A Visit to the Townships

“Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way…but you may never again say ‘I did not know.'” -William Wilberforce

Yesterday was a day off from conference meetings and dialogue sessions, and a day to be able to interact with the local community.  I went with a group of people on a tour dealing with restitution in post-apartheid South Africa and the church’s response to the economic and social situation of the community.  I went to the townships.  Four tin walls, yes, but little else.  I tried to talk to the people, to the children.  I tried to ask them their names.  Hear them tell their stories.  The cardboard roof was sagging due to the recent rain.  The poorest of the poor living right next to the richest.  It is absolutely mind-staggering.  One man in his his late-forties was asked if things are better since apartheid.  With glassy eyes he said, “no, not better, not better.”  He’s been waiting for 18 years to be allowed to move in better housing.  And by better housing we mean walls of cinder block and at least two rooms, maybe a bucket for water and cooking.  18 years is a long time to wait.  800,000 people are waiting…for a better life, for a better situation for their families, for hope.  This is NOT okay.  We visited the hostels, where three families share one small space.  A woman introduced her baby, whose name means “pride of Africa.”  She talked about how God is good.  In abject poverty this woman is saying that God is good.  He has not forgotten them.

We visited the JL Zwame Centre and Church, a place that is trying to do what the church at large has been unable, or unwilling to do, there in the townships.  It is a light in this community.  It is a place where people can come to feel safe, getting those skills that could not acquire them during the difficult days of apartheid.  They open a health center, and an afterschool program to help those school children who make the transition moving from the township schools to former white schools.  HIV/AIDS education and training.  The pastor talked about how he has lost friends because of his involvement in caring for people with HIV/AIDS.  The church, he says, is not ready to deal with AIDS for it is still seen as a sexual stigma.  This center is set apart.   There are a few who are faithful.  In addition to these things, as well as a nutrition program, the centre provides palliative care, which is a holistic way of caring for people with life-threatening diseases, done irrespective of the patient’s religion, race, or ability to pay.  A dance and music group, called Siyaya, perform in a number of venues all over the country to communicate messages on the prevention of HIV/AIDS, as well as proclaiming Christ.  We were privileged to be able to hear from them yesterday afternoon.  This is one of the few communities willing to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the townships of Cape Town.

Later in the day I visited a museum in District Six of Cape Town.  District Six was established as a vibrant mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers, and immigrants.  However, over the years the districted became neglected.  In 1966 the district was declared a White Group Area and all the blacks were forced to leave.  Suddenly 60,000 people were forced to leave their homes simply because they were black.  They watched as their homes were flattened by bulldozers. That is NOT okay.  The museum, using storytelling as a way of recovering the memory of these forced removals, is a beacon in the community so that people will not forget.  On a plaque outside the building it reads, “All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in District Six and other parts of the city and were forced by law to leave their homes because of the color of their skins.  Father, forgive us.”

Reconciliation needs to happen both at the individual level and the systemic level.  The system itself needs to be changed, but without Christ reconciliation cannot happen on any sustainable level. Apartheid is over, yes, but the need for economic liberation and spiritual liberation is the task that remains.  The international church played a huge role in ending apartheid, our hosting pastor said, and we need to do it again.  It’s not just about money, but the need for people to really engage with the poor. It is about the need for partnership. We need to push people out of their comfort situations, including the poor.  If you can’t see far, you can’t get far.  In other words, without vision and hope, then the community will stay as it is.  And we can’t just accept that.

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