March 16, 2006
Voting as a Lenten Discipline
-- David A. Hoekema
March 1 was a national holiday here in South Africa, but not because it was Ash Wednesday. Rather, it was the day of municipal elections across the country and, as is common practice in African nations, normal business was suspended to encourage all to vote.
The lead-up to this 2006 election was remarkably quiet. In a town that was recently "redemarcated" to a new province, voters staged protests and promised to boycott the election. One protester there said that anyone with indelible ink on his thumb—a mark that shows one has already voted—had better watch out. In Kwazulu-Natal Province, where I am spending a sabbatical leave, partisans for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) taunted challengers from the Inkatha Freedom Party at public rallies—but these insulting words were the only weapons.
The verbal combatants may have been younger brothers and cousins of the antagonists who squared off two decades ago, with results almost too horrible to believe. In waves of reprisals and counterreprisals between supporters of Inkatha and the ANC in the late 1980s and early 1990s, 200 died each week—nearly 15,000 in all—despite appeals from the leaders of both organizations to stop the carnage. Nationalist Party leaders vowed to uphold white supremacy forever, while ANC cadres in cross-border camps waited for the right moment to unleash an army of liberation. South Africa was hurtling headlong into a protracted civil war.
But those events now seem like a bad dream from which the people of South Africa have awakened, thanks to the courage of their last white president, F. W. de Clerk, and the unswerving commitment to healing and reconciliation of their first black president, Nelson Mandela. Seven years after retiring from public office, "Madiba" remains a beloved public figure. Doing a little dance for media photographers after leaving the polling place this week, he said he would have risen from his grave to cast his vote.
The multiracial democracy that was launched in 1994 cannot bring the victims of political violence out of their graves to vote, but it has made remarkable strides in overcoming a half-century of apartheid and "separate development" (to use the insidious euphemism for exploitation by whites). However, while the South African economy is the largest and healthiest on the continent, many pressing problems remain: alarming levels of violent crime, high unemployment, rising HIV infection rates, and a yawning gap between the mostly white middle and upper classes and the overwhelmingly black rural and urban poor. No matter what party is in power, these will not disappear like a morning mist on the veld.
The apartheid system claimed its theological basis in a twisted and crabbed reading of Calvinism in which creation ordinances forbade racial mingling. Its dismantling, meanwhile, arose out of the profound Christian commitment of leaders such as Mandela, Beyers Naudé, Desmond Tutu, and Allen Boesak who, with their allies in the progressive parties and the trade unions, were able to slow, and eventually reverse, the country's seemingly inexorable descent into a race war. They preached a gospel of healing and reconciliation, and their message became a political reality.
Nearly 80 percent of South Africans are Christians, members either of major denominations with mission roots or of independent African churches that synthesize Christian teachings and African rituals. There is a commendable spirit of religious toleration and mutual respect in public, and much private, discourse. Hindu temples and Muslim mosques are familiar sights in cities and towns, and many social initiatives draw support from all the major religious communities.
But if we are tempted to see this as the key to the peaceful coming of a new order, we need to ask why the same Christian majority tolerated apartheid for so long. Still today a high degree of racial segregation persists in politics. A recent poll showed that 92 percent of ANC supporters are black, compared to just 6 percent for the major opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. One percent of ANC supporters are white and three percent Indian; but for the DA these figures are 64 and 22 percent. The establishment of a multiracial democracy has not yet brought truly multiracial parties.
At the Ash Wednesday service I attended in the Episcopal cathedral in Pietermaritzburg, a white priest, switching back and forth between English and Zulu in the readings and responses, ended his homily by urging parishioners to hurry to the polls if they had not yet voted. Most of those in attendance were doubly marked: ashes of penitence on their foreheads and the blue ink of electoral participation on their thumbs—symbols befitting Lenten discipline.
David A. Hoekema, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where he is engaged in a sabbatical research project on the relationship between theological and philosophical principles concerning war and the social contexts in which conflicts escalate or are resolved. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.