botha government demanded from us as Christians armed resistance.

We never got around to doing something about that conviction, because just as we stopped being pacifists the new De Klerk government announced that it would release all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, unban all banned political movements, and begin a process of negotiation towards a Democratic South Africa. That all happened what is now almost half my life ago, but it remains perhaps the most decisive historical event to have a direct impact on my life. Suddenly I had no idea what my life was supposed to be about. If I was not to expend my life in the struggle against apartheid, then into what would I invest myself?

I floundered. I wrote an MA dissertation (on “Christian philosophy and the transformation of African culture”) and a PhD thesis (on “The Ethics of Public Welfare”) in an effort to try to figure out what I should do in the aftermath of apartheid. I joined political movements, and with a friend, Mark Manley, I tried to put together a network of evangelical Christians active in post-apartheid South Africa. I worked on language policy and the constitutional rights of language groups with another friend, Theo du Plessis. I worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I went slightly crazy. But I still had no idea what to do with my life now that I had nothing big and evil and obvious to be against.

The first democratic elections of 1994 were astonishing, with the nation teetering at the edge of the abyss of civil war (not white vs. black, but something complex that could be over-simplified into Zulu vs. Xhoza) and then pulling back – a peaceful result partly due to nation-wide prayer, it seemed to many of us. Standing for hours in the long line snaking into a school hall to cast our ballots next to people of all tongues and races was perhaps the highest point in my political life. South Africa’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup tournament provoked a surge of shared patriotism that drew the people of the country together into a moment of common celebration the likes of which were not seen before, or since.

But post-apartheid South Africa was a disappointment. Along with my other work, I spent a few days every month interpreting for the provincial parliament of what was once known as the Orange Free State province. It was a dismal affair. The plenary sessions were displays of the small-minded mediocrity of the provincial politicians of all parties. The committee sessions were displays of venality and petty power games. A tinge of backlash racism marked the operations of the new provincial government. A friend of mine, the finest development economist in the province and a long-time opponent of apartheid, raised funding internationally for the research and design of an economic development approach in the province, but because he was white the provincial government mocked and ignored the potential of his contribution. Hints of corruption and self-enrichment were everywhere – the new provincial cabinet members drove shiny Mercedes Benzes or BMWs, while the common people sank into ever greater poverty. Many of my most idealistic friends sank, not into poverty, but into a sour and depressed cynicism and pessimism about the future of the beloved country.

The political efforts in which I involved myself were bearing little or no fruit. Most Christians involved in politics did not want to think christianly about their political duties, prefering instead a simplistic para-marxism or a vulgar nationalism. Those Christians who were willing to think christianly about their politics tended to fall for a triumphalistic imported version of the politics of the American religious Right – but since their numbers were small, their efforts were ineffectual. Networking Christians who were biblically thoughtful about political life in South Africa in the mid-1990s foundered on the rocks of non-biblical ideology, simplistic biblicism, and a general lack of interest.

Increasingly I became persuaded that South African Christians were not ready for political responsibility because we lacked a thoroughly Christian understanding, not just of politics, but of culture in general. The ground in which my friends and I were trying to sow the seeds of Christian political action lacked compost and had not been plowed over. For a Christian politics to flourish in South Africa, Christian political activists needed to take a step back. The soil needed to be tilled, and compost needed to be worked into the fields. The most important political work in South Africa, I came to believe, was that of proclaiming the gospel. The proclamation of the gospel of the creation and redemption of all things in Christ was needed before Christian political action could become viable.

With that in mind I began to consider the ministry of Word and sacraments in my home denomination, then the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa. If a Christian politics in South Africa was for the time being impossible – or at least limited to education – then perhaps my calling was to do the work of preparing Christians for a Christian politics in the generations to come? Perhaps I could preach the Word and serve the sacraments in ways that would help cultivate discernment and conviction with regard to the duties of citizenship, Biblically understood?

Things did not turn out that way. I spent 18 months in Vancouver, British Columbia, thinking that I was preparing for the Presbyterian ministry in South Africa. Our family went through its own little post-traumatic stress episode, whacked on top of consumer culture shock of the first degree, ameliorated by living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world (ah, the float planes drifting in over the bay against a gilt and russet sunset) and being embraced by Regent College, which turned out to serve us more as a therapeutic community than as a place of professional advancement. And then I was offered work with the two organizations in which I still find myself following the call of God today. We left Vancouver for Toronto, and with that decided that if we were to return to live and work in Africa, it would be after our children went to college, if ever.

But is this the right thing to do? What Would Bono Do? Consider Africa today. While South Africa has not collapsed into failed statehood, as many people feared, it is one of the most criminally violent places in the world. In contrast, the neighbouring Botswana has relatively little crime – but it suffers from one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. Zimbabwe is governed by a caricature dictator whose comic ridiculousness is rivaled only by his malevolence. Further up, in the Sudan, another genocide looms, perhaps on the same scale as that achieved in Rwanda.
Everywhere Africa is plagued by disease, poverty, crime, and political situations that seem to allow a choice only between tyranny and anarchy. And yet this is a continent where people continue to choose the Christian faith over their native paganisms, where churches thrive and grow, where despite an ecstatic strain of piety among the mass of people, church leaders seem to have a bent for sound doctrine. Ever so slowly – as at the outer fringes of the Roman Empire from the fifth century to the twelfth century – Christianity seems to be working itself into the soil of African culture. The Christian transformation of African culture seems likely to be a 500-year project. What can I do to help it along?

Writing this meandering memoir has brought me no closer to a personal vocational answer than the nights of prayer and tears of a few years ago. The comfort of my present sense of calling has never been so cozy that it requires an exercise of this kind to be shaken. A few weeks ago I sat next to a philosopher and a new friend, who quietly but passionately asked me, “But how can you be here and not there?” For now my retort is, that is not only my problem. It is ours.