Monday, 31 October 2011

Gerry Lynch, Experience Exchange Programme

Faith communities unite to tackle injustice
SUBHEAD: Archbishop of Cape Town is supporting inter faith social action in South Africa

Anglicans and other Christian denominations are working side by side with different faith communities to act as South Africa’s moral conscience in uncertain times.

This is the observation of political scientist Gerry Lynch, from St George’s Church in Belfast, who is currently on a six-month placement in South Africa with USPG’s Experience Exchange Programme.

Gerry is on placement with the Western Cape Religious Leaders’ Forum (WCRLF), which meets under the leadership of the Most Revd Thabo Makgoba, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.

Gerry explained: ‘In the short time I have been here, I have been privileged to be part of the religious contribution to ensuring fair elections, resisting a proposed government secrecy bill, and highlighting the shocking state of sanitation in the townships.

Detailing his work further, Gerry said: ‘I arrived in Cape Town just six weeks before South Africa’s local government elections, and soon found myself part of the South African Election Monitoring Network (EMN). This is an independent, civil society, organisation whose patron is Archbishop Thabo – and churches play a major practical role in staffing the network. With field workers across the country, it reports incidents that undermine free and fair elections – for example, things like intimidation of canvassers or disruption of campaign meetings. South Africa is a very religious country, and faith communities have huge moral authority when they speak publicly on any issue.

‘The network needed some additional analytical capacity, and my skills fitted right in. Within a week of arriving here, I was poring over field reports from across South Africa and producing statistical analyses of them. My skills were a perfect fit for what was needed - it might not sound like a very 'churchy' role but it is one I'm sure that God led me to. I’m pleased to say that this year’s election was the most peaceful in South Africa’s democratic history and proud to have played a small part in that.’

‘Another issue which has kept me busy is the government’s proposed ‘Secrecy Bill’. Although there is a need to update the apartheid-era official secrets legislation which remains on the statute books here, the laws originally proposed would have been a charter to hide corruption and bad government. In recent weeks, the government has rowed back from the more draconian parts of this legislation and, again, the moral authority of the faith communities, who spoke out on the issue, played a big part in that.
‘Anglicans and other faith traditions have along history of working together to support the poor and marginalised in South Africa.

‘Inter faith relations – especially in multi-faith Cape Town – are strong, having been cemented through years of shared struggle against the injustice of apartheid.’

Fr John Oliver, the chairman of WCRLF and a former USPG Mission Companion, agreed: ‘It is out of the struggle against apartheid that the Forum has emerged as a powerful prophetic voice in the engagement between the faith sector and provincial and local government on the critical challenges facing our country.’

Gerry believes the co-operation of the different faith groups in South Africa could serve as an inspiration to other nations.

He said poignantly: ‘Coming from Northern Ireland, the fact that almost everyone in this divided society of South Africa proudly flies the same flag, sings the same national anthem and pledges allegiance to the same constitution seems truly miraculous.’

The forum is busy. Most recently it visited the impoverished Khayelitsha township, home to around 800,000 people. Sanitation here is appalling, with over 20 families often sharing a single toilet. Others have no access to toilets and are forced to use waste ground, often a long walk from home and a magnet for criminals who know they will find isolated potential victims. The forum is now taking action by raising the media profile of the issue and pricking the conscience of believers who live in more fortunate circumstances.

Gerry said: ‘South Africa is no paradise. ‘The country is blighted by the world’s worst level of inequality between rich and poor, with the poor enduring shocking levels of violent crime and malfunctioning state schools.

‘But on the positive side, the economy is stable, infrastructure is excellent, and democracy and free speech are in rude health. Given where this society came from, it remains a miracle.’

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