Facing the Challenges to Build a More Harmonious South Africa

“We have one of the most unequal societies in the world and if we don’t deal with the issue of inequality – I mean, real socio-economic inequality – then we are going to see an increase in this polarisation in the country. It’s a polarisation still very much along racial lines and that’s why we are seeing so much anger and growing tension.”

“As the church, we had a great opportunity in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) 20 years ago to bridge a gap, but I don’t think enough was done. Instead, we just sat back and let things take its course and we lost our leadership edge.” According to Nadine we, as South Africans, want to skip to the happy ending without going through the suffering, mourning and lamenting. “But there can’t be any resurrection without death. The TRC was unfortunately also used to create scape goats and there are even already people who deny that Apartheid ever took place! “

She’s done extensive research on the topic of social justice and the role of the church, and the same questions keep coming up; where is the church today? Why is the church so silent? “During Apartheid, some churches were very outspoken about social injustices and now, even though there are still unresolved issues, the church has fallen silent and is almost too scared to take a stance. Most churches find it easier to focus on relief and charity type work than to engage in dialogue and talk about difficult topics such as restorative justice and even reconciliation.”

Engaging in the Process of Change

Nadine believes that most South Africans find it difficult and painful to confront the suffering of others and that people prefer to turn a blind eye and shy away from confronting it. “People are overwhelmed by the scale of the poverty and that leads to paralysis. But following Christ was never supposed to be easy, so as Christians, we shouldn’t shy away from it. Following Christ is costly and beautiful,” she explains. On hard conversations around race and inequality she notes that “You can’t just leave the room when it gets uncomfortable. You need to stay and listen. Stay in the hard space; even if it makes you feel guilty, frustrated or sad and even traumatised.”

Nadine quotes the German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spoke about the cost of discipleship when he said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” She believes that in this country, it means facing up to the inequality and the poverty. Confronting suffering. “The God of suffering is already there in the midst of it,” she explains. “It is a costly discipleship, but we can’t afford to disengage or keep quiet. We need to listen to people’s stories, even if it’s not easy, we need to cry together to bridge the gap and take hands again. Most people want relationship and not just feelings of guilt. That’s where something like the Justice Conference plays such an important facilitating role; it’s opening the door for conversations with people from different backgrounds and different communities and equipping leaders.”

Taking the Lead on The Way Forward

The Justice Conference (JC) is a vital global platform for the Faith and Justice Community, hosted in several countries across the globe. Nadine is a board member of The Warehouse, which was one of the key partners of the JC South Africa. She was both on the planning committee and was one of the speakers at this year’s local conference, which was attended by over 1000 delegates. She explains that it was very much about giving other voices a chance on stage. “Women, people of colour and younger people. It’s a loose network of people who can then go out and make a difference in their spheres of influence.”

“The idea is that every speaker or participant of the JC should take the message back to their communities and use the platforms that they were given to make a difference in the hearts of whoever they come in contact with.” Nadine refers to the theory of Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells about living in a new kind of network society when she explains that the concept of leadership is changing. “It now depends on the influence you have. It’s a different kind of society. Roles of leaders are changing. It’s not about being the top dog anymore. We live in a network society and it’s more about how you network people and influence them. Creating new ways of doing and thinking.”

“The way to achieve justice is to realise it’s a journey. It’s easy to judge people, but not so easy to journey together. People are willing to journey together, as long as it’s done in love. We need to meet people where they are and journey with them.” And that’s exactly what she’s encouraging her students to do through her teaching, as well as platforms like the JC and other ecumenical forums.

More about Nadine Bowers du Toit

Prof Nadine Bowers du Toit is Associate Professor at the University of Stellenbosch’s department of Practical Theology and Missiology. Her focus is on Theology and Development – church and poverty issues. She is also a board member at The Warehouse, an initiative where community and church leaders are inspired, equipped and connected in order to respond to poverty, inequality, injustice and division in communities. She has written numerous papers on the role of the church in addressing poverty and inequality in South African society.