For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Jeremiah 29:11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We, the members of the World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation, which was headed by Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC, representing the WCC Commission on Churches in International Affairs, WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, WCC Just Community of Women and Men, All Africa Conference of Churches, and Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa; coming from: Canada, United States of America, Jamaica, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Eswatini were on a Pilgrim Team Visit to South Africa from 7-12 December 2019. We were hosted by the South African Council of Churches (SACC).
The purpose of this Pilgrim Team Visit was to have Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace conversations with political and religious leaders, civil society, concerned citizens, and victims and survivors of two critical issues of global importance, namely gender-based violence and femicide, and xenophobia in South Africa. It was motivated by the extremely worrying levels of gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa, as well as incidents of violence toward foreign nationals, which recently erupted again in different parts of the country, and were widely reported both by local and global media.
The concept of a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace goes back to 2013, when the WCC’s assembly in Busan, South Korea, invited Christians and people of good will everywhere to join in a pilgrimage focusing on justice and peace - to walk together in a common quest in celebrating life and in concrete steps toward transforming injustice and violence. A Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace is a transformative journey that God invites us to take in anticipation of the final purpose for the world that the triune God brings about. It is also a journey of solidarity and spirituality which seeks a mutual transformation between people – both those who have visited and those who have been visited – as we walk, work and pray together. The pilgrimage includes at least three different dimensions – not in a linear form but rather in a dynamic, interdependent understanding: celebrating the gifts; visiting the wounds; and transforming the injustices. The concept of the pilgrimage combines reflection and praxis on what the churches can do together among themselves, with people of other faiths and all people of good will.
In 2014, the WCC Central Committee identified the following themes for the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace: life affirming economies, climate change, nonviolent peace-building and reconciliation, and human dignity. Through encounters and lessons learned in Pilgrim Team Visits from 2016 to 2019, the lived experiences of the people have led to the identification of the following key themes:
- truth and trauma
- land and displacement
- gender justice and
- racial justice.
The context: the WCC relationship with South Africa
In the words of Rev Dr Tveit on this Pilgrim Team Visit, ‘South Africa has a very special place in the history and the heart of the WCC and its leadership, also today. The struggle for justice and human rights and dignity in the WCC Programme to Combat Racism contributed to change the reality in your country, but it also changed the churches worldwide. South Africa has been a lighthouse in the world for how to work together for truth, justice and peace, as churches seeking unity. Today we learn how the people in South Africa and in the neighbouring countries struggle again with violence and economic and racist injustices, and it is time to visit again as pilgrims of justice and peace.”
This visit by a WCC delegation is truly a momentous occasion, as it was the first time in many years that a high-level delegation of the WCC has come officially on a justice mission to South Africa. The WCC first came in this manner after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, and held the Cottesloe Conference. This resulted in Beyers Naudé forming the Christian Institute in 1963 as an ecumenical organization aiming to foster reconciliation through interracial dialogue, research, and publications. The only other time that the WCC had a justice visit to South Africa was to support the South African Council of Churches when the apartheid government hauled the SACC before the Eloff Commission in 1982, to try and prove that it was not practicing a Christian ministry.
WCC again heard a call for justice from South Africa: “Come and see.” (John 1:39)
Who we met, what we learnt and our analysis
Who we met
The first steps of the pilgrimage was shared worship with SACC member churches. We had the opportunity to participate in the worship and bring greeting to our brothers and sisters
The Pilgrim Team Visit 2019 afforded us with opportunities to read the signs of the times. As pilgrims we met with His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa, President of the Republic of South Africa, together with his ministers, Minister Aaron Motsoaledi (Home Affairs), Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (Women, Children and People with Disability) and Minister Jackson Mthembu (Minister in the Presidency). The President briefed us about the challenges the country was facing and focused on gender-based violence, issues affecting migrants and attacks on foreigners. We had a further meeting with the Minister of Home Affairs for a detailed presentation of the laws and policies of government and the challenges they are facing.
We also met with people who are working assiduously to address issues related to sexual and gender-based violence, as well as challenges of migration. The conversation and reflection partners were from civil society, the government of South Africa, and church agencies and ministries. Among the state institutions supporting constitutional democracy were the South African Commission for Gender Equality, and the South African Human Rights Commission. The Interim Steering Committee on Gender-based Violence and Femicide highlighted the power of women’s advocacy and demand for accountability. We listened to the perspectives of civil society and to the stories of the individuals directly affected. As pilgrims we also gained first hand insights through case studies by member churches of SACC on ministry offered by the church community to refugees and migrants, as well as to the victims of gender-based violence. The Republic of Sexual Abuse exhibition made these experiences starkly visible.
What we learnt about xenophobia
We became aware of the multi-layered nature of xenophobia and racism. It was immediately apparent that the government, civil society, and churches in South Africa have been considerate of migrants’ concerns for more than two decades. Policies have been crafted to address the pressing issues, and considerable effort has been made to meet the needs of the vulnerable. Economic challenges, perceptions of loss, and unaddressed hurts have fuelled some negative responses to and by migrants.
An encounter with refugees and pastors who work with, and minister to, refugees presented just the opposite of what we heard from the Minister of Home Affairs. It is clear that there is a huge gap between the “good laws and policies” the Government talked about and the reality of the experiences of asylum seekers at Home Affairs offices and the police. This includes corruption experiences and abuse.
We expressed shock and pain at some of the narratives encountered during the visit. We heard stories of South Africans feeling abandoned in favour of migrants and of lawlessness on the side of foreign nationals. We have heard of churches fanning the flames of hatred and fuelling xenophobia. We also listened to stories of how some foreign nationals face endless and continuous violations of their fundamental rights: undocumented people are unable to go to school or university or work because their documents have not been renewed, or have been destroyed by security forces; young girls become pregnant through rape or prostitution; children are abandoned or deported.
It was however encouraging for us to encounter church, government, and civil society interventions established to affirm the dignity of all persons, regardless of race, nationality, gender or orientation, and to hear alternate narratives of hope and survival. These have renewed our commitment to acts of transformation and hope in Southern Africa and within our own contexts.
The pilgrim group heard of the SACC model of local (ward-based) form of ecumenism, which the SACC was rolling out to deal with the challenges the people were facing, including bridging the gap between the policies and laws of the country and this reality.
What we learnt about gender-based violence
We heard stories about gender-based violence, rape and femicide. South Africa has the highest rate of women murdered by their partners in the world. These partners include a woman’s husband, boyfriend either dating or cohabiting, ex-husband – divorced or separated – or ex-boyfriend, same-sex partner, or a rejected would-be lover. Violence in the domestic sphere is frequently perpetrated by males who are, or who have been, in positions of trust and intimacy and power.
Social constructions of manhood play a role in driving gender-based violence. The historically unequal power relations between men and women usually drive this violence. Unhealthy theologies perpetuate patriarchy, a root cause of gender-based violence. The complete humanity of all people created in the image of God (imago Dei) must be accentuated in the discourse on gender-based violence. Men and women are jointly image bearers of God and men and woman should therefore stand as equal partners next to each other in their relationship to God. Gender-based violence denies fundamental human rights, especially those of women and children. Everyone has the right to be treated in a dignified way. Human dignity is inalienable; that means it is an essential part of every human being. The humanity of all people as imago Dei should therefore be emphasized.
We heard and affirmed that “sexual and gender-based violence is not (only) a women’s problem but a men’s problem,” especially in light of the WCC’s call for women and men to join in efforts to end violence against women.
In reflecting on the intersectionality of the root issues related to both types of violence, it was noted that the underlying challenge is violence against the vulnerable – a challenge to human dignity in various strata of society. We recognise that gender-based violence and xenophobic violence visited upon foreign nationals intersect, especially for the poor who seek to find new possibilities of life in South Africa, away from the countries of birth which has become places of hopelessness and insecurity.
Violence is a global pandemic, which denies the humanity and rights of the vulnerable – economically, socially, politically and spiritually. There was the sense that humanity has been complicit in denying the human dignity of the vulnerable in different ways, including in our silence. This is another form of violence.
Most governments on the continent of Africa enacted laws, formulated policies, and passed bills which emphasize that everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. However, this s not always the experience of those vulnerable in different ways.
Our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace was signposted by twice-daily prayers, giving direction to the activities of our days together.
A recurring theme was South Africa as a lighthouse symbolizing hope, hospitality, and human dignity in the global community.
The theme of hope is one that we identified as critical for both our experience and the future of South Africa. In reflecting on the theme of hope we were drawn to several biblical narratives.
The Old Testament story of the request of Zelophehad’s daughters for their entitlement to their father’s inheritance in Numbers 27:1-7 helped us to think about God’s commitment to enacting justice for those excluded because of their gender, and because of norms and traditions of culture. In this sense, we see God’s preferential option for the poor, which is the foundational starting point for engagement in the work of justice.
Reflecting on Exodus 23:5-9 we hear God’s exhortation to rehearse our personal stories considering God’s redemptive work and the call to right relationships with strangers and neighbours.
We were reminded in exploring the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-14 that Jesus’ DNA included people who were strangers (the other) to the promise to the people of Israel but became a part of God’s redemptive and transformative purpose for the world. A realization that hope is rooted in God’s activity in the world is a critical starting point for transformation.
In our exploration of hope, founded in the notion of God’s redemptive activity in the world, two further themes were identified: (a) the connection between hospitality and hope, and (b) human dignity.
Hospitality and hope are twin essentials of the reign of God in the world today, particularly in South Africa. Hospitality and hope are God’s decree for such a time as this when women, children and men experience many forms of violence due to poverty, skin colour, gender, and country of origin.
Matthew 19:14 reads “. . . Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’” Jesus declares children as the embodiment of the reign of God. Yet, today we find children in South Africa vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence, nationals as well as migrants. Such egregious desecrations of children are a direct violation to the symbolic embodiment of the “kingdom of heaven.” According to scripture, refugee children, women and men are particularly worthy of the practice of hospitality.
In our closing worship we reflected on Genesis 34 where violence begets violence in contrast to Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to be a visible and transformative church to strangers and those in need.
Human dignity is the gracious gift of the imago Dei. From the stories of gender-based violence and xenophobia it became apparent that demeaning a human being is to demean the divinity – the goodness of God – within every woman, girl, man, and boy. Like the lighthouse illuminating the way of safe passage, we need to affirm that in the creation of human persons God’s identity was indelibly stamped on each human being.
Call to Action
We acknowledge that the WCC-CCIA, AACC, FOCCISA and SACC have a long history and tradition of upholding and defending the human rights of uprooted people in general, based on the notion of just hospitality to the most vulnerable amongst us. We are calling on them to intensify and expand on this.
We affirm the AACC’s plan of action to collaborate with the Conference of European Churches (CEC) in order to create awareness with regard to migration amongst its member churches and for the European Union to give financial support to the AACC as well as data and information about the state of affairs with regard to immigration in Europe.
We believe that South Africa, as chair of the African Union, working with all sectors throughout the continent, can mobilize the vision of an “Integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena” as a continental vision (as verbalized in Agenda 2063). We believe this vision is one worth spending our time and resources on, so that hopelessness and violence can be defeated by our collective efforts.
On our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace:
We see God in the other, and particularly in the people on the margins of society. A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees and towards women and girls, is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization to acceptance of the other as made in the image of God.
We commit to respect the dignity of the weak and vulnerable amongst us. As a faith community we should denounce discrimination of all types against any human being as unacceptable in the sight of God.
We repent of our complacency and complicity to both gender-based violence and xenophobia.
We urge all churches in South Africa to:
- acknowledge and uphold the positive policies and laws of South Africa relating to migrants and refugees and
- call on the Government to do everything possible to close the gap between the good laws and policies of Government and the poor implementation and experiences of migrants.
We request that SACC increases coordination and communication between churches ministering in the fields of gender-based violence and xenophobia.
We request that WCC, AACC, FOCCISA, and SACC member churches and their theological institutions:
1. increase their efforts in promoting theological reflection, sermons, and bible studies on human dignity for all people, especially women, migrants and refugees so that hospitality to the “other” should become a way of life.
2. intensify their work on advocacy, accompaniment and spiritual support of refugees as part of a shared understanding of what it means to be church.
3. collaborate with each other with regard to advocacy, accompaniment and spiritual support of refugees and internally and externally displaced persons.
4. denounce all forms of criminality conducted by foreign nationals.
On gender-based violence
We request that WCC, AACC, FOCCISA and SACC member churches and their theological institutions:
- increase efforts to address the roles and responsibilities of men and boys and to transform social-cultural norms and traditional and customary practices that condone violence against women and girls
- revisit our theology and practices to identify and address the root causes of sexual and gender based violence
- call upon governments to address the causes of multiple and intersecting forms of violence against women and girls.
On leadership of the AU by South Africa
We urge South Africa to keep African leaders accountable to the sacred vow made to the African people in the 2007 AU Charter on Democracy, Election and Governance, when the president takes leadership of the African Union in 2020. This includes to:
promote adherence, by each state party, to the Universal values and principles of democracy and respect for Human Rights.
- promote and enhance adherence to the principle of the rule of law premised upon the respect for, and the supremacy of, the constitution and Constitutional order in the political arrangements of the state parties.
- promote the holding of regular free and fair elections to institutionalise legitimate authority of representative government as well as democratic change of governments.
We offer ourselves as partners in prayers and action throughout the world, in the continent and in national structures to renew hope and reaffirm the dignity of all human beings.
Johannesburg 11 December, 2019, the visitor and the visited on the World Council of Churches Pilgrim Team Visit to South Africa