Next generation

It must be difficult to live in the shadow of a charismatic predecessor. I’ve often wondered how South African president Thabo Mbeki felt taking over office from Nelson Mandela. Back home, Archbishop Peter Hollingworth struggled in the shadow of Sir William Deane, a man who brought dignity and respect to a position many Australians would prefer no longer existed.

Yet Njongonkulu Ndungane, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, who succeeded Desmond Tutu, seems to have managed well. Ndungane is a man who radiates an energy and commitment that endears him to his own people while earning the archbishop a place on the international stage; a man who often says, ‘We have not inherited this world from our parents, but have borrowed it from our children’.

Recently, Archbishop Ndungane has addressed the US Congress and the World Economic Forum, but he is equally at home out in the South African townships embracing HIV/AIDS sufferers.

So determined was Ndungane to get South African men to undertake tests for HIV, he went to a public clinic in one of the townships to be tested. He smiles as he tells the story. ‘That created a lot of gossip and media attention. When I walked out of the clinic, I had to face TV cameras. There was so much speculation. “How did it go?” they asked. “I’ll let you know,” I told them.’

‘HIV/AIDS is a disease, not a punishment,’ he says. ‘And the challenge is to break the stigma attached to  it.’

An international advocate on the issue of HIV/AIDS, Ndungane knows it is to the corridors of power that he must take his message. Yet he is also aware that he has been entrusted with the voices and hopes of Africa’s most vulnerable.

Invited to Australia recently by Anglicord, the archbishop launched their annual appeal.

Gentle of voice, expressive with his hands, deliberate in word choice, Ndungane’s speech to launch the appeal begins. Two minutes later he has the audience laughing, and within ten minutes he has the momentum of a steam train, taking those gathered on a ride, to a destination only he is aware of.

Words such as human community, interdependence, vulnerability and September 11 crop up. And while the archbishop says  statistics can dazzle us, there is one he mentions. ‘Twice as many people die daily due to HIV/AIDS as died in the attacks on September 11 in the USA.’ It’s a sobering thought.

‘Many who contract HIV/AIDS are innocent victims, not only children, but women who have been faithful to their husbands. Yet so many of the mothers carry the pain and guilt of their children contracting the disease.’

While in Australia, Archbishop Ndungane also spoke at an NGO forum on HIV/AIDS, and to Melbourne’s top end of town. The corporate lunch, organised by a prominent law firm, was attended by 45 selected guests. With this latter engagement in mind, I asked Ndungane about motivation for change. Why should Australians be involved or even care about issues such as HIV/AIDS, debt relief and other issues affecting southern Africa?

‘First of all I believe that all human beings, generally speaking, would like to live with peace and security. But a starting point for why Australians should be involved goes back to World War II. The thinking was that we didn’t want any more world wars and there was a joint effort to form an institution, the United Nations, to arbitrate between nations in the case of a dispute. Related to this was the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here was the human community driven by solidarity among human beings and a desire to live in peace.’

His second point relates to recent events. ‘The greatest event of our days that has made the world come to a standstill is September 11 … What it shows us is our vulnerability as a human community and our mutual interdependence.

‘So for those of us with eyes to see, what that said is that we need to work together for the common good in this world, to seek to eliminate conditions that make such deadly fanaticism—terrorism—survive. We need to enable people to have access to all that is essential for human welfare: food, shelter, water, health care, education, etc. That would eliminate the conditions in which deadly fanaticism breeds.’
The archbishop stresses that access for all to the basics of life is possible.

Third, he says the global village is a world without walls, one in which the rich and powerful, not just the poor, are vulnerable.

‘Therefore it is in our enlightened self-interest that we provide the conditions that bring about security. This means investing in human capital—the advancement of human beings. ‘Whether Australians like it or not, or whether they are a faith loving community or not, this is God’s world.

And God has created this world, providing enough resources for our needs, not for our greed.’

Ndungane says even the World Economic Forum will focus on values in its next session, on how to order our lives today in a responsible way that reflects our role as God’s stewards. And the archbishop expects to be there for those discussions.

He also believes creating sustainable development, peace and security is not work that should be left to others. Government, civil society and business all have their role to play. ‘We can’t leave politics to the politicians or theology to the theologians.’

According to Ndungane, the latest research indicates that if nothing is done to combat HIV/AIDS in South Africa, the economy will collapse within three generations, having devastating effects on surrounding economies and communities, in turn affecting the international community. So once again he refers to ‘our enlightened self-interest’. This time the interest is making  sure democracies like South Africa succeed.

At this point the conversation turns to the topic of leadership. I comment on the number of leaders in South Africa who came through the school of Robben Island, the prison where Ndungane spent three years. The archbishop jokes that he built Nelson Mandela’s cell.

‘One of the greatest miracles of our time has been that transition from apartheid to democracy, and having the right person at the right time in the person of Nelson Mandela, who is a person of forgiveness par excellence, to lead us in the direction of reconciliation. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from that.’

Ndungane adds if he had his way, no-one would be given public office or hold a senior position in church, business or politics without an experience of another culture in another part of the world. ‘When you have met with the people and been immersed in the conditions, you begin to appreciate how people are living, and have a real dialogue.’

One final question. Will South Africa survive after Mandela? ‘You know,’ he says, pausing to consider his words carefully, ‘People used to say, will there be church after Tutu?’ He looks directly at me, and a broad smile breaks out across his face.

Eventually he adds: ‘Others will come to the fore. The spirit will live on.’

If the example of the Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, is anything to go by, it seems the special South African spirit—which draws so much vitality from the example of Nelson Mandela—will live on.    

Michele M. Gierck is a writer, educator and public speaker.

Njongonkulu Ndungane’s recent book A World With A Human Face: A Voice From Africa is published by David Philip, 2003.



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