Monday, September 14, 2009

conservative questions

This weekend, the headline of our favorite South African newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, read "Zuma's New God Squad Wants Liberal Laws to Go".

In short, the headline, as well as an editorial inside, describes a shift underway in South African society in which powers of "conservative" religious faith are gaining a greater hearing with SA's new president, Jacob Zuma, than they had with his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Under Mbeki's leadership, South Africa legalized abortion and gay marriage, two laws which Zuma's alleged "God Squad" would now like to repeal.

The articles describe some of the deep paradoxes of South African society. For example, although South Africa is reputed to have "the most liberal constitution in the world", it has arguably one of the world's most conservative populations. Conservative tendencies cut across racial, economic, and religious lines, from deeply religious supporters of the old Apartheid regime, founded as it was upon the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church, to members of Pentecostals and African Initiated Churches, to various Islamic groups, to staunch proponents of everything held to be traditionally "African."

Zuma, of course, was swept into office on the popular support of those who held that Mbeki was a European-educated, out-of-touch elite; Zuma, the story goes, embodies the hopes and values of the common person. Of course, the lines are never tidy; Mbeki too styled himself an authentically African leader with "African solutions to African problems", a rationale on which he championed a traditional "African" diet to the exclusion of "western" antiretroviral drugs as a treatment for persons suffering from HIV-AIDS. The Zuma-led African National Congress (ANC, the ruling-party in SA) immediately repudiated Mbeki's policies on AIDS.

In light of such paradoxes, when one leader "conserves" traditional cultural norms in one way yet not another, we might ask, "Who is conservative [or substitute "liberal"]? " Or, what classifies as a 'conservative' issue? Relatedly, who is African? What classifies as an African issue?

Who is an American? What must one uphold to be authentically American?

Or why should that be our criterion? Is there nothing else?


Friday, September 4, 2009

this coach is bound for glory

Last week we purchased a new vehicle in preparation for our fourth child, due any day now, which will expand our family beyond the capacity of our faithful Honda Ballade. In order to get the vehicle, I had to make a five-hour trip to Durban. However, since Anna needed the Honda to get around Mthatha, we booked me a seat on a bus bound for Pietermaritzburg, not far from Durban, where I could stay with our Mennonite colleagues. We also decided that it would be a fun thing for me to do with Isaac. So, he kept me company while Levi and Moses did the same for Anna.

I had an interesting experience on the bus that night. We were welcomed heartily and proceeded to enjoy a comfortable ride through the Eastern Cape hills. After 2-3 hours, we took our first stop at the travel centre in Kokstad. Isaac had already fallen asleep, so I stayed on the bus while the other passengers filed off, and then on, arms laden with bags of chips and cans of drinks from the convenience store. The bus pulled out with a new driver behind the wheel. His predecessor then moved to the role of host, welcoming us all aboard. He did not, then, however, move into a speech about emergency exits and seat-belts; he informed us all that we were "going to pray".

The host did offer a brief disclaimer, something like "if you aren't interested in participating, just sit quietly and respectfully so others can pray." Otherwise, there was no sense that this should be weird or out-of-the-ordinary for anyone.

Then commenced a very typical South African worship service--only, on a bus. In spite of the fact that the travelers were inevitably from diverse denominations, both mainline and independent, the worship was cohesively "African", which is to say, emotive and heartfelt. The host began by saying that we were going to pray for safety, because, though we don't know what's out there ahead of us on the road, God knows. Before the prayer, however, he led us in a worship song from the Pentecostal canon, "You are Alpha and Omega". Then he led us in prayer. His spirited lines were audible above the babble of voices all around, engaging in masithandaze sonke, or "all pray" at the same time. Then our host-driver-pastor opened it up for testimonies. One man volunteered. I heard something about Jesus being the way. Then we sang "Noyana", "Will you go [to heaven]?" With that, the service ended. The host went through the bus passing out our choice of lemon- or orange-creme biscuits and apologizing that there was "no juice" on this night. The painfully-acted martial arts movie starring Dolph Lundgren flickered back onto the solitary television screen at the front of the bus. The coach rambled on safely to Maritzburg.