* By Seán Morrow
Most South Africans know of Brigalia Bam as chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), where she served from 1999 to 2011. Previously secretary general of the South African Council of Churches, and already an IEC commissioner, she was chosen by then-President Nelson Mandela from the list of parliamentary nominees for this critical role. In a country that had recently been on the brink of racial civil war, she guided South Africans with humour, tolerance and impartiality along the path of inclusive democracy.
Bam is now in an active retirement in Pretoria, where she advises on electoral matters in various African countries and promotes women's rights within and outside the church as she has done throughout her career. Her ecumenism and profound rejection of racism are evident: “We have been through dark times”, Bam says, “and we are therefore all the more delighted at the renewed fellowship of South African Christians.”
The WCC which Bam joined in 1967 wrestled with the issue of racism, especially in southern Africa. Strongly supported by Visser ’t Hooft, the general secretary of the WCC until 1966, and inspired by the speech of black American author James Baldwin at the Fourth Assembly of the WCC at Uppsala, Sweden, in 1968, the WCC created the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR). Bam served on the committee of the PCR, a body that bore witness to the immorality of racism through non-military support for the southern African liberation movements. In spite of this, its critics argued that it was difficult to distinguish such support from the underwriting of violence.
Bam’s life and career link the world of black South African Christians to international ecumenism and to the liberation of women in the churches, a struggle that is by no means over. Born in 1933 in the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape, she was raised in the Anglican communion and educated in Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian schools. The people of the Transkei are in general desperately poor, yet even under apartheid her family, substantial landholders in a region of small peasant agriculture and extensive labour migration, maintained a level of economic prosperity; achieved all that was possible in education for black people at the time; and, critically, kept their self-assurance and dignity in the face of unrelenting racial and gender discrimination.
The Bams were a devout family yet they lived, like many others, with the ambiguities of Christian mission. They extracted and internalized the essence of Christian spirituality, morality and service from the message of missionaries who were often selfless and self-denying. But the missionaries were also people of their time and were often paternalistic, assuming that hierarchies of race and class were part of the natural order.
Bam began her working career as a teacher and subsequently trained as a social worker. She spent many years in the 1950s and ’60s working for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in the province of Natal, encouraging women’s self-reliance in often deeply patriarchal communities. In the 1960s, she attended WCC-supported work-camps and conferences in Zambia, Kenya and Uganda and gained a reputation as a forthright speaker and capable organiser. The WCC invited her to apply for the post of director of the Department of Co-operation of Men and Women in Church and Society – the convoluted title designed, Bam says, to downplay the idea of women’s rights ̶ and, despite government obstruction, she managed to secure a South African passport. She moved to Geneva in 1967.
Bam was not the first black South African to work for the WCC. She was preceded by Professor Z.K. Matthews, who from 1962 to 1966 was Africa secretary of the Division of Inter-Church Aid, Refugees and World Service. Later came people such as Khotso Makhulu and the eminent theologian Barney Pityana, from 1988 to 1992 director of the Programme to Combat Racism.
In her time at the WCC, from 1967 to 1981, Bam’s job was to work with women and not specifically to focus on South Africa or Africa in general. She travelled all over the world building networks of Christian women; speaking against the male domination that was characteristic of most churches; promoting the ordination of women, and working for women’s bodily as well as spiritual welfare, for instance supporting Japanese Christian women in their agitation against sex tourism to countries like Thailand.
One of the highlights of her time at the WCC was the Women’s Consultation in West Berlin in June 1974, widely reported in the German, French, Swiss, British and Dutch press. Writing afterwards about the conference to an American colleague, Bam summed up her approach to race and gender: “I think there is a tendency”, she said, “to exaggerate the differences and the diversity between the Third World and women from the West; I never felt that the differences were insurmountable … I must say that, as a South African black woman who has lived all her life in a racist society, I have no problem in recognizing the two forms of oppression. I never pretend at any time when I talk about racism that sexism does not exist for black women in my country. I think we will get somewhere one day.”
Alongside her regular WCC work, Bam focused on South Africa, and was closely involved with the PCR. She had every personal as well as political motive: members of her family, like most black South Africans, regularly experienced the humiliations of apartheid, and her brother Fikile, a member of the left-wing Unity Movement, spent ten years on Robben Island where the most dangerous political prisoners, according to the apartheid government, were incarcerated. Many adversaries of apartheid passing through Geneva stayed in Bam’s apartment, and she took every opportunity to visit countries near South Africa, especially Botswana, which was one of the main destinations for young people fleeing Soweto and elsewhere after the 1976 uprising. She worked, with Norwegian financial support, to establish a house in Gaborone where young women could stay in safety.
Bam worked for the WCC at a time of theological ferment and rapid social change. We are in such a time again. Her ideas and experiences remain relevant today.
Seán Morrow is adjunct professor of History at the University of Fort Hare. His most recent book is The Fires Beneath: The Life of Monica Wilson, South African Anthropologist, Cape Town: Penguin, 2016. He is currently researching and writing a history of the Bam family.