The Breakdown of the African Family

Interview With Bishop Barry Wood

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DURBAN, South Africa, MAY 16, 2010 ( Despite a period of successful post-apartheid change, South Africa is struggling with a world of problems: violence, AIDS, and family breakdown, says an auxiliary bishop of Durban.

Bishop Barry Wood was born and raised in South Africa; his family has been in that part of the world for over 200 years.

Known for its diversity, South Africa has the largest Caucasian, Indian and racially mixed communities on the African continent. It also has, in its constitution, eleven languages officially recognized.

In this interview given to the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, the bishop spoke about the “miraculous” changes in his country, and the most pressing problems facing the people and the Church.

Q: You must have seen a lot of changes in your time. How would you say the country has changed for the better and for the worse?

Bishop Wood: Well, having grown up and lived under the apartheid regime for so long, it was a great relief in 1994 to experience our new democracy.

The Church, as you know, was very active in trying to bring about the new democracy because of the injustice of the system of apartheid. And during that time we suffered.

The majority of our people suffered greatly, but all of us suffered in one way or another in trying to bring down that regime which was evil. And so the new South Africa is a relief to all of us, that the majority of our people now have human rights. The majority of our people are learning what self esteem means which was crushed out of them in the previous regime and slowly but surely, they are growing spiritually and materially

Q: What negative developments would you say you are experiencing this post-apartheid time?

Bishop Wood: The negative developments are the breakdown of family life. There is a tremendous breakdown of family life.

As you mentioned in the introduction: crime and violence, rape, abuse of women, but above all the problem of economic injustice.

Q: I want to put a finger on the question of the breakdown of the family. Can you say where this is coming from? Why is this suddenly entering into the life of South Africans?

Bishop Wood: I don’t think it’s something new. During the apartheid times the men were divided from the women. The women stayed in the rural areas and the men went off to the cities, and so the women and the families could not be with the men in the cities, and what happened was, this way of life became part of the system of South Africa.

And, unfortunately, that has perpetuated post-1994, plus the government at this moment in time has given a financial grant to young girls who happen to fall pregnant, and so many are falling pregnant in order to be able to get the grant and that is causing havoc among our young people.

Q: Why would the government give a grant? What is the purpose of this grant?

Bishop Wood: The purpose was to help those young people, who had fallen pregnant to be able to bring up their families, but unfortunately like most things, the people have taken advantage of it and people want money.

Q: And they see it as a source of income?

Bishop Wood: They see it as a source of income. So girls fall pregnant. They have their babies. The babies are sent off to the grannies, and they carry on working or having more babies. And it’s really becoming a problem.

Q: I briefly want to take a step back. The transition from apartheid was actually a miracle in South Africa. I think, perhaps it’s not recognized enough: We talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall, how it was a non violent change and miraculous, but the change in South Africa was also a miracle.

Bishop Wood: It was a miracle, and we were not expecting it. We were expecting the worst and for years and years, after each celebration of the Eucharist, we prayed for peace in South Africa.

The prayer of St. Francis, and I really believe, that the prayer of the people, really influenced the negotiations that took place between Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk.

And I really believe the faith of the people brought about this miracle.

Q: And the miracle is still going on today, unless I am mistaken, you don’t feel a sense of revenge from the part of the black people towards the white people. You don’t feel this?

Bishop Wood: Not at all, not at all. There is acceptance and forgiveness. In some areas there is a sense of anger and people want revenge, but I would say the vast majority has accepted and we move forward.

Q: One can say in this post-apartheid period that the country is still seeking its identity. What identity do you see South Africa having? What national identity can you say, the country could carry, could show?

Bishop Wood: Well we’re still very young as a democracy. We’re only 16 years old, and like any 16 year old, we’re looking for our identity.

Q: A teenager so to speak?

Bishop Wood: A teenager, a teenage democracy, and we’re really searching for our identity.

We make many mistakes, just as teenagers make mistakes when they are looking for maturity, and I believe this is happening with us. We make mistakes, but we get up and we carry on and we try to learn through our mistakes. But we are a teenage democracy, and we want to get there. I think there is a real will, on the part all people, to get there.

Q: There is, however, also a sense that the Catholic Church, particularly in South Africa, has been affiliated with the colonial period, and that there is a new movement, if you will, to reject all of that which belongs to that colonial period, including the Church in favor of institutions, organizations that are African in origin and in orientation. How does the Catholic Church find its way in this new movement if you will?

Bishop Wood: First of all, I have heard that rumor that there is this movement to do away with anything that comes from the colonial times, but the Catholic Church in South Africa is used to persecution; right from the moment we arrived in South Africa, we have not been welcome, first of all by the Dutch, then by the British, and then by the Afrikaner regime which did everything in their power to resist us, and called us: “The Roman Danger.”

So we are used to persecution; we are used to being put down by the regime, and therefore, this latest problem that arises, we feel our faith and our people are strong enough in the faith, and we have inculturated our faith to a certain extent to resist any sort of onslaught by this sort of attitude.

Q: So the faith is coming from the people. So the roots are deep enough; you can rest assured that the roots of the faith are deep enough within the population, within the communities to withstand this kind of challenge?

Bishop Wood: I think so yes; I know so, yes.

Q: South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world. Can you tell us about this from your perspective?

Bishop Wood: It is one of the highest and it’s a pandemic in our country. Millions of people are living with HIV and AIDS or being infected or affected by this sickness. And it’s become a real problem for all our people.

Q: How do you see it concretely, for example, AIDS orphans, all these issues, how do you see these examples concretely?

Bishop Wood: Again we speak of the breakdown of family life. Some families have no mothers and fathers. They have children who are in charge of households, these AIDS orphans and vulnerable children. And this is not just an exception; it’s widespread throughout the country. And home-based care and caring for these AIDS orphans is a great challenge.

Q: South Africa has been responding to this with a condom policy, if you will. Over the last 20 years condoms have been introduced as the solution and yet AIDS is soaring at 22% of the population. Can one say that the condom policy has failed?

Bishop Wood: Definitely, the pandemic is growing.

Millions of condoms have been distributed to our people and yet we still are living with HIV and AIDS, and it’s growing. No matter that the Minister of Health says the number is going down, but the people at the grass roots level say ‘No it’s rising,’ and our priests who are burying people weekend after weekend are saying it is getting worse.

Q: What is the failure of the condom policy, if you will?

Bishop Wood: Education. People were just distributed condoms and said, there is a problem, use these condoms and the problem will go away.

It did not go away.

Q: And abstinence is not being promoted as a possible alternative?

Bishop Wood: Well, the Church has been doing that for years, yet slowly but surely now if you look at the government adverts, abstinence is on top of the list.

It’s coming and they are promoting abstinence, at the same time promoting, abstinence, faithfulness, and condoms, but I would say that the top of the list is abstinence, and I think they are starting to realize that’s the only way.

Q: There are approximately 3.3 million Catholics in South Africa, so, in fact, the size of the Catholic Church within South Africa is very small, and yet the impact is significant. What is the impact of the Catholic Church? What programs have you implemented? And how is it that the Catholic Church, being such a small percentage of the population has had a large impact?

Bishop Wood: Throughout the years the Church in South Africa has had a real impact on the people through education and through health care.

Right from the very beginning of the Church, the government, at that time, never supplied health care or education, and now with the pandemic we are only second to the government in our reaching out to the people. I’m sorry; I do not have the percentage. But it is recognized, and the people affirm the Church for its outreach.

And it’s in every sphere: home-based care, care for vulnerable children and orphans, hospices for the dying, care for abused women and pregnant people in pregnancy crisis, the whole spectrum, and rolling out ARV’s (antiretroviral treatments for HIV/AIDS) as well.

Q: What would you say is the greatest need in South Africa today?

Bishop Wood: The greatest need in South Africa are jobs, employment, because, I believe, all these problems like crime, and women abuse and child abuse and what have you are caused because people are frustrated and angry and do not have employment, and this, I believe, would help the situation if we could find employment for the majority of people of our country. And also skills training, those two goes hand in hand, I think.

Q: And from the perspective of the Church: What would be the greatest need of the Church in South Africa?

Bishop Wood: The greatest need of the Church, I think, and the challenge that we have, is trying to address this problem of the breakdown of family life and to put all our resources into trying to rebuild a sense of family life again.

Q: How do you do that?

Bishop Wood: Well, I’m not quite sure. If I had the solution, I will be happy, but I think, we’ve got to start with the small Christian communities, where we are strong.

We have small Christian communities and we need to evangelize these small Christian communities in the sense of stressing, once again, the importance of family life.

It’s very much part of the African culture, but this whole Western individualism has crept in there and broken that down, and I think what we need now is to re-emphasize the beauty of husband and father and children — and the beauty of family life.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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