Saturday, June 7, 2014

People’s Theology, Prophetic Theology, and Public Theology in Post-Liberation South Africa


“It is only when we play our part that we can say to President (Jacob) Zuma, you play your part as well, because we are playing our part”. So said ANC (African National Congress) Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, while waving a Bible in the air. Bible waving has always been a way of configuring public space in South Africa. But it is the post-liberation context that is the subject of this paper, as I probe what precisely it is that Ramaphosa and other ruling party public figures want us to understand by “playing our part”. Ramaphosa is rhetorically adept in locating himself among the “we” of his exhortation. But this rhetoric does not deflect the illocutionary force of what he saying. What he is saying is that there is a part for ‘us’, the church, to play in the public realm. My question is what that part is understood to be by the state. 

Ramaphosa is here addressing the church. Specifically, he is addressing the Pentecostal Holiness Church during their centennial celebrations, in Rustenberg, on the 1st of March 2013. Ramaphosa made it clear that he was standing in for President Jacob Zuma, who apologised for not being there for the ceremony. 

But before we analyse Ramaphosa’s speech in more detail, I will reflect on the particular Bible waving trajectory in which he stands. I begin, briefly, with Nelson Mandela’s trajectory-inducing statements, then I examine Thabo Mbeki’s more considerable biblical contribution to the trajectory, along with the arguments of the ANC’s policy document, “The RDP of the Soul”, which Mbeki’s administration produced, before turning to probe Jacob Zuma’s position within this emerging trajectory, and finally I reflect on Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent speeches to religious organisations. 

Invoking religion (in general) and Christianity and the Bible (in particular) have become commonplace in post-liberation South Africa. They are recognisable ‘signs’ in our contemporary context. But what precisely do they signify and how do they configure our public space? In this paper I use the economic terrain as a marker of what (and whom) public religion includes and excludes. The economic domain is absolutely central to liberation theology, the theological trajectory within which this paper locates itself. Furthermore, the public discourse in South Africa has shifted in recent months to the economic. In a remarkable rhetorical move the ANC has split the liberation struggle into two components, a political struggle (in which we have been successful) and an ongoing, unfinished, economic struggle. “Unity in action towards socio-economic freedom ” is now the slogan, as we enter “the second phase of the transition from apartheid colonialism to a national democratic society”. 

As we will see, the Christian church is included in this call. It is envisaged as playing a part in “unity in action”. But its role is fairly carefully conscribed by both the ANC and the state, though in terms that the church, in general, is not uncomfortable with. So if the church is to make a significant contribution to “socio-economic freedom” we will have to look outside of the institutional church to the organised social movements of the poor, with whom we might do theology. The ritual waving of the Bible (which invokes a particular theological trajectory) must be contested, I will argue, with a re-reading of the Bible as part of a people’s theology movement.

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