Unification News for February 1997

IRFWP Conference in South Africa
The Role of Religion in the Transformation of Southern African Societies

by Dr. Thomas G. Walsh-Louisville, KY

The Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace (IRFWP) started the year by sponsoring an inter-religious conference in Johannesburg, South Africa on January 9-12, 1997. The conference was held at Webster Hall on the University of Witwatersrand campus in central Johannesburg and had as its theme, "The Role of Religion in the Transformation of Southern African Societies." Participants included twenty-five scholars from southern Africa, representing a wide range of national and religious backgrounds, and Drs. Walsh and Kaufmann from the IRFWP. The nations represented included South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Swaziland; the religions represented included Hinduism, Judaism, African Traditional Religion, African Indpendent Churches, Dutch Reformed, Islam, Buddhism, Baha'i, Scientology and Unificationism. This conference stood in the tradition of conferences which the International Religious Foundation had organized with great success in the past. These were the two conferences of the Council for the World's Religion, one on "Traditional African Religion" held in 1987 in Nairobi, Kenya and one in 1989 on "Christianity, Islam and Traditional African Religion," held in Nigeria, and a conference of the New Ecumenical Research Association on "Religion and the Environment," held in 1991 in Nairobi, Kenya.

The nation of South Africa, as well as the region of southern Africa, is religiously diverse. Christianity is South Africa's majority religion, claiming over 50% of the population (12% Dutch Reformed, 36% Other Protestant Churches, 9% Roman Catholic). However, at this time within Christianity there are momentous changes occurring. Most significantly there is a decline of the "missionary religions," that is the mainstream Protestant denominations rooted in European culture, e.g., Anglicanism, Methodism, Reformed and Lutheran churches; meanwhile there is growth in four areas: 1) non-denominational evangelical and pentecostal churches; 2) African independent churches, or Christian movements which seek to shed all traces of colonial culture and root themselves in Africa's unique context; 3) a resurgence of interest in pre-colonial religion or African traditional religion; and finally, 4) newer religious movements such as Unificationism, Baha'i and Mormonism. In addition to Christianity, there are significant populations of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and African Traditionalists in the region. These minority traditions play significant roles in southern African societies. In regard to Hinduism one may recall that Mohandas Gandhi began his political activism in South Africa when he lived there early in this century. In terms of Islam, many southern Africans of Indian descent are Muslim, and there is a growing presence of Islam in the region.

The combination of religious diversity, coupled with significant racial and ethnic diversity, makes for a potentially volatile situation. Certainly the history of South Africa represents a tragic model for dealing with racial and ethnic diversity. In the post- apartheid era, however, there is great hope that a new model of harmony and cooperation can be achieved in this "rainbow nation." This hope is evidenced in the work of President Nelson Mandela and in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which seeks to uncover the injustices of the past, but with a goal of reconciliation rather than revenge. Both Mandela and Tutu, as leaders of the new South Africa, advocate looking to the future, beyond the legitimate resentments of the recent past. Archbishop Tutu was invited to the conference but had to decline "owing to the heavy demands upon him as Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission." The issue of reconciliation in the post-apartheid era also applies directly to the religions, for, as is the case in the former communist countries, there is much discussion about the links

between certain religions and the prior oppressive political regime. For example, some churches allied themselves with apartheid policies, while others fought against that regime. There are churches which supported colonial regimes and others that are either pre-colonial or post-colonial. This reality creates its own set of challenges to the goal of inter-religious harmony.

These dramatic themes and issues which form the reality of day-to-life in southern Africa were ever apparent in the papers presented and in the discussions throughout the conference. Here are a few samples of the topics covered in the papers: "South Africa's Search for Peace and Unity," by Dr. Albert Venter of the Rand Afrikaans University . Dr. Venter, a co-convener of the conference and President of PWPA in South Africa, offered an overview of the various factions and interest groups within contemporary South Africa. These include the "white right wing," the African National Congress, the Inkatha Freedom Party, African traditionalists, and others. Venter suggests that the many deep divisions within South Africa can only be healed by moving toward a more equitable distribution of material resources. In addition he calls for the white Afrikaner churches to apologize for its role in shaping the policy of apartheid. In a paper written from a Jewish perspective, Dr. Jocelyn Hellig, Head of the Department of Religion at the University of Witwatersrand, decribed apartheid as "an affirmative action program for indigent white Africaners." She pointed out that Jews, too, suffered under the apartheid regime, particularly through prohibitive immigration policies, especially at the time when Jews needed a refuge from Nazism; at the same time, as whites Jew benefited from the privileges that came to that race during the apartheid era. Within South Africa, she reported, the relations between Jews and Muslims are tense, "exacerbated by the fact that the Jewish community is white as well as by the strongly Zionist character of South African Jewry and the Muslim identification with the Arab world." She concludes that "South Africans of all religions have to communicate across the religious and racial divides not in order to blur differences. But in order to accept diversity and accord other religions respect."

Dr. Gerhardus Oosthuizen, the other conference co-convener and Emeritus Professor of Religion from the University of Durban Westville, wrote on African Independent Churches (AIC's), which he described as "the most dynamic church movement in South Africa." AIC's, which have their origin "in the missionary activities of nonmainstream American religious movements in the late nineteenth century," can be divided into three categories: 1) the Ethiopian Churches which reacted to a "general dissatisfaction with the inequality that existed between black and white clergy;" 2) Zionist churches, which "resulted from contacts with the Christian Catholic Church founded by John Alexander Dowie on 22 February 1896 at Zion City (not far from Chicago);" 3) Apostolic churches, "an explicitly Pentecostal form of Christianity." One imporant feature of the AIC's, according to Oosthuizen, is their ability to overcome ethnic divisions. Oosthuizen says, "The dynamics in the AIC's in South Africa, and in Africa, are deeply related to the depth of traditional African spirituality, with its emphasis on relationships of sharing and caring in a holistic sense, and of genuine fellowships." Dr. Nokuzola Mndende, of the University of Cape Town, presented a paper representing African Traditional Religion. She argued that African Traditional Religions had been marginalized and ignored by the other, more powerful religious traditions. She further proposedd that even under the new post-apartheid regime, African Traditional Religion is excluded. She thus charged the new government of Mr. Mandela with violating its own principles of religious freedom and inclusiveness. Dr. Christina Steyn, of the University of South Africa, presented a paper on the importance of developing a multi-faith religious education program within the South African school system. The program should be multi-faith, she said, because, "In a multicultural and multireligious society such as ours the study of different religions can promote understanding and respect for one another and can prepare children to live in harmony and sophistication in our unique society."

In addition to these, all of which address the religious situation in South Africa, there were very valuable papers presented by participants from countries other than South Africa. These included the following: "Swazi Royal Ceremonies and Religious Tolerance in the Kingdom of Swaziland," by Dr. Hebron Ndlovu from the University of Swaziland, which examines the relationship between Christianity and the traditional "royal" religion of Swaziland; in his paper, "The Role of Religion in the Transformation of Namibian Society After Independence," Dr. Christo Lombard of the University of Namibia, offered a clear study of the relationship between the churches and the not always commendable practices of the Namibian independence movement, and the way in which the church compromised its own ideals in the process; a paper on "The Role of Religion in the Transformation of Southern African Societies: The Botswana Case," by Dr. Obed Ndeya Kealotswe of the University of Botswana, provided a very useful analysis of religion in Botaswana; and, finally, "Shona Religion in Dialogue with Christianity," by Dr. Jameson Kurasha of the University of Zimbabwe, discussed the inter-religious relations between Christianity and the religion of the Shona people.

The participants at this conference were of the highest quality. As a result the discussions were substantive and penetrating. Despite the great diversity among the participants the dialogue remained ever civil, respectful and constructive. Our conference setting on the University of Witwatersrand campus was very beautiful, and the climate perfect. The words of Dr. Steyn of the University of South Africa in a letter which came to me just a few days ago aptly represent the thoughts of all the participants: "This is just a short note to express my appreciation to you and the IRFWP for the really worthwhile conference held in Johannesburg earlier this month. This is one of the few conferences that I experienced as entirely positive, and I think it was because of the format where a limited number of people participated and where we had the opprtunity to get to know one another and also to pursue more in-depth discussions. My best wishes go with you and the sterling work that the IRFWP does."

.A special word of thanks is in order for the two conveners of this conference, Drs. Oosthuizen and Venter. Without their efforts, as advisors, as moderators of the sessions, and as the ones who helped gather so many distinguished African participants, the conference would never have reached the level of excellence it did. Thanks are due as well to the South African staff memebers who worked so hard to make this conference a success, especially Brigitte and Toshi Wakabayashi who took responsibility for everthing from mailing out the conference papers to participants, to picking people up at the airport, to bookkeeping and photography. Their assistance, along with the help of their staff, Morruti and Mpo, was invaluable. Finally, equal acknowledgement is appropriate for the consistently good work of the IRFWP staff in New York.

We hope that this conference will stand as a significant contribution to the ongoing, constructive transformation of the societies in southern Africa. Africa is a continent filled with people of great character, beauty and spiritual depth; its spectacular scenery and wildlife is surpassed by the richness of its religious resources, wherein lie its greatest hope for the future.

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