Transforming relationships in post-TRC South Africa:

Dr. Maria Ericson. Photo by Wyomia Lawrence.

By: Maria Ericson (June 2007)

Feminist peace researchers and theologians have stressed that a "positive", or "just", peace includes an end to violence against women both in the public sphere and in the private, domestic, sphere (Boasdottir 1998, Brock-Utne 1988, Meintjes, Pillay & Turshen 2001). Along these lines, one of the few South African female theologians to write about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has stressed that the realisation of such a peace in the South African context goes well beyond the work of the TRC. It includes, she argues, the establishment of a gender-inclusive justice, restoration and healing, and the equalisation of power imbalances between men and women, rich and poor, black and white (Van Schalkwyk 1999:33).

Christian churches in the South African context
Here the Christian churches, to which about 80% of the South African population belong according to the Census of 2001, have a particularly interesting role to play, as they have mirrored society not only with regard to “race” but also with regard to gender relations. The Christian churches are, in turn, divided into “mainline” churches which came from Europe (about 40%), African Independent Churches (AICs) initially formed by black Africans who wanted to escape the dominance of white missionaries and church boards (about 40%), Pentecostals (at least 9%), and a number of other, smaller, churches such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Orthodox Church. Among them, the AICs and the Pentecostals are on the increase (Hendricks & Erasmus 2005).

The "mainline" churches, as well as many Pentecostal churches have, throughout history, faced the challenge to cater both for their white members of European descent (“Settler Christianity”) and for their black African, coloured or Indian converts (“Mission Christianity”). “Settler” and “Mission” Christianity either coexisted within the same, multiracial, church structure (e.g. in the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant churches of Anglo-Saxon origin such as Anglicans and Methodists), or separate church structures were set up for each “racial” group (e.g. in the case of the Reformed Churches of Dutch origin).*

However, even churches that retained a multiracial church structure were not normally integrated at the local level, due to social custom reinforced by apartheid legislation. Black pastors were paid less and were rarely appointed to serve in white congregations. Members of the same denomination experienced apartheid quite differently and took different sides in the political struggles. Through ecumenical bodies such as the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and in collaboration with people from other religious faith communities, quite a few church members played important roles in the struggle against apartheid. Yet others conformed to, or even practically supported, the system, e.g. through serving in the army or security police, sometimes even killing or torturing other members of the same Christian denomination. The churches of European origin are thus faced with the challenge to build, rebuild or transform relationships within their own institutions and among their own members, as well as with their neighbouring faith communities among whom many (e.g. the AICs, Hindus, Muslims, African traditional religions) draw their adherents from those subordinated by colonialism and apartheid (Faith communities and apartheid 1999).

My research project
It is within this challenging context that South African female theologians began to raise their voices, e.g. within the SACC and in the academic environment, from the mid-1980s onwards (Landman 1995). Today they do not devote so much of their attention to the public reconciliation discourse that centres on the TRC, but rather concentrate, to a large extent, on the need to break the silence about violence and discrimination experienced by women in church and society, especially in a time of HIV/AIDS. One area of particular interest in my research has been how they see the role of their churches in these respects, and what liberating and oppressive elements they identify in their own religious traditions. A major paper based on some of my research findings has been presented in South Africa (Ericson 2007).

In the course of this research project, I have not only surveyed published writings and unpublished dissertations by South African female theologians, but I also carried out about 35 interviews in the Western Cape region during 3 research periods spent there, of about 6 months altogether, in the period October 2004-November 2005. Most of the interviews were done with women pursuing postgraduate (Masters or Doctoral) studies in theology and religious studies. The rationale behind that decision was to gain access to the views and experiences of emerging academic theologians who have not yet had the opportunity to publish so much, thereby adding their voices to already published works by South African female theologians among whom white women still tend to be quite overrepresented. Through these interviews, I increased the number of coloured women’s voices represented in my work, but in order to include more black African voices I also interviewed a couple of black African female undergraduate students and male postgraduate students. In addition I interviewed some people in key positions at the universities in question, as well as a number of women in key positions in their churches or in NGOs working with women who had suffered from violence. In practice these women came mainly from the Reformed churches of Dutch origin, the Anglican or the Methodist churches and from a couple of Pentecostal churches.

These interviews provided an insightful grass-root perspective from women assuming non-stereotypical gender roles, e.g. as theological students and candidates for the ordained ministry. Just like most Protestant churches in South Africa, the churches to which they belonged had accepted the ordination of women, and the Methodist Church has recently elected a black African woman as bishop. However, I also found that in practice women still make up quite a small percentage of the ordained clergy. In the interviews, as well as in the literature, a picture emerged of women often having to struggle harder than their male colleagues for recognition, appointments and influence within their respective churches, although some women also spoke of support that they had experienced from people within their church. On the whole black African women were not only underrepresented among academic theologians but also among the clergy (cf. Rakoczy 2004:235-236).

Traditional gender roles and violence against women
Traditional gender roles and separate organisations for women and men, with women often being the backbone of the church (as churchgoers, in social work, fundraising, cooking, baking, cleaning and decorating the church), have a long history. Having their own organisations might partly be desired by women as their own “safe spaces” independently of those normally in charge, i.e. the men (cf. Mouton 2001). Today traditional gender roles appear to be particularly strong in “Mission Christianity”, where the missionaries served as role models. According to such gender roles the clergyman is a man, supported by a wife who works voluntarily in the congregation and as chairperson of the women’s group. The two black African (Xhosa) male doctoral students, born in the 1970s, whom I interviewed said that, due to such strong gender roles, they could never even picture a female ordained minister when they grew up, because what role would her husband then play in the congregation?

Women across “racial” lines, and from various churches, have testified about the constraints they have experienced because of such imposed gender roles. Furthermore, I found testimonies of the uphill struggle faced in raising awareness about gender-based violence and in setting up, and accessing funding for, support groups for abused women, even though some gains in that respect had also been achieved (Ackermann, et al. 1991, Ericson 2007). Here the churches might, interestingly enough, contribute towards bridging the apartheid divides by providing women across all other barriers with one source for common ground, namely the experience of religious ideas and institutions as being oppressive.

Here the female, together with some male, theologians pointed out that structures and attitudes that condone violence against women might be legitimised by the idea that God intends men to dominate and women to submit, and the idea that women are morally inferior to men and cannot trust their own judgement (and therefore are in no position to criticise their men). Another problematic belief was identified in the idea that suffering is a desirable quality for a Christian, as a way to imitate Jesus who suffered silently and gave his life for others on the cross, and that women in particular have been chosen to be such “suffering servants”. The idea that God commands Christians to forgive and reconcile with those who sin against them, might also be interpreted in a way that demands from a woman that she repeatedly forgives and remains with a man who continues to abuse her, or who is unfaithful to her and exposes her to the risk of contracting HIV. Yet, South African women also testified about how they had found solace, strength and inspiration in their Christian traditions, for instance in the belief that both women and men are equally created in God’s image, and hence deserve equal treatment and in the idea of God (through his incarnation in Jesus Christ) as the compassionate co-sufferer and liberator who through his suffering on the cross can understand battered women, and who through his resurrection points at a new future, as well as in stories of how Jesus broke with his contemporary patriarchal culture and treated women as equals and in the examples of Paul’s early female co-workers (e.g. Ackermann et al.1991; JTSA 2002; Phiri et al. 2003, Ericson 2007).

This tension between oppressive and liberating elements has also been found in other religious faith communities, not only in South Africa, and might serve as a source of common ground in inter-religious dialogue between women in various countries and continents (cf. Egnell 2006; Shaikh 1996; Reisenberger 2003).

Bridging divides between South African women
Yet, despite these sources for common ground among women from various churches, one cannot escape the hierarchies of power along the lines of “race” and class. Such hierarchies are reflected both in the academy, e.g. with regard to the number of publications (Maürtin-Cairncross 2003), and in the churches. Even when a multiracial church structure was retained, white and black women in practice often belonged to different women’s organisations. In the Methodist Church, difficulties to integrate these organisations in post-apartheid South Africa had a variety of reasons. It was for instance observed that black African domestic workers might resist such integration because they wanted to relax among themselves on Sundays and not have to meet with their (white) “madams” (Theilen 2005:84).

One way of addressing such barriers is that of story-sharing, i.e. that of listening to, and being challenged by, each other’s life-stories, which has been one important strategy for reconciliation (Ericson 2001). In this respect another common theme in recent writings by South African female theologians is the sharing of their personal life-stories, and those of their foremothers, and their search for a new identity, and a constructive role, in the “New South Africa” (Ackermann et al. 2000; Landman 1996; Phiri et al. 2002). Together with the concern about transforming gender relations within the churches and addressing gender-based violence, such story-sharing and searching for identity highlight links between the past, the present and the future. Hence the relevance of the work of local female theologians for a more comprehensive discourse about reconciliation as regards the building, re-building and transforming of relationships in post-TRC South Africa.
*) I use “black” as a generic term encompassing people from all “population groups” not classified as “white” under apartheid. However, I am also aware of the debates regarding identity and (self) definition in South Africa today, as well as of the need to bridge divides also between people from these groups. When referring to them separately I use the terminology adopted by the South African Census of 2001, i.e. “Black African”, “Coloured”, “Indian or Asian”.


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