My country is on fire. And I am 10 000 miles away from home. Over the past few days people rampaged through shopping centres, looted stores, carrying off whatever they could lay hands on and burning everything else. Protesters shut down roads, torched trucks that were trapped by the impromptu road-blocks, and stoned any motor vehicles that were in their path. Trying to identify one reason for this conflagration is risky, and trying to offer comment when I am not there is even more risky. Yet I am compelled to put some of my feelings to paper – mostly to find clarity in my own thinking. I believe that watching from a distance has its own advantages and this allows for a perspective not accessible when in the midst of the conflagration. Please feel free to correct me, challenge my views and generally take me on!
South Africa has been burning for a long time. What was seen recently is only the latest in a history of civil discontent. The disparity of wealth between those who have enough to get through life and those who do not, is a slow burning fuse waiting to ignite the fires of social unrest. The poorest people of the country live desperate lives, surviving from hand to mouth. They sell their wares at the side of the road, or hustle for a living as “car-guards”, or gardeners, or cleaners. And when the Covid-19 Virus lock-down takes away this opportunity to make a living, people become desperate. They are not blind to those who have enough resources to sustain themselves through the times when the country asked people to stay at home.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that there are senior political crooks and thieves who have found the desperation of the poor a useful tool to advance their own agenda – which is avoiding being held accountable for their criminal actions. The greater the social chaos, the greater their opportunity to gain control over the ruling party and change the party to their advantage.
And so I understand the call of many, many religious people for us all to “pray for South Africa”. But this call gives me great difficulty: What exactly should I be praying for? I suspect that many would answer that we should pray for the violence to cease – for the Peace of the Lord to be in the hearts and minds of the people of the country (to paraphrase Philippians 4:7). But calls to prayer could also be a way of seeming to do something while not really addressing the burning issue of our social inequality. I cannot see how we can pray “for things to go back to normal”, because normal is awful. My question is this: should we not be praying for the dismantling of a system that has allowed greedy acquisition of wealth. Should our prayers – and response to these prayers – not be directed at those South Africans who have more than they need to live, while the rest of the country suffers from grinding poverty. If we can address the disparity of wealth, the Jacob Zuma gang has no foothold.
Of course this is easier said than done. But here is a thought. The vast majority of people in South Africa are connected to a Christian Church (StatsSA says 84.2%). Instead of religious people praying for peace, here is what I would rather see: Ask your members to dream of a country where people live as the Bible teaches: where we share our possessions (Luke 12:33 & Acts 2:45), and if someone has two coats he will give one to someone who has none (Luke 3:10-11), where we ensure that there are none who are hungry or thirsty or live in abject poverty (Matthew 25). If every church pastor this Sunday would stop praying for peace, and instead preach in a way that transforms the hearts of the congregation to work for a change in the way wealth in distributed – then we would have begun a process towards peace.
Let followers of Jesus take hands with the most vulnerable people in local communities. Choose not to fall for the easy stereotypes of racial insult and xenophobic trope. Become those who bring the light of Christ into the darkness: remember that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5).