Thursday, 25 August 2011

South Africa beyond the Conference

Young Seth Mokitimi was a goat-herd. His role in life was to ensure the safety of his father’s flock. He grew up to be the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church in Southern Africa (MCSA). That’s the kind of thing that happened when the Methodist Missionary Society provided education to boys who would otherwise never have got out of their village. It must be true, Mandela says so. Now Seth has a brand new Seminary named after him at Pietermaritzburg. Rev. Emmanuel Gabriel was kind enough to take us there. Its design and curriculum are theologically integrated in a most impressive way. Google it and you will see what I mean.

Back in Durban we visited Diakonia, a small charitable advocacy organisation that works for human rights. Its building is peaceful, an oasis in a bustling city. It models the growing of food in a garden sized plot, provides training and awareness-raising in a wide range of social and personal issues, and enables people to tell and hear stories of great courage and sacrifice when under oppression. Though it’s an ecumenical organisation, it’s a natural home for a Methodist. We were glad to learn of its work. Thank you Emmanuel. God is with us.

On from Durban to Johannesburg, where we can’t tell whether it is summer or winter as at night it falls to 0C and by midday it is 24C. We are assured it is winter! Met at the airport by John Mitchley, from MCSA, we are driven to the MCSA office where we are introduced to the staff, and have an informal meeting with the Presiding Bishop Ivan Abrahams. He has just been inducted as the incoming General Secretary of the WMC, a great honour and challenge, especially as his office will be in North Carolina, USA!

Our accommodation for the next 3 nights, The Airport Lodge turns out to be a compound built on a previous farm, and still run by Afrikaaners. Our bungalow is set amongst banana trees and flowering plants so is a big, but pleasant, change from the Blue Waters Hotel. John is our guide for the next few days. His role in MCSA is to oversee the many community projects run by Methodist Churches across Southern Africa. No pressure there then! So, we visited Amcare, built on a former racing stables, (nearby sign is Newmarket!) a huge project which impressed us greatly as each part of it related somehow to the other; for example, those learning catering provided meals not only for others around, but also for weddings and company meetings. So there was not only training but also an income stream enabling sustainability. There was a chapel, converted from a room where the former jockeys used to take a drink to ‘steady their nerves’ to a place filled with the presence of a different Spirit! We were told how their water was supplied from a well quite unexpectedly - one day a man was driving past in his well-drilling vehicle and felt called to stop and offer his help. Another man called in to ask if they had electricity and when told ‘no’ said he would come back to provide lay the very expensive cable they could not afford so long as they had dug the trench ready for it, Miracle stories abound!

Other projects in more outlying areas were more modest in design, but equally if not more demanding on the churches that ran them. Some are fulltime volunteers with no other income. Clinics for HIV testing and counselling, and in some cases the dispensation of Anti-retroviral drugs, were complemented by the provision of home-based care for AIDS sufferers. The target set by funders was often ‘50 clients per carer per month’. Given that most carers travel on foot and may perhaps spend 3 hours in a client’s home, the pressure is incredible. We were pleased to learn of the supervision and support schemes for carers, for many of their clients die, leaving orphans who may themselves be HIV positive. Some of these schemes are run by churches in the poorest areas, and we were also glad to learn of the partnerships between these churches and some very wealthy ones in the affluent suburbs. Thank you to the staff and members at Pimville and the John Wesley Community Centre, for allowing us to interrupt your work and learn about the care you show in the name of Jesus. Not just ‘looking after’, but ‘empowerment’ for people of all ages and backgrounds. Your good schools, training and hospitality for the homeless.

Thank you too, to Revd Vulyelwa, for being our guide when John took us to Soweto. We stood in the huge Catholic Church, Regina Mundi, which was the central gathering place for the young black students who stood up against apartheid. Some bullet holes remain in the ceiling, where armed police broke up a meeting of 5,000. Remembering, as I do, the news coverage of those times, it was very moving to walk on that ground. We moved on to Hector Pieterson Square, where the iconic photo is displayed of the young boy being carried away from the scene where schoolchildren were shot and killed as they demonstrated. On from there to Liliesleaf, the farmhouse where Mandela, Sisulu and others met to plan their strategy, and were eventually arrested. Bizarrely, large reproductions of police photos of ‘The Crime Scene’ look like adverts for Coca-cola.

It was our first time in South Africa and we found it very different to other African countries we have visited. We were no longer the only white people in the room, as we so often are in Kenya; there are white Africans too. There are shopping malls resembling our own, and plenty of eating out places such as Mugg and Bean which seemed to be a favourite. There is still much to be achieved in terms of trust between the different cultures. There is still great poverty in areas very close to affluent areas. And there is apprehension about what will happen when Mandela and Tutu are no longer there as a living reminder of the ideals of a truly integrated and reconciled society.

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