Where the SACBC is Today
This year the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) turns 75. For the occasion, Günther Simmermacher asked its president, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka about the SACBC’s achievements and challenges.
Günther Simmermacher: What do you regard as the accomplishments of the SACBC in its 75-year history?
Bishop Sipuka: From a pastoral perspective, I wish to note the enormous contribution of the missionaries who were at the helm of leadership and constituted a significant proportion of the personnel when the SACBC started 75 years ago.
They designed methods of evangelisation. The Lumko method was the most prominent and successful one, but there were others as well. They also built the infrastructure for evangelisation, including schools, hospitals, pastoral centres, the Lumko Institute, printing press for prayer and liturgical books, farms, vocational centres and, of course, churches.
This continued later under leadership that is incrementally becoming local. Lumko was maintained, and various departments to advance evangelisation were established. With time and mainly due to decreasing numbers of missionary personnel from overseas and a decline in international funding, many of these evangelisation institutions closed down.
However, schools and clinics, which continue to provide excellent service and good influence, are continuing. When HIV and Aids erupted, and the South African government adopted a denialist approach to the challenge of Aids, the SACBC provided the most viable care to people infected and affected by Aids, and became the best non-governmental institution in the Conference area to offer comprehensive support and care to HIV-infected people.
The last two pastoral plans of 1989 and 2020 were informed by the pastoral situations of the three countries of the Conference, and the implementation process is discussed and monitored by the SACBC. In 1989 the bishops issued a pastoral plan titled “Community Serving Humanity”. It sought to encourage ownership of the Church by the laity by living out their daily Christian call to pray and to engage on social issues from the biblical and social teaching of the Church perspective. Another milestone was the second pastoral plan, “Community Serving God, Humanity and Creation”, which we launched in 2020. It focuses again on creating well-informed Catholics about their faith and responding to social and environmental issues.
For much of its 75 years, the SACBC had to contend with apartheid…
Although at concrete levels and in some particular situations, the Church was influenced by official racism of the time — for example, in some congregations and dioceses, local black vocations were not accepted, and when they were, discriminatory attitudes and practices were meted out against them. But at the official level, the Church maintained a sustained prophetic stance, particularly in the 1970s and ’80s.
When the Bantu Education system was introduced [in the 1950s], the SACBC resisted and kept its schools open. But besides that, nothing much was done by the Church about the struggle. Perhaps this was because most of the Church’s leadership was composed of missionaries from outside, some of whom did not fully appreciate what was going on or were reluctant to risk getting too involved and face deportation. However, from the 1970s, this changed.
While it was illegal to have black and whites trained in one institution, the SACBC established one seminary system for all seminarians, irrespective of race or culture. The 1980s saw the SACBC being one of the most vocal institutions against apartheid, so much so that its offices in Pretoria were bombed by the apartheid regime. In the ’80s, the SACBC took a stand to support sanctions against South Africa to encourage an end to the apartheid system. This sensitivity towards matters of justice and peace has continued to characterise the SACBC to this day.
How are issues of social justice still relevant today?
The fight for justice has taken a different shape from what it was in the 1970s and ’80s. The SACBC region is one of the high-ranking conference areas with the biggest gap between the rich and poor and our society is riddled with many forms of injustice. Our Justice & Peace Commission, therefore, concerns itself with many issues of injustice that range from advocating for the cause of vulnerable people, labour and unemployment issues, rural economy, challenging inequitable access to health, education and water and sanitation for the poor, the transformation of universal health coverage, advocating against exploitation of miners, tackling policies that harm the environment, addressing the problem of corruption, tackling violence against women and children, and so on.
The focus on apartheid stunted development of other areas in the local Church’s mission, didn’t it?
For a long time, due to the anti-apartheid concerns that dominated the SACBC, other aspects of the Catholic Church’s life and mission remained underdeveloped, such as the promotion of local vocations to priestly life as well as religious life. Today we are struggling with this in South Africa. For example, several once very active religious congregations are now struggling to continue. Also, the ever-vacillating numbers of local vocations to the priesthood leads to short-term planning and creates continual uncertainty concerning available finances and resources for the seminaries.
Although there is a shortage of personnel in the SACBC, we consider that, unlike 15 years ago, the seminaries of the Conference are now staffed mainly by local priests.
When the SACBC was founded in 1947 and when the SA Hierarchy was established in 1951, all bishops were white. Today, only nine of South Africa’s 26 active bishops are white. How far has the South African Church transformed, 28 years after liberation?
Yes, this is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are getting more black bishops. The conference has been transformed in that we see fewer white and more black faces, but though we speak of black and white faces in the Conference, for the most part, one does not even think or view other bishops as different. However, we are aware of occasional and unconscious lingering tendencies that are racially informed. We were able to name these, for example, at a recent workshop which we, as bishops, had on racism.
The change of face from mainly white to predominantly black is also true at other levels of the Church, for example in seminaries and parishes. But we still battle to have white and black cohesion and coming together for diocesan and national activities. I would say that there is less open racism, but it exists as an undercurrent that occasionally and unconsciously surfaces. There is more openness on the black than on the white side.
The continued privilege of whites, culturally and economically, in my view, makes many whites feel superior and comfortable in their failure to reach out to blacks, which is a societal problem. They are not pressurised to learn African languages, while necessity forces black people to learn English and Afrikaans. Our parish communities largely reflect these differences, and one can presume that if our socio-economic situation improves, this will also help positively transform our society and church communities. Economic transformation or equity will go a long way towards bridging the division between blacks and whites.
How do the bishops relate to one another?
Relationally among bishops, there is a good and supportive fraternal spirit, with the freedom to robustly discuss matters and differ in views without tensions or “factions”. It is a platform that enables us to share our joys, sorrows and challenges as bishops in charge of dioceses in Southern Africa, and to come to common guidelines unanimously.
Our Conference is reasonably provided with bishops. With the recent ordination of a new bishop in Kokstad, all but one diocese now have resident bishops, and even the one that has no bishop is served by a resident administrator who is a bishop [Cardinal Wilfrid Napier in Eshowe].
And the relationship with the apostolic nuncios?
I want to note the good relations we have had with the nunciature over these past 75 years. Except perhaps for one in the ’80s, the apostolic delegates and nuncios we have had in the Conference have been helpful in our relationship with Rome. They are respectful, friendly, and dialogical in our working relationship with them. We have not had a feeling of being bullied or undermined, but a sense that the nunciature is at our service with good brotherly relations with the local bishops.
The day-to-day running of the SACBC takes place at Khanya House in Pretoria. How is that set up?
One of the recent major developments was to move the administrative offices of the SACBC from the city centre building of 399 Paul Kruger Street, Pretoria, to 129 Main Street in Waterkloof. The former was proving to be more expensive to run and had become less efficient and user-unfriendly. In contrast, the latter is a more user-friendly, smaller, modern and manageable building in a quiet environment. In addition to the convenience and lower running costs, the new SACBC buildings look beautiful. (Continued on page 14)
Our structures have been successful, thanks to the efficient coordination of secretaries and directors of various offices and departments. In 2013, the bishops decided to restructure the Conference towards a more coordinated way of working, informed by the intention to evangelise. The bishops wanted each department to ask and answer the question of how its programmes and activities advance the work of evangelisation.
The bishops wanted a more streamlined Conference that would enable a coordinated way of working. The aim is to eliminate duplication and even competition among departments, and to promote collaboration among related departments for effective identification and handling of real issues.
The merging of departments, commissions and offices led to a reduction of departments from nine to six, with an overarching Council for Evangelisation, which is a coordinating and monitoring body that seeks to ensure synergy among departments and alignment with the core vision of the Conference, which is evangelisation.
The SACBC also looks beyond its borders. How?
In the recent past, the SACBC has tried to express its international character of being constituted of three countries — Botswana, Eswatini and South Africa — and occasionally alternates its venue for plenary meetings among them. It also tries to concern itself with issues affecting the three countries of the Conference.
The SACBC understands its universal character and extends its attention and participation beyond the borders of its territory. It participates and contributes to regional and continental episcopal conferences, namely the Inter-Regional Meeting of the Bishops of Southern Africa (Imbisa) and the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (Secam). Two of its members have served as presidents of Imbisa, and currently, one member of the SACBC is serving as the first vice-president of Secam [Bishop Sipuka himself].
Through its Denis Hurley Peace Institute, the SACBC continues to collaborate with other similar bodies to facilitate peace in situations of conflict across the African continent.
The SACBC is awake to the challenges facing the Church in other African countries, and often expresses support and solidarity through solidarity visits and written statements. So we have a good outward focus towards the world and don’t just focus on ourselves.
This is the first part of a 3-part interview with Bishop Sithembela Sipuka was published in the August 2022 issue of The Southern Cross magazine