“It’s not all a disaster”

Am 27. April 1994, South Africa held its first free elections. The Archbishop of Cape Town speaks ahead of the anniversary about the situation in the country and the role of the Catholic Church.

Apartheid ended in South Africa 25 years ago. In an interview with the Catholic News Agency (KNA), Cape Town”s Archbishop Stephen Brislin talks about the election that made Nelson Mandela president, the serious social disparities in the country and the future of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

CBA: Archbishop, the end of April is approaching for the 25. For the first time, the anniversary of the first democratic elections. Yet one in two South Africans is considered poor, and one in four has no job. Is there really anything to celebrate?

Brislin: Quite! Despite the many challenges we face in South Africa, we must not forget what we have already achieved. Imagine the fear in which the population lived, how people were treated and how they were denied their human dignity. When I walked next to a black man, people looked at us askance. Today, South Africa has a robust democracy and is the freest country in Africa. There is freedom of assembly, expression and movement. And we need to celebrate that – it’s not all a disaster.
CBA: Many South Africans may be better off today, but couldn’t they have been better off in 25 years??
Brislin: Of course, especially in terms of lack of economic opportunity and poverty. Today we have political freedom, but not yet economic freedom – with the exception of a few. Whenever I fly to Cape Town and see the shacks of the townships, I think to myself: Tragic that we accept poverty as a given, when we should be shocked by how people live. Many things have set us back in the past 25 years, such as corruption. South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission could also have achieved more. It has found a political way forward, but those affected are still waiting for redress or compensation for historical injustice to this day.
CBA: How the Catholic Church is helping to fill the deep gap between rich and poor?
Brislin: We work in many areas, most importantly the many Catholic educational institutions throughout the country. South Africa’s unemployment is unacceptably high. Do you introduce young people to an industry, catering or hospitality, or a trade like plumbing – however small their experience in it may be, it significantly increases their chances in the job market.
CBA: The ANC came to power as a movement of the poor and oppressed. Does Mandela’s party still represent the majority of South Africans?
Brislin: Yes, it does, and that’s what the elections on 8. May probably also reflect. Because the ANC is a good party in its ideals, for example, people look at the impartiality toward ethnicity or gender. It has deep roots in every single community and seems to me the only party that poor South Africans see as credible. On the other hand, there is disillusionment and many will vote for the ANC simply for lack of alternatives.

CBA: 2018 saw a transition of power in South Africa. Many see the election of President Cyril Ramaphosa as a return to the rule of law. You also?

Brislin: Under ex-President Zuma, we went through a terrible time. You almost had to be ashamed of being South African. The whole world wondered how such a head of state could be kept in office for so long. Today we are once again a respected voice in Africa and the world. Ramaphosa is an intelligent man and to some extent offers a vision.
CBA: Two decades after apartheid, South Africa has recently seen a resurgence of racist incidents. Were these isolated cases or is skin color still such a big ie??
Brislin: Racism and ethnicity still play a big role. The sentiments around this ie run very deep; they have shaped the personalities of people who grew up during apartheid. At the same time, many are trying to shed that pattern. The good will is there. But in conversations, like when the family sits around the dinner table in the evening, you realize that South Africa’s society still thinks in terms of ethnicities.

Racism comes out when people feel stress – and that is built up in South Africa, for example, by a crumbling economy and lack of future opportunities. But this will also change, a new generation is already on the rise. I estimate that it will take another 20 years or so before we finally get over it.

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