SOUTHERN AFRICAN NEWS FEATURES
ROLE OF RELIGION IN SOUTHERN AFRICAby Diana Mavunduse
The role of churches in southern Africa has been multifaceted ever since Christianity came with the colonisers. But while the history of the Church's work in the region was often controversial, its mission today has become less ambiguous, despite the fact that it has many internal divisions.
The first two weeks of December 1998 were not just a time for reflection and celebration for the World Council of Churches (WCC) which celebrated its 50th anniversary in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was also a time to redefine goals and objectives as well as facing up to new challenges.
The WCC, which contributed significantly to the struggle against colonialism in Africa and in particular, the demise of the illegal government of Rhodesia and apartheid in South Africa, through its Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) is now facing even more complex challenges which include the AIDS scourge, civil conflict, third world debt and globalisation of world economies.
Christianity is understood in Africa to have come hand-in-hand with colonialism. Some missionaries ignored the message of God and grabbed resources including land from the people. Later, as black consciousness grew and African nationalists took arms against colonialists, some church leaders continued to support colonial rule.
As Joshua Nkomo, now vice president of Zimbabwe, noted three decades ago when he was addressing a rally in the then Rhodesia: "The Christian churches have failed. Ministers have preached to people that they are the same in the eyes of God, at the same time have supported a social system that divides these people into groups of unequals. It is here where Christian churches have lacked moral courage. The Christian philosophy is good, but the men preaching it are bad."
In his analysis of the role of Christianity in southern Africa in a formal address to the WCC assembly late last, President Robert Mugabe said that churches had played midwife to colonialism, "succumbing or voluntarily surrendering God to the racism of colonial structures."
On the other hand many churches showed strong solidarity with the liberation struggle and provided education to most of the African nationalists who lead their countries to independence. South African President Nelson Mandela, who also addressed the assembly, thanked the Church for providing education to early nationalists, citing himself as an example of an African scholar who graduated from mission school.
But the mission of the Church today is much more than just evangelism and provision of social services such as education and health. Issues that demand the attention of churches today are related to economic justice, regional security, good governance, reconciliation and healing, development, peace making and conflict resolution.
For instance, there is much that the churches can do to ensure justice, care and proper reintegration for former fighters especially in Angola and Mozambique. Churches in Angola, in collaboration with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the government, have been building training centres throughout the country with the aim of providing former combatants with skills to ensure self-sustainability.
In Mozambique, the churches have been active helping former combatants through education and training. This has, however, been hindered by financial constraints. Many donors who used to support the churches during times of emergencies are no longer forthcoming with financial support for the reintegration process.
One of the burning issues in southern Africa is the unequal distribution of land. In Zimbabwe, thousands of landless peasants have resorted to illegal invasions of farmland. In appealing to the WCC, President Mugabe called upon all delegates to be actively involved in his country's land resettlement programme.
"All we are asking for from the WCC is recognition of the justice and biblical authority for our claim to repossess the land that was taken from us in the years of colonialism," said Mugabe.
The AIDS scourge, which has hit southern Africa hard particularly Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, is another daunting challenge to the Church. The burden of rural health care is largely carried by mission hospitals with only modest financial help from governments.
Zimbabwe, is the worst affected in the world with more than 700 Aids-related deaths being recorded every week in the country's major health centres. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Population report released in October 1998, about 26 percent of Zimababwe's population is believed to be HIV positive.
Churches run most of the hospices in southern Africa, which look after AIDS patients and orphans. But with the problem increasing daily, the church is called upon to face up to the challenge more than ever before.
Traditionally, the Church has been active in projects that seek to improve the social well-being of the less privileged. However, third world debt has plunged millions of people around the world into a cycle of poverty. As a consequence the world-wide church has taken initiatives to lobby for the cancellation of third world debt. Jubilee 2000, an international coalition of church organisations, has led the way in raising world consciousness on the impact of debt.
Additionally, globalisation, which Mugabe described as a conspiracy against the poor nations, is threatening to widen the gap between the poor and the rich. The WCC issued a strong statement of solidarity with the South in its fight against increasing economic marginalisation due to globalisation.
Mandela made a passionate appeal to the WCC to give the same solidarity to the struggle for development and the entrenchment of democracy in Africa that it gave to liberation movements fighting white rule in southern Africa through the PCR.
Linking the struggle against apartheid with the struggle for development, President Mandela told the assembly: "Thirty years ago you launched a programme that broke new ground and set new directions for the future. You moved beyond the affirmation of the right to resist on the part of the oppressed, to the risk of active engagement in the struggle to end oppression."
Mandela added, " The church in southern Africa is currently faced with many challenges, Angola crisis, the Congo war, debt cancellation, poverty and hunger. All these need the attention of the church."
He also said that governments and the people are now realising the importance of the church as a mediator. This is evident from the assembly where WCC presidents from the Africa region called upon the Church to lobby for debt cancellation in the third world countries and for peace in war torn countries like Angola and the DRC. (SARDC)