On 19th November 2008, the Cleveland Newman Circle welcomed their new Chaplain, Fr Andrew Burns CSsR, who gave an account of his 35 years experience working in South Africa, mainly training young Redemptorist Seminarians. Having been Middlesbrough born and bred, it was as a very young 24 year old, newly ordained priest that he was appointed by his superiors to work teaching on the foreign missions. This was at a time of upheaval in the Church, following the Second Vatican Council.

He began by outlining something of the history of the country which led up to apartheid, a word meaning ‘apartness’ which he had never heard before. He very quickly learnt that it was a way of life whereby people of different races and ethnic origins lived separate lives using separate facilities despite living in the same land. He learnt that the original Afrikaners lived by a theology of election, in that they believed South Africa was their promised land given by God. The British settlers of the late 18th century, however, had no such theological principles; they were motivated by the wealth which gold and diamonds could provide. Mass migrations, collectively known as the Great Trek, were pivotal for the construction of Afrikaner ethnic identity, as it led to the creation of a number of Boer states that were independent of British colonial oversight. Not only did the Boers and the British fight each other, there were also a number of running conflicts with various indigenous groups along the way.

By the time of the Land Act in 1913, 87% of South Africa was owned by whites, much of it good farming land, while 13% of unproductive barren land was left for the dispossessed indigenous black peoples. Apartheid laws were first enacted by the British controlled government when the Pass Laws were passed in 1923. The status quo was maintained and restrictions on non-whites’ social and political freedoms further tightened when Afrikaner-led political parties gained control of the government in 1948. Racism became deeply rooted in the life of South Africa with 12 different classifications of Black, Coloured and Indian population groups. This was a shameful episode in the life of the Church when the Archbishop did nothing to protect the people but just said it was the Law. In the 1950s, the Redemptorists went to live with the black people building schools and churches, sometimes with their bare hands. For a very small minority, there was the possibility of progress via education until 1953 when the Bantu Education Act enforced the separation of races in all educational institutions. As a result, many Mission Schools, run by the Catholic Church, had to close. This was all at a time when white people, with their comfortable, middle class lives, had no idea of the terrible conditions under which black people, even their own servants, lived.

In 1970, an American nun surveyed the state of the Catholic Church in South Africa and found that 20% of the personnel of the Church worked for 80% of the population who were black and 80% worked for the remaining 20% white population. Religious communities at this time seriously began asking themselves what they were doing. Some opened schools for black children but many were still living segregated lives. Parishes were segregated in all but a few cases and even the Seminaries were segregated too. Before 1971, Redemptorist students, black and white, had been sent to England to be trained. Some attempts were made to try and mix communities but frequently problems arose with mixed social activities. A mixed Youth Group may have seemed a good idea but many white parents did not want their offspring mixing with black teenagers. Mixed marriages were forbidden.

On 16th June 1976, black schoolchildren of Soweto rioted against the South African authorities in protest at the policies of the National Party government and its apartheid regime. Many black schools were boycotted and burnt down because the students had been forced to use Afrikaans and English in a 50-50 mix as languages of instruction. The police responded violently and although the official death toll was only 23, many say it was more than 100, some closer to 200. Black Seminaries also closed because they too were boycotted. It was not until black seminarians had to apply for re-admission to the remaining Seminary that the movement really motivated change amongst adult black people.

At this time Religious were only granted temporary five year permits, renewable each year and then only if they behaved themselves. Parishioners were often informers. Yet despite this, opposition to the Apartheid government was growing both within the country and on the international scene. The sports boycotts of the time were the most powerful because South Africa, a great sporting nation, felt isolated. However, the Church received continual harassment because it began speaking out about an unjust society. In 1985, a group of black South African theologians based predominantly in the black townships of Soweto issued a theological statement, The Kairos Document. This challenged the churches’ response to what the authors saw as the vicious policies of the Apartheid state under the State of Emergency declared on 21st July 1985. It evoked strong reactions and furious debates not only in South Africa, but world-wide. Although the government reacted strongly to it, The Kairos Document was never banned. The writing was on the wall and in 1990, the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela freed.

On 27th April 1994, South Africa’s first free democratic elections took place. Many feared a blood bath but it did not happen. The ANC won 62% of the votes and Mandela, as leader of the ANC, was inaugurated on 10th May 1994 as the country’s first black President, with the National Party’s de Klerk as his first deputy and Thabo Mbeki as the second in the Government of National Unity. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee was established. Anyone who felt that he or she was a victim of its violence was invited to come forward and be heard. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution. This was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa. Despite some flaws, it is generally (although not universally) thought to have been successful. Two years ago it was still going on. However, nothing but time can heal the wounds of such devastating conflict.

It is now more than 14 years on and much has changed. Huge amounts have been spent on buildings and the renovation of the utility systems of the country. A black middle class is now involved in administration and management. However, crime and corruption have reared their ugly heads and the poor remain poor, with the values of the traditional tribal society now broken. AIDS is the great disease to combat nowadays but the government has been in total disarray. They believe that it occurred as a result of poverty and poor nutrition and so the vital medicines have been severely restricted. The Bishops’ Conference in South Africa has, however, opened an AIDS Desk and tried to provide some support.

There is now a crisis in vocations in the country too. The Church has always been dependent upon Missionaries and resources which they have been able to access. However, these have now dried up and the Church is learning that it must be self sufficient. Yet the outlook is bleak. For the Redemptorists, for every 100 young men joining the Seminary, only five make it to Final Profession. Vocations are needed amongst the black community yet without the necessary resources this remains difficult. Despite all this, the Church is alive and any celebration of the Liturgy is really a Celebration, often lasting one and a half hours. Participation is a total experience with singing and dancing; a real social occasion for the entire community. Education still remains a way out of poverty but it is expensive and opportunities are limited. The miracle of South Africa, however, is that it has emerged from apartheid as well as it has. The hope remains that it will eventually fulfil its potential through negotiation, truth and reconciliation.