South Africa's churches, after apartheid

For many South Africans, the struggle against apartheid is over. Nearly 10 years after its demise, blacks now lead the government.

But the Rev. Molefe Tsele knows that the scars of his country's tumultuous past still run deep. Apartheid, he says, corrupted the soul as well as the state, and churches must now help people relearn the values that will help them live together peacefully.

"We promote Christian values, and those values are truth, justice, love, compassion, and human dignity," says Dr. Tsele, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC). "Our view is that our history has actually resulted in most of those values being lost, especially since our history related to the abuse of Christianity - so many people associated Christianity with discrimination on the basis of race." The Dutch Reformed Church used theology to justify apartheid.

When Tsele accepted a scholarship at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in 1989, it was an escape of sorts. After years on the front line against apartheid - first as a student and later as a minister - and two years of being detained without trial, he was tired - tired of the hatred, tired of fighting. But in Chicago, walking through campus late at night, Tsele said he would often be stopped by police and asked to show his student ID card. White students, he says, were never hassled. And in Chicago, too, there were rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods. The segregation wasn't mandated by law, but it was there all the same.

"To me, America was a lesson that eliminating racism was not just a matter of passing legislation," he says.

When he returned home with his wife and three children after five years in America, he found a changed country. Nelson Mandela was president, and apartheid was dead. But Tsele wasn't ready to call the struggle over. He took a teaching post at a Lutheran seminary to help train a new generation of church leaders, advised politicians, and became active in social- justice movements.

As general secretary of the SACC, he has big footsteps to fill. Archbishop Desmond Tutu won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work as general secretary in the 1980s.

For Tsele, the challenge has been to find new purpose and unity for the organization in the postapartheid era.

"The church must be prepared to be a nuisance," he says, acknowledging that he often finds himself at odds with the government he helped elect. He sees former heroes of the struggle growing rich, while the majority of South Africans remain poor. Perhaps most seriously, he sees a government that has failed to provide leadership on the AIDS crisis.

While Tsele is quick to criticize government, he also says many challenges facing South Africa today - such as poverty, AIDS, domestic violence - are not ones the government can solve alone. And while South Africa's many churches disagree on issues like gay marriage and condom use, they agree that values like morality and love must be reinstilled.

Although Tsele has been praised for his leadership on issues like AIDS, at times he has also been accused - even from within his own organization - of sounding too much like a government minister, particularly on the issue of Zimbabwe.

While much of the world found fault in last year's election of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, the SACC declared the elections legitimate. For someone whose political ideas were honed in the Black Consciousness movement, it was not easy to criticize Mr. Mugabe, himself a liberation hero, for taking land from rich whites and giving it to poor blacks. But as the situation there has deteriorated, Tsele and the council have become more outspoken and more active in trying to negotiate a solution.

Despite the challenges still facing South Africa, Tsele is still hopeful for the country's future. "We must not be peddlers of gloom and doom," he says firmly. "One thing we have to deal with is the fact that we are now in government. We have to figure out how to be responsible citizens, responsible critics."

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