By Peter Storey
former Methodist bishop, South Africa
Right now there is no happier or noisier place in the world than South Africa, with the smiles of all – black, white and brown – as wide as they were in 1994 when Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” held its first democratic elections. And the joy is needed: as we proudly welcome hundreds of thousands of fans to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the first world football championship tournament held on African soil, we South Africans have recently seen how fragile our newfound human rights culture is, and how easily issues of race and ethnicity still disturb the peace.
South Africa hosts at least four million Zimbabweans who have fled Mugabe, and other undocumented immigrants from as far as Somalia and Ethiopia. With an unemployment rate of 25 percent in the country, it is not surprising that local resentments can sometimes explode. A blundering, ineffectual President Zuma, flaunting his Zulu tribalism, also gives many other ethnic groups in the land cause to question.
On May 20, South Africans of many faiths and race groups packed into the headquarters of the Cape Town Inter-faith Initiative to watch Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu unveil the city’s first Charter for Compassion plaque. It was a reminder, as Charter initiator Karen Armstrong put it, of a time when through the spirit of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation process, South Africa had shown the world that transformation could happen, not only in individuals, but in nations. “There was a shining moment,” she said. “When South Africa showed the world what was possible.”
Meanwhile, the recent murder of a white ex-neo-Nazi leader caused shivers across the land, with rumors of a whiter right-wing resurgence or a “night of long knives” the hands of impoverished blacks. Neither of these scenarios is remotely likely, yet suspicion levels have risen markedly since the euphoric Mandela days. In recent years, South Africa has buckled under a massive crime epidemic and been buffeted by the world recession, which may have played a role in the ugly wave of xenophobia that swept through many of its squatter camps last year.
The unveiling of the Charter for Compassion was a kind of call to action, a challenge to South Africa. At the event, Archbishop Tutu, who has at times taken on the current South African regime with the same determination shown during the apartheid days, wowed the crowd with his usual ebullience, but also struck a deeply serious note, reminding them of the absurdity that once ruled in South Africa, when persons were judged by their biological characteristics rather than for their intrinsic value and how this demeaned generations of black persons. He saluted the religious communities for offering sanctuary to thousands of foreigners during the xenophobic attacks, calling for more such courageous actions and a recovering the African spiritual concept of Ubuntu – “I am a person through other persons.” He declared that this is what the Charter for Compassion was about.
I know this to be true because I am one of the authors of the Charter. The Charter began as a wish of Karen’s, granted by the TED prize, and culminated with the remarkable gathering of a Council of Conscience at Vevey, Switzerland, in February, 2009. There the thoughts of thousands of crowd-sourced contributions culled from the Charter’s Web site were distilled into a powerful, one-page document. One of them, the Dutch Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, told of having been a babe in arms when his family was loaded onto a train headed for the Nazi death camps. His mother pleaded with an SS Officer to let her give her child to a Gentile woman standing by, and inexplicably, he permitted it. “I am alive because for a moment, an SS Officer’s heart was touched by looking into the face of a Jewish baby,” he said. “There is compassion somewhere in everyone. We must awaken it.”‘
Rev. Peter Storey is a former Methodist Bishop from South Africa, and national ecumenical leader during the anti-apartheid struggle. His 38-year church ministry focused on the marginalized people of Cape Town’s District Six, then Johannesburg and Soweto. Earlier he was prison chaplain to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He is a committed peacemaker who helped select the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and founded the Gun Free South Africa movement. Most recently he has been a distinguished professor at Duke University Divinity School.