Bishop Sipuka: What’s Needed to Help Fix South Africa
In part two of our interview with Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, the SACBC president talks to MANDLA ZIBI about social issues facing the nation and the Church.
The first part of our interview with Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, covered his early life in the Eastern Cape, his clerical career, the challenges facing his diocese, and the state of South Africa.
Sithembele Anton Sipuka was born on April 27, 1960 at Idutywa in the Eastern Cape, and was ordained to the priesthood for the diocese of Queenstown on December 17, 1988.
The former rector of St John Vianney Seminary was appointed bishop of Mthatha on February 8, 2008, to succeed Bishop Oswald Hirmer, and was ordained to the episcopate on May 3 that year.
The public outrage over the murder, rape and abuse of women and children in South Africa lately reached unprecedented highs. Some have called for a national emergency. Do you think the Church has been caught unawares by this outpouring of anger and how do you think it should respond, especially beyond the headlines?
As Church we are confounded by the rate of violence against children, women and vulnerable people.
I do not know what the call for a national emergency entails, but certainly there is a need for a sober-minded and analytical debate about the cause of this violence and murder.
As Church we are only a small percentage of the society, and have no access to most of the men committing such crimes. What we could do is to engage the small number of men we have and empower them to be a leaven against this scourge in society.
The practical initiative of the Klerksdorp diocese, which went into the shebeens, could be replicated. Statements alone are not enough—action is needed.
In your opening speech at the second bishops’ plenary in August this year, you likened our national problems as South Africans as the “mother pig in the garden”. One of these big problems is a shrinking economy that is shedding jobs and worsening social inequality. Do you still believe President Cyril Ramaphosa could benefit from a “word or two of wisdom” from the Church on this and other related matters?
The top challenge we have in South Africa is poverty, which is built into the system of raw capitalism, or if you like unethical capitalism.
My advice to the president of the country is that we seriously need a tempered capitalism that will prevent what we see now, where a winner takes it all.
I am told that 90% of the wealth in the world is owned by 10% of the world population and the other 90% population share the remaining 10% in varying degrees. This is a world issue, but you see its expression here in South Africa, where the gap between the rich and the poor is so huge and is reported to be growing day by day.
How do I think this can be achieved? Not by giving hand-outs, but by including all people capable of working in the creation of wealth.
This requires education, skills development and diversification of production.
I am told, for example, that the economy in South Africa is more service oriented — such as information technology, finance, retail, health, and so on—and not oriented to actual production of tangible goods, which would be relevant for us because many of our people are manual workers.
Without excluding complicated and technological sectors of the economy, attention should be given to economic activities that bring employment to non-technological people who constitute the majority of our people.
Furthermore, education and skilling for production of tangible goods is needed.
Lack of good governance and corruption is another challenge we have and as Church — informed by the principle of common good — we need to challenge the powers that be.
The commissions of enquiry that are taking place are good efforts towards this end, and it is my hope that when they end their task, they will be a lesson and a guide for the future in enforcing a rule of law in this country.
We often focus on government alone about corruption, but unethical behaviours also thrive in the business world.
For example, it has been reported that big business people make profits here in South Africa but do not reinvest it here, but send it outside. That is unethical.
During his rule of the “independent” Transkei, Chief Kaiser Matanzima forbade the operation of big supermarkets like Pick n Pay, Checkers, and so on, because he reasoned they would kill the small shops in the rural areas—and he was right.
Now shops have closed in rural areas; people from rural areas have to come to town to buy groceries because grocery items are cheaper—but forgetting that one has to pay travel costs to town and pay for the transportation of the goods bought, to say nothing about time, the inconvenience and danger of travelling to town, as well the crowding that comes with concentration of business in town.
One may not agree with Matanzima in accepting independence, but he was right about big businesses swallowing up small businesses, which is often euphemised as the “opening up of the market” without mentioning that this opening is only for the few, and meant to exclude the majority.
It seems South Africans are divided on the question of foreign nationals in our country, with many of our poorer citizens openly in favour of getting rid of foreign nationals—at least those of them who are here illegally—immediately, while the middle classes are more or less more nuanced. In your opinion, are we South Africans in denial about our xenophobia and Afrophobia?
You have used the right word: “nuanced”. I think that it is very simplistic to call this phenomenon xenophobia and end there, there is a lot more to it.
What has happened has xenophobic elements, but it is very nuanced, and if we are to succeed in dealing with it, we need to address those nuances as well.
First of all, the major contributing factor to these attacks is competition among the poor of South Africa and the poor of other African countries.
Xenophobia, understood according to its classic definition as an entrenched fear of and hostility towards foreign people, does not match the pattern of the behaviour of most ordinary South Africans.
Since 1994 up to 2008 when South Africa opened to the rest of Africa, ordinary South Africans had no hard feelings against Africans from other countries.
Violence started when it became clear that the state of paradise that was hoped for in 1994 was not becoming a reality. Instead poverty and unemployment were becoming the order of day.
The anger about this failed dream began to be directed against foreign African nationals.
The lack of delivery of services is to a large extent the fault of the government which appoints inefficient people on the basis of political patronage. The government — and not innocent African expatriates — must take the brunt of the anger.
We need to educate people to direct the problems to the right cause. Instead of pointing fingers at the wrong people, the real cause of the problem must be identified.
The other cause of tension is the advantaged position of people from other African countries in terms of being entrepreneurial—able to identify business opportunities and using them—and South Africans who have not been trained to be entrepreneurial, but trained to depend on the government.
The question that we need to ask is: “Why is it easy for people coming from outside to open a spaza- shop or a hair salon while South Africans are waiting to be employed or to get assistance from the government?
We have a duty as Church to educate South Africans to be entrepreneurial. People need to learn that the purpose of the government is to empower and not to provide.
When they are empowered and entrepreneurial themselves, they will not feel disadvantaged against Africans of other countries.
We need to challenge our South African government to train people in skills instead of aiming at giving them school-leaving certificates that do not help them to be employed and instead become jealous of those Africans who are able to make a living for themselves.
Finally the other reason given for the attack of Africans from other countries is that “they breed crime”.
True as this may be for some foreigners, this is also true for some South Africans, and we do not vent our anger on them the same way that we do to perceived foreign criminals.
Here I think one can see an element of xenophobia, because criminals are treated differently on the basis of their nationality, and this is not right. Crime is crime regardless of who commits it, and here we need to educate against xenophobia.
You have suggested that the absence of Church leaders in community struggles could have sometimes caused those struggles to become counterproductive. How do you respond to those who feel that the Church is too much involved in politics, that the Church should look to the saving of souls and leave politics to the politicians?
After apartheid we thought the struggle was over, and yet it is not.
The thing about apartheid was that deprivation was legislated on the basis of colour. With the present dispensation, deprivation is against the law, and yet it still continues.
It is continued by a system of economy that in theory is for the people but in practice is against them. It is perpetuated by people who claim to be representing the people but in practice they feed themselves and those close to them while services and provisions are collapsing.
As people often say, nothing has changed; and some even say that it was better during the time of apartheid.
During apartheid people could not go around freely because of the pass laws; today people are free, but they cannot go around freely because of crime, yet there are people employed to curb crime and prosecute and they are not doing it.
During apartheid people could not get this and that service; today they have a right to those services but they are not getting them because salaried people who are supposed to deliver are not doing it.
The effects are the same, but done by different people, so aluta continua!
In Eswatini and Botswana — both part of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference — should the Church there be more outspoken with regard to government economic mismanagement and alleged undermining of democratic norms?
This is a difficult one, because in these countries, the SACBC is [seen as] a foreign body, and the bishops in both of these countries are missionaries from outside.
So, yes, in principle the Church, in the form of the SACBC, should be more outspoken about issues of economic mismanagement and human rights, but the manner and way of saying that needs prudence.
Besides the more publicised issue of abuse of minors by priests, you have also mentioned the rape of nuns; incidents of nuns being impregnated by priests, as well as same-sex relationships among priests and religious. How widespread is this in South Africa?
I repeat it again here that while I have heard about the rape of nuns being mentioned in some international meetings that I’ve attended, I have never heard of it here in South Africa.
Impregnation of nuns by priests, and homosexual/lesbian relationships is something that I have heard being mentioned here and there, but not from people directly involved or affected by it.
It is something we shall be looking at, together with the Leadership Conference of Consecrated Life (LCCL).
Where are we now in the region regarding efforts to address the abuse of minors by priests? Are we winning the fight?
I know of one case now that is in court in our own diocese, so the fight still goes on, but we are set on winning it.
I do want to add that the priest involved is maintaining his innocence.
The professional standing committee is in the process of revising our protocol for the investigation of sexual abuse of minors in the light of the recent document from Rome on this matter.
Dioceses in Southern Africa have either formulated their own child-protection policy or adopted the one of the SACBC.
Thank you, Bishop Sipuka, for this interview.
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