Church and state collide at Kennedy road

Paul Trewhela on how the clergy are once more speaking truth to power

Something wonderful took place in Durban/eThekwini on Wednesday 18 November.

Continuing a tradition well over 50 years old in South Africa, the Church spoke truth to power.

The point is: that power was no longer the party/state governed by the National Party but the party/state governed by the African National Congress, its successfor. This is the only difference, but it has great implications for the present and the future.

True, the ANC won three by-elections in KwaZulu-Natal the same day from the Inkatha Freedom Party, consolidating its position as the principal repository of the vote among isiZulu-speakers.

But in the provincial capital of KwaZulu-Natal, the political authority of the state - as represented by the courts, the police and the governing political apparatus - was confronted outside Durban Magistrate's Court by a far older and universal authority, the authority of Christian conscience.

At the time of writing, there are still no readers' comments at the foot of the publication on Politicsweb of the Order of Service held outside the court, when 13 members of the shackdwellers organisation, Abahlali baseMjondolo, appeared before a magistrate.

More than six weeks after an armed pogrom mob burst in upon them, killed four, wrecked homes, seized property and threw hundreds into flight - when all the while the police stood idly by, presenting themselves only after the event to seize innocent victims of the party/state - it is still too early for most people to recognise what is happening in the society.

Firstly, operating with what it perceives to be total impunity, the party/state acted with lethal violence at Kennedy Road in Durban through its auxiliairies, in defiance of law and constitution and the moral law.

Secondly, its constitutional instruments - the police, the prosecutorial service - then acted to conceal a crime of first degree through recourse to the forms of law and constitution, by arraigning the victims.

Thirdly, this act of despotism and abuse of law and constitution was then confronted yesterday outside Pilate's seat by the Christian conscience, spoken by spiritual authority of the diocese of Natal of the Church of the Province of South Africa, in association with representatives of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Africa, and carrying with it the spiritual and moral authority of the Catholic Bishops' conference and the South African Council of Churches.

Church made representation to State.

State, as so often before in the political history of South Africa, declined the voice of Church. Church, represented in living memory most powerfully by the witness of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then summoned up the deep well of Christian moral conscience in the society - and well beyond that - in holding unaccountable State to account.

The statement issued immediately after the latest court hearing by Bishop Rubin Phillip, the most senior voice of the Anglican Church in KwaZulu-Natal and chairperson of the KwaZulu Natal Christian Council, continues in that magnificent tradition. It speaks across race, class, party, tribe, religion and all forms of division in a society increasingly fragmented, demoralised by greed and the lust for power - as Bishop Phillip says, "in the moral wilderness of a country that is losing its way".

This is moral witness in a heritage that reaches back beyond the Revd W S Gawe (tried for treason), Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, Bishop Ambrose Reeves (author, Shooting at Sharpeville, 1960), Archbishop Joost de Blank and Cardinal Owen McCann (former Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town), to the very formation of the Native National Congress by Revd Walter Rubusana and  Revd John Langalibalele Dube and others in 1912, and to the outrage in the mid-19th century of Sobantu (Bishop John William Colenso, the first Anglican Bishop of Natal) at the state's trampling on the lives of human beings.

Bishop Phillip, Bishop Barry Wood (chairperson of the Diakonia Council of Churches), Revd Sikhumbuzo Goge (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Africa) and over 30 other members of clergy who were present at the court are deeply conscious of their place in this heritage in South Africa, just as they are conscious of the Christian outrage at massacre and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

From its own history, the ANC and its government and provincial authorities should know that no power, in the end, withstands this authority of conscience in South Africa. It may take a long time. Innocent blood might flow like water.

Yet, while the holders of a little brief authority might engrave the features and the methods of their predecessors upon their own tenure of office, the end has already begun for their reign of abuse when a voice like that of Bishop Phillip arises against them.

There should be all support for Bishop Phillip's call for the "immediate release of the Kennedy Thirteen from prison, on the grounds that justice has been delayed far beyond the point at which it was clear that it had been denied."

Further, "in light of the fact that this is quite clearly a political trial in which the rules that govern the practice of justice are not being followed", there should be support for his call "for people of conscience outside of the state" to join him and his colleagues in setting up "an independent inquiry into the attack on Kennedy Road on 26 September; the subsequent demolition of the houses of Abahlali baseMjondolo members, the ongoing threats to Abahlali baseMjondolo members, [and] the role of the police, politicians and courts in this matter."

This is an historic moment.

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