Fingers pointed at SA Church over justice record

Social entrepreneur Johan de Meyer reports that the Church in SA was taken to task by  young Christian activists who accuse it of avoiding festering social injustices

South Africa’s young church did not mince its words when it comes to social justice issues at The Justice Conference this past weekend, saying that if Jesus associated with marginalised people in his day, he would definitely join activists in the “deep sh*t” of South Africa’s sanitation crisis today.

The conference organisers set out to help mobilise young Christians from a broad spectrum of denominations –indeed, the thousand-odd crowd was significantly racially diverse and reflected most churches in SA — to get down to business in practicing social justice in their daily lives.

In doing so, the organisers explained, they wanted to re-awaken the activism that saw the church play a significant role in the dismantling of apartheid.

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If this conference is anything to go by, Christian youth do not see themselves as separate from forces shaping the current social landscape. It is not a matter of bringing their faith into dialogues around education, decolonisation or poverty. Instead, young people whose daily lived experience is one of disempowerment are trying to make sense of their participation in movements like #FeesMustFall, Black lives Matter (also represented at the conference) and those around the decolonisation of education.

The Church’s complicity in injustice
Speakers critiqued theologies that prioritise personal sin while being quiet about social sins and defining success by income and possessions.

They called on the Church to acknowledge how its theologies are contributing to continued injustice, just as denominations like the Dutch Reformed Church has had to acknowledge its support of the apartheid ideology.

In the words of Marlyn Faure, “Christianity can never be okay if it is based on someone else being exploited or excluded.”

rethink justice
The Justice Conference South Africa.

It was not hard to take note of the pressure points. Time and again dialogues on issues around decolonised education, income inequality, land and sanitation steered back to frustration around race and the false sense of equilibrium of 1994.

Why are black churches filled with images of a white Christ?

Why have churches become multiracial, but not multi-cultural?

Why are national Christian gatherings dominated by white males, with black speakers left wondering why they are used as tokens, and having to defend their right to have an opinion?

Why is the church not talking about restitution?

Sivuyile Kotela, social impact activist and strategist, went as far as saying that having all-white church leadership teams in South Africa today should be seen as criminal. Others were very clear that the concept of a post-apartheid South African city is still a myth as our daily lives are governed by spatial designs that have not yet shifted.

Ongoing just actions, not charity
Attendees were encouraged not to increase their focus on acts of charity but to engage with government on policy level, to challenge the “invisible hand of the markets” and to create strategic funding and investment opportunities that will shift the social landscape.

Brian Koela, Christian social activist, said charity leaves the ideologies of self-interest untouched and the wealthy unchallenged.

“Charity means those with capital set the agendas of the working class. Those with nothing remain powerless and the poor remain disenfranchised. Justice, in turn, seeks to find the cause of the problem of poverty.”

Rene August, an Anglican priest, encouraged a very direct application of Bible passages that call for debts to be cancelled and for property to be returned to its original owners. She asked privileged conference-goers to commit their families to living on R6 500 per month for six months, as an immersion into the lifestyle of poor South Africans.

Normalising dialogues on race
Conferencegoers described the event as “cathartic”, saying it was a relief to hear so many speakers give voice to their frustrations, normalising conversations on race, culture and inequality among churched young people.

Perhaps most disturbing — and most poignant — was the call from Nkosivumile Gola, Food Is Free founder and social activist, who asked that we should “look into the sh*t, and not just flush it away.”

He explained that Jesus Christ associated himself with the downtrodden, with the marginalised and oppressed. In today’s South Africa, this translates into people in the average township — those who use buckets to relieve themselves because they fear being raped in the communal toilets in informal settlements. And young Christians, whether in privilege or poverty, should follow Christ into these hard spaces and work to transform them.

“If Jesus associated himself with the least of these, then he himself became one of them. Then Jesus was in deep shit.”

The Justice Conference revealed that Christian youth are not on the outside looking in. They are already in, and are not losing their faith due to the reality around them. Instead, they are using their faith to make sense of their world, and to give them practical direction in making things right in South Africa.


  1. It is quite clear that the cross was not the central theme of this conference.

    • Johan` de Meyer

      Cornelius, then you misread. It is precisely at the cross, the place of sacrificial giving, that the conference converged. Unless the Church engages with the reality of what it means to sacrificially give oneself for one’s neighbour, we will never be true disciples of Christ.

  2. It might help to obtain the audio/video recordings once they become available.I think it is difficult to assess what happened at the conference from only 3 articles. I can say it was a challenge receiving perspectives from people who love the Lord, what He did on the cross and want to follow His example but experience life and the Christian walk so differently to me. I had to extend the grace, that Christ has extended to me, to others, to get past our differences and to hear the hearts.

  3. It is important to realise one simple thing….Jesus was not white and He is not a white mans God. He came to save all. Secondly, as soon as one brings colour into discussions on Christ’s salvation for all then we have started veering off the path that He wants us to follow. It is a fact that we are all created equal but in the world all are not equal. Instead of looking at things from a wordly perspective we need to never lose sight of the spiritual reality. When I am asked by Him what I did for my fellow man I will not be asked to put it into a quota percentage. I also believe strongly that the best person to help you is you yourself. Unless you are able to grasp this, no one else can help you…not sure if this is making sense but I have been to those “white man” gatherings and have listened to God’s Word being preached by those “Token black speakers” and never….never have I ever realised that colour was an issue. Especially when my mates sharing my tent with me on those gatherings were black and all speakers were speaking about forgiveness and reconciliation according to His Word. It is important that we do not take our eyes off the cross and get sucked into the political quagmire that our leaders have created. God is bigger than that. He wants our hearts…we need to give them to Him and then follow…..

  4. This a good read – did not appreciate the ‘sh*t” remark though.
    What’s more, it’s not just the Dutch Reformed Church that has to address the white and black gulf that is still a reality today, it’s the majority of the born again preaching churches in South Africa too that have made very little effort to bridge the gap apart from a few soup kitchens and a year end visit on ‘crookmiss’ day to hand out a few second hand goods and a crookmiss meal to appease the conscience – was and will never be good enough. We need to humble ourselves and embrace those poverty stricken brothers and sisters of ours and fellowship with ‘them’ and they with us as Jesus intended it – one mind, one heart and one accord. “By this shall all men (the unsaved) know that we are His disciples.

    • Johan` de Meyer

      Hi Spencer. Thanks for your comment and honesty. The reason I included that quote, was based on a Tony Campolo sermon from a while back where he challenged people that they were more concerned with moralisms – how to speak and act – than about justice. I don’t think sh*t is a swear word. It is an unsavory noun. All of us need to learn how to cross the divides and engage with the unsavory realities that our fellow humans have to endure while those with means turn a blind eye. Nkosi’s talk was most challenging for me. Am I more concerned about the word than about kids getting raped on the way to a communal toilet?

    • Johan` de Meyer

      All recordings of the conference are online. ;-)