Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, Bishop of Mthatha and SACBC President

Head of South African Church Reflects on the Year 2020

Interpretation of Some Signs of the Time as 2020 Bids Farewell

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The following reflection by Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, Bishop of Mthatha and SACBC President, was published on November 30, 2020.



As the year winds off, it is beneficial to note its pertinent signs for our reflection and attention. This reflection needs to begin at a personal level because through the experiences of this ending year, our characters were being shaped and hopefully conformed more to the image of Christ.

Proceeding from personal reflection about the signs of this year, as leaders, we must also read them in relation to social, economic, and political context and facilitate an appropriate response both from the people we lead and from those in power. In this last reflection of the year, I wish to make brief observations on 3 striking signs for this year and conclude with messages of farewell and congratulations.

Covid-19 fatigue

As the year comes to an end, the most and immediate sign of our time is the upsurge of Covid-19, particularly in our province of the Eastern Cape. With the government having tried to control the spread and effects of Covid-19 when it first emerged, this upsurge is a sign of fatigue among ordinary people about Covid-19. People are tired of Covid-19 restrictions.

By most accounts, the upsurge, or the second wave is due largely to people not adhering to Covid-19 preventive measures. What is concerning is that these measures are not flouted for reasons of survival, e.g., people cuing for grants or for food parcels but for cultural and entertainment reasons. The example of cultural reasons includes funerals and ancestral related functions (imicimbi). In these cultural events people gather closer to each other, they eat from the common dish (isithebe) and drink from the same billycan (ibhekile).

The disregard of regulations for Covid-19 for entertainment reasons manifesting in group gatherings and parties is committed largely by young people. These practices provide the perfect opportunity for the spread of the virus, and as leaders, whether we like it or not, we shall be involved in the aftermath of these fatal behaviors, so we must do something about this problem.

It has been suggested that laws against these practices must once again be strongly enforced, but law enforcement alone cannot succeed to prevent these deadly practices because they are culturally and mentally entrenched.  Other supportive values, beliefs, and mental conversion that will motivate personal commitment to respect health protocols must also be resorted to. We need to appeal to the value of life which is uppermost among Africans.

African ancestors and dead relatives are purported to value life and therefore should not mind if an ancestor function is postponed until Covid-19 pandemic is over or done differently in order to protect life. If they do it, they could be encouraged, for example, to drink the traditional beer (Umqombothi) with personal mugs or jugs instead of drinking from the same billycan. They could also eat from disposable individual Styrofoam dishes instead of eating from the common dish (isithebe) while respecting the recommended social distance. If the ritual involves smoking, provision for individual instead of shared smoking could also be made.

Indeed, over the past century of colonialism and apartheid which changed the traditional social settings of the local people, the performance of ancestor rituals has been drastically modified and adapted. It is therefore not undoable to propose different ways of carrying out ancestral related functions as we are also doing Church service differently. This is the message we should give in our sermons and communication.

At the root of the practice of gathering in groups and partying by the young people and thus posing the danger of Covid-19 transmission is the prevailing hedonistic culture that propagates pursuance of pleasure at all cost, even if that means inconveniencing and endangering others. Against this selfishness, the value of human solidarity proposed by Pope Francis in his latest Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” and the value of postponing momentary pleasure for the common good are alternative values that we could present to young people.

More importantly, we need to point out that the present inconvenience imposed by the Covid-19 regulations is nothing compared to the inconvenience to social life and economy that will come about from infection with Covid-19, there will be a lot of tears and regret!

Frightening consequences for dealing with corruption

As we come to the end of 2020, there are signs that corruption is finally being tackled if the trial of Mr. Ace Magashule and the issuing of the warrant of arrest for Mr. Jacob Zuma are anything to go by. At the same time, there is a growing worry that the factions we have been hearing about among the elites of the ruling party will now spill over to the ordinary people which could lead to violence. The trending voice clip calling the military veterans to gather in Nkandla, apparently to protect Mr. Jacob Zuma could just be the beginning of a series of occasions of politically motivated violence. And so, as we rejoice about the prospect of corruption finally being dealt with, let us also prepare ourselves to deal with a situation where corrupt kingpins, to avoid jail sentences, will present themselves as political victims and incite people to violence and insubordination.

An Invitation to improve administration

One of the painful consequences of the inefficiency of our Provincial and Local governments has been to see funds being recalled by the national treasury because of the inability of the local authorities to effectively use these funds for their intended purpose of giving service to the poor people.

As Church, we are not completely innocent of this inefficiency. While priests and religious generally fulfil the physical pastoral work of celebrating sacraments and visiting the sick, some do fall short on administration. Trying to get a simple financial quarterly return or parish annual statistics can, in some situations be like trying to pull out a tooth from the mouth of an ill-tempered lion with two fingers.

Some Dioceses, including our own, have been turned down for project application by funders because one or two of previously funded parishes have failed to produce a simple report that shows how the money was spent together with pictures showing the project before starting it, during and after its completion.

This really spoils our name and confirms the stereotype about locals being inefficient. The seven years of training, common sense, and willingness to learn should provide us with the capacity for simple administration because it is equally important as pastoral work is, in fact, there is a link between the two. To effectively care for people, we must know how many they are and not thumb suck. We must have a plan of how we take care of them and evaluate it and we must source funds to build the structures of caring for them and account for those funds.

Farewell and Welcome to outgoing and incoming Secretariat Staff

As we round off the year, some long-serving staff members at the Bishops’ Conference Secretariate are also rounding off their services. We thank the Congregation of the Precious Blood for releasing Sr. Hermenegild Makoro who has served the Conference for 15 years, first as Associate Secretary for 6 and 9 as Secretary-General. She has proven not to be just a token appointment but a person of quality who brought value to the Conference. We thank her for her dedicated service to the Conference and wish her well in her next assignment.

Gratitude goes also to the Stigmatins for availing two of their priests to serve the Conference, namely, Fr. Patrick Rakeketsi, and Fr. Paul Tatu.  As associate Secretary General Fr. Rakeketsi did a sterling job, not only in the Secretariat but also in representing the Conference to various bodies of common purpose. His role in the crafting of the SACBC Pastoral Plan has been invaluable.

Fr. Paul Tatu as Media and Communication officer has done his best to keep the Conference known and responding to emerging issues. His hard work in redesigning, maintaining and updating the SACBC website has resulted in a Conference that is better known and easily accessible.

We welcome the incoming Secretary-General Sr. Tshifhiwa Munzhedzi OP and Fr Hugh O’Connor of Cape Town, the Associate Secretary-General. We look forward to the value they bring to Conference with their wealth of experience and skills.

Farewell to Bishop Dowling

A week ago, we learned of the news of the appointment of the new Bishop of Rustenburg, Mgrs. Robert Mphiwe, which finally released Bishop Kevin Dowling to rest.  Congratulations Mgrs. Mphiwe and the Diocese and thank you Bishop Kevin for the many years of dedicated and exemplary service to the Diocese of Rustenburg and the Conference. Your sacrificial love for the poor has been both an inspiration and a challenge. You will be missed in the Conference as an elder and your humble and efficient service to the Conference.

Congratulations to other New bishops

I also take this time to congratulate the Diocese of Witbank for getting a new bishop in the person of Bishop Xolelo Kumalo as well other Dioceses that got new bishops during the course of this year, namely Aliwal North, Bloemfontein and Oudsthoorn. Congratulations Archbishop Mpambani, and bishops Kizito and Noel.

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