South Africa: Building the Church and the Nation

Bishop of Eshowe on Unity in Diversity, and Arrogance Toward Africans

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ROME, JULY 13, 2012 ( The bishop of Eshowe, South Africa, says that the nation still has a long path to tread before building an identity. In the midst of this process, it faces the struggle of corruption, of poverty, of AIDS.

In this interview with Where God Weeks, in cooperation with Aid the Church in Need, Bishop Xolelo Thaddaeus Kumalo speaks with Mark Riedemann about South Africa and the Church’s mission there.

Q: Your Excellency, Eshowe is one of the oldest European settlements in Zululand. Can you tell us a little bit about Zululand and the Zulu people?

Bishop Kumalo: Zulu land was founded by King Shaka who is known all over the world as a warrior who was able to defeat a regiment of English soldiers. The Zulus have had their kings and chiefs and they believe in their traditional life. They continue to believe in their traditional life.  

Q: What are their economic activities?

Bishop Kumalo: Like most South Africans, they work in factories in the far away cities like Johannesburg and Devon, but those who remain in the homeland are busy with farming, agriculture.

Q: When you first came to Zululand, first of all, had you been there before? Secondly, what was your reaction when you first came in contact with this people? Are they very different from the people in the Eastern Cape?

Bishop Kumalo: Though I was born in the Eastern Cape, I stayed more with the Sesotho in the Diocese of Bethlehem in the middle of South Africa. The diocese is mostly Sesotho. They are very different from the Nguni’s especially the Zulus. They are more peaceful people, not warriors. I was, in fact, in Zululand just for visiting on occasion, such as an ordination of a priest…

Q: You must forgive my ignorance in asking this, but are the situations among the tribes so different? Coming from the Eastern Cape, for example, would they accept you because you are not Zulu?

Bishop Kumalo: South Africa has been less tribalistic than other African countries because of the struggle against Apartheid. The industrialization, where people were brought together to work in the mines and other factories has, I think, lessened the spirit of tribalism, and therefore it is easy to be accepted whether you are a Sotho, IsiXthosa, or Zulu or Swazi.

Q: Zululand has been an area of traditional African beliefs and many of the Zulu believe in the traditional African religion. How is this manifested? What do we understand when we speak of African traditional religions?

Bishop Kumalo: It is the way they behave, the way they speak, the way they live their lives. The Zulu people like most, if not all the African people, have always believed in one God. But the expression about their faith has always been different.

Q: …for example…

Bishop Kumalo: The Zulu, they believe in one God and this God is so great and that is why he is called “Unkulunkulu” which means, the one who is big or “Umvelinqangi,” the one who came first. And, therefore there must be some people who can talk to this god on our behalf, the ancestors. And these ancestors always demand certain rituals to de done like killing of a cow or a goat to please or to request certain things from them so that they can bring this to God. Each and every stage of life is celebrated ritually in the Zulu tradition. When a child is born, and when he or she is given a name there is slaughtering of something and the elders will do certain things to introduce the child to the ancestors.

Q: If I understand correctly, there are many similar things to the Christian tradition, the presentation of the child, the belief in one God; all these things facilitated “inculturation” when Christianity arrived — perhaps the Zulu were ready to accept because many of the traditions could be recognized  in the Christianity that was being presented to them.

Bishop Kumalo: Unfortunately, the missionaries when they came did not really recognize any traditional beliefs, and that is why people tried to live two lives because [by the missionaries] everything was taken as pagan — anything which was African including the names; that is why in Africa especially South Africa we have two names. My name Xolelo means forgiveness, which is Christian. But because these were Pagan names and African, you had to get another name. It was not just a question of being named after a saint, but that was the attitude. Therefore, the Zulus were able to recognize similar things. They were able to recognize that in respect the Catholic Church has for things, they could actually take that as similar to the ancestral worship. These are the people that are speaking to the great one for us as we in the Catholic Church do believe that the saints are able to intercede for us before God. This is just one example. With baptism and how the Zulu’s introduce a new baby to the ancestors, Christian religion never really married these two things. It is only now, later when we talk about the language of inculturation; how can we use our culture so that we are better Christians or better Catholics by using what we are.

Q: But nonetheless these tribal groups took to Christianity. They accepted Christianity. So the gift of the Holy Spirit was working nonetheless.

Bishop Kumalo: He was working. I think in the schools; education played a vital part. As people were learning in schools and trying to understand the Bible, what the Christian message was saying to them then they could be converted easily, yes.

Q: You have a special place in your diocese, which is a Marian shrine, the Marian Shrine of Ngome. Tell us about this special place.

Bishop Kumalo: Ngome is indeed is a special place. There are many pilgrimage places in South Africa. Ngome is a place where Mary supposedly appeared to this sister called Reinolda. We are not so much sure whether she appeared or not, but the fact is that people do believe that Mary appeared. They go there to pray and they are converted and healed, that is the most important thing for us. And that is why some years before my predecessor died, after a long reflection, he declared that place to be a place of prayer. It is a place of prayer indeed, as we have said, where not only South African, but also Basothos, and Angolans are coming on their own. Nobody is inviting to come and pray. Almost every day there are pilgrims who go to Ngome.

Q: You mentioned healing. Why is healing important?

Bishop Kumalo: People feel sick spiritually and physically. And they do believe that God can help them. And they believe that God through the intercession of our Blessed Lady does help them. And that is why they come in numbers to Ngome, to pray and to get water because they think if you go to Ngome, you will find a lot of people carrying a lot of water which then they go back to share with others and later on they come to witness to all; we came to Ngome, this is what we ask from Our Lady and this is what we got. Healings and conversions are occurring.

Q: It is now more 10 years after apartheid. Can you say that with this post apartheid group, this country is still a country seeking its identity?

Bishop Kumalo: I think it is definitely still seeking its identity. You know that we separated into groups. It is going to take us years until we have a South African identity. Even if you take just worshipping, it is still very difficult in South Africa. Of course, each one is invited to go to worship. But how they worship or how long to worship depends on the culture… As an example: for some persons to worship for more than one hour is a big sacrifice, but for the black African – man or woman – 3 hours would be the minimum. And now to try to combine this with the people is difficult. This is difficult even among Christians who have the same religious identity, imagine this within one nation. Even now for national feasts, political ones, you would hardly find whites celebrating together with blacks. It shows you that we do have a problem of ha
ving an identity as South Africans, and I think that it will take us a long time until we reach that.

Q: You mentioned the question of transition, and this also in the economic situation. South Africa, of course has the potential and is rich in minerals, but at the same time there is 40% unemployment and almost 8 million black Africans are homeless. Can one say that in this period of transition that black Africans are being left behind in this growth of a new South Africa?

Bishop Kumalo: I think they were left behind before and they should be helped. But the new government has tried its best to build houses. And we are talking about these houses we are talking really more around the cities because this is where the black African has gone, leaving the rural areas because there is not much happening there. And even when we talk about homelessness we talk about cities and not so much in the rural areas because people are going there to seek work. Now the government has tried to build these houses, but unfortunately our government, despite their good intentions, does not have the capability of managing things. Most of the people they have given the contracts to have built houses that are shoddy, putting the money in their pockets. And many houses have to be rebuilt, which is a waste of money. Not so many are arrested because corruption is so ripe in South Africa. In fact, it is the part of a new problem and this is how we are not developing forward. But I put that to the government‘s inability to manage things.

Q: In fact, Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, the president of the South African Bishops Conference, mentions specifically corruption and violence as still being the principal issues to be addressed by the South African government. The other challenge is, of course the issue of HIV/AIDS. How is the church working in this area?

Bishop Kumalo: First, the church is trying to preach to everybody, through the Bishop’s Conference making statements like that of Archbishop Buti Tlhagale our president. The church is also trying to address its own constituency, the Catholic Church with the situation of violence, and corruption. That corruption is sinful and that corruption is actually preventing development and how, unfortunately this corruption begins from the top and how the Catholics should try to respond to change the situation from within as being members of the community.

Regarding the issue of HIV/AIDS we copied the program from Uganda called “Education for Life,” which we are actually trying to spread in the various dioceses. We educate the young people not to be infected with this disease through education, through peer groups and life style change.

Q: AIDS is still running at 22% and the international community has tried to present an answer with the condom. How do you perceive this? This strikes me as being first of all pressure coming from the outside and secondly is against traditional African values. Do  you perceive this as a bit of arrogance and prejudice from the international community to come in and present the condom as being that solution that would solve AIDS in South Africa?

Bishop Kumalo: I think the international community is always arrogant toward us Africans. They come with readymade solutions. They don’t ask. They know what is right for us as Africans and the condoms are part of that arrogance. I think because people, in their minds, they think that condoms prevent the sickness. It helps spread it because every young person, even those who are not aware of sexual activity, is taught in the school about this condom in sexual education. They try it and that is why you still have a high rate of people being infected with this AIDS epidemic.

Q: What is your greatest need today that you wish to communicate to the viewers or listeners of this program?

That each person, each nation must try to find Jesus. Our greatest need at the moment in the Church is evangelization. In the end if people are connected to Jesus most of the [problems], most of the corruption, most of the violence will disappear.

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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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