Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane

The new Archbishop of Cape Town will be a stern critic of the government if it fails to deliver on its promises to the poor.

Early in march, South Africa experienced its first serious dispute between church and state since the 1994 election. President Mandela invited a group of senior Anglican clergy, led by Duncan Buchanan, the Bishop of Johannesburg, to a lunch at his official residence in Pretoria. According to Buchanan, at this lunch the President “very forcibly attacked” the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, accusing the Archbishop of being ill-informed and of trying to undermine his government. What had particularly annoyed the President was a newspaper article in which the Archbishop had criticised the government for, among other things, failing to ensure that old-age pensioners in the Eastern Cape got their money. The Archbishop was quoted as saying “Madiba magic won’t be solving our problems.”

The dispute made headlines for a week. A spokesman for the President suggested that the Archbishop was just looking for publicity. The Archbishop declared that “no one will silence the church.” On the following Thursday, they met in Cape Town, a meeting characterised by “frank and fair” exchanges — the usual diplomatic code for “tense”. After this meeting, the President and Archbishop agreed that “there was no fundamental difference between them.” There was, however, no joint press conference and no photo opportunity outside Tuynhuys.

This was also the first occasion on which the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, The Most Rev Winston Hugh Njongonkulu Ndungane had been widely heard of outside religious circles. If he was discussed at all, it was simply as the rather quiet successor to the ebullient, charismatic and world-famous Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Ndungane has now moved out of Tutu’s shadow but is hardly well-known. What motivates him? Does he intend to be a political priest on the model of his predecessor? What sort of relationship does Ndungane think the Anglican church ought to have with the government?

The key to understanding him is to realise that he holds dual citizenship. He is deeply committed to South Africa, but his second passport was issued, as it were, by another country — the Kingdom of Heaven. As the government has been finding out, this combination makes his a voice that will not be silenced and a moral force that is difficult to ignore.

Ndungane was born in 1941 in Kokstad and was, quite literally, raised in the church. “I come from a Christian family. My father was a priest, so was my grandfather, so was my great-grandfather and there have been uncles in the priesthood. And also, of course, my whole education was in the hands of the church and so there was that kind of foundation in terms of values, human values with a Christian influence.” Christian influences, though, were not the only ones to which the young Ndungane was exposed. He went to school at the missionary-run Lovedale College in Alice. Although Lovedale was a very Christian place, it was also for more than a century the single most important cradle of black political leaders.

After the church, his second formative influence was political. One Sunday afternoon, when a teenager in the Cape flats township of Langa, he and some friends set out to play in a soccer match. They were walking through Langa’s Freedom Square when Ndungane’s attention was caught by a political speaker — Robert Sobukwe, founder of the PAC. “We stopped to listen and he captured our minds with his charisma, his authority, his directedness. He was talking about the pass laws being at the heart and core of the oppression of the black person and that we had to do something about it.”

At the University of Cape Town, Ndungane continued his activism, particularly against the cynically named Extension of University Education Act of 1959. Strong sources of hope and inspiration for him at this time were the start of decolonisation and the dream of a United States of Africa with which it was associated. These are ideas that continue, in updated forms, to be important to him. His political activity “conscientising people” soon led to his being transferred from UCT to what he calls “that great university, Robben Island”. He began his prison term, under-standably enough, by wondering how a good God could possibly permit the suffering of which he was witness and victim. He ended it three years later having seen all around him powerful evidence of what he calls “the resilience of the human spirit”.

Ndungane’s experiences on Robben Island so strengthened his religious belief that he decided to follow family tradition and become a priest. On his release in 1966, he trained for the ministry in Alice. He has worked in parishes in the Western Cape and in England. While in England, he read for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology at King’s College, London, of which he is a fellow. He has published a considerable number of theological works on, for example, the Christian view of human rights and the concept of a “just war”. Before becoming Archbishop, he was the Bishop of Kimberley and Kuruman and, before that, principal of the Anglican Theological College in Umtata. Ndungane has a reputation for being an energetic and extremely effective church bureaucrat. He may not yet have a large reputation outside the church but he is a considerable figure in worldwide Anglicanism. He has, for example, twice been an Anglican representative to the Vatican. He will be one of the four chairmen of this year’s Lambeth Conference, the largest and most important of all Anglican meetings.

A faith born on Robben Island is difficult for the secular to comprehend or even to sympathise with, but it is at the very centre of Ndungane’s being. In the worldly milieu of South African politics, it also makes him an unfamiliar figure. Several commentators have noted that President Mandela responded to the Archbishop’s remarks on corruption and administrative inefficiency with extraordinary vehemence considering that the President has made similar comments himself. One suggested reason for this apparent over-reaction may be a suspicion that Ndungane, like Bishop Stanley Mogoba of the Methodist church, could be contem-plating a return to politics as a member of the PAC. Another is the notion that he may be intending to use his religious position to further the aims of a political organisation hostile to the ruling party — precisely the accusation made by the previous government against Archbishop Tutu.

A meeting with the Archbishop makes it clear that these are misapprehensions. “I have never regarded myself as a political animal. I stand for justice. I don’t take a particular political stance about how political parties, how party politicians interpret issues.” What he intends to be is a voice of conscience: “One seeks through the grace of God to be able to discern what to say. What we say will not be popular at all times. But we try under God to discern what is His mind and His will for a country at a particular time.”

Hardly surprisingly, some of what this powerful religious conscience says is, in fact, a modernised version of the optimistic, outward-looking stance of 1960s Pan-Africanism. For the Archbishop, Africanism is about insisting that Africa is a “nation among nations which has got a future in the order of God. We are a continent which is the cradle of humanity, and which has to make a contribution in the life of the world.” Africans need to “establish peaceful governments and peaceful countries” and to form an economic union to enable African busi-ness to compete more effectively in the world economy. The continent, he says, must cease to be “the begging basket of the world”.

In common with the worldwide Anglican hierarchy and other churches, he is a campaigner for the cancellation of the debt owed by the most impoverished African countries to the World Bank and to other development agencies. He does not see this as yet another appeal for charity, but as a simple matter of economic justice. A year ago he argued in an address at Southwark Cathedral in London that South Africa’s foreign and domestic debt, since it was incurred under the apartheid regime, “should be declared odious and written off”. But he is not inclined to be dogmatic. His views on South Africa’s debt have become much better informed in the last year, and he now suggests rather that the issue “needs to be looked into creatively”.

One aspect of Africanism on which the Archbishop will not be lured into comment is how his version of it differs from the ANC’s current interpretation of the creed. He completely avoids discussing the current South African politics of race. According to one of the Archbishiop’s senior colleagues, Ndungane’s Africanism has more to do with an inward and spiritual commitment to the future development of the continent than with the outward and visible head-counting common in South Africa. He is not particularly interested in the current antagonisms of the white and black middle classes. He condemns inefficiency and corruption wherever he finds them, and seeks to encourage ethical behaviour without overmuch reference to previous circumstances.

In a sermon last year he said, “We understand that there have been restraints on government. But enough is enough! Excuses do not provide housing and shelter. The time is past when we could glibly blame our apartheid past for problems of today. We have to be proactive. We need to do something about situations in which we find ourselves, and enlist the support and co-operation of the community.” His church is “called to address the civic and political leaders of the day urging them to be good stewards so that the corruption of which we have seen so much evidence is rooted out of our society”. As he puts it, “the whole question of values is one of the key issues that we have always to put before the eyes of the people. That there are human values. That what matters is what enhances the quality of the other person’s life.” His now famous anger about the way in which the Eastern Cape’s pensioners continue to be treated by the provincial government must be seen in this light. He was not scoring political points. He was thinking about people. “What we found inexcusable was the fact that the department knew that there was no money but they still let those old people come — pensioners — and stand in the sun and then be told there’s no money.”

Although he probably would not thank you for putting it this way, Archbishop Ndungane is much more interested in class than in race. “The eradication of poverty is a number one priority the world over. When I became Archbishop, I identified that as the key issue. This is the greatest legacy that we have inherited from apartheid. There can never be development, there can never be peace, there can never be stability in the world, in our country, as long as we don’t address this issue.” Asked what particular poverty alleviation mechanisms he has in mind for South Africa, he prefers, once again, not to be too specific. He cites William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War: “The duty of the church is to enunciate Christian principles and leave it to individuals to work out the practicalities.” He will be chairman of the hearings on poverty which have been convened by the South African Council of Churches, the Human Rights Commission, the South African NGO Coalition and Cosatu. At these, he hopes the voices of the poor themselves will be heard.

Despite his reticence, it is fairly clear where his own policy preferences lie. William Temple is an interesting choice of authority. Temple was on the left of the British politics of his time. Among the Christian principles which he enunciated was the nationalisation of all monopoly industries. Ndungane would not be so old-fashioned, but it is clear that his mind runs on similar interventionist, Keynes-ian, Christian socialist paths. He has suggested in his sermons a scheme for South Africa along the lines of the post-war Marshall plan of reconstruction for western Europe. Unlike the current government, he would not regard IMF orthodoxy — fiscal discipline and deficit-cutting — as the only possible economic policy.

What sort of relationship, then, does Njongonkulu Ndungane think the Anglican church ought to have with the government? The policy which he has adopted goes by the name of “critical solidarity”. This may have sounded falsely reassuring in official ears. According to Ndungane, when he meets ministers, they tend to say to him, “Archbishop, critical solidarity!”, with the accent very much on the latter word. Ndungane replies, “Of course,” even to the Minister of Defence, and proceeds to discuss with him the need to convert Armscor and Denel from military to civilian production and the desirability of releasing SANDF land for housing.

This is the “solidarity” part of the programme; a very demanding sort of solidarity. “Our benchmark is what fulfils justice by God’s standards. In spite of all the negatives we see around us, corruption, crime, violence, we’ve emerged from a baptism of fire. We now have a solid foundation, the elements for a sustainable democracy. We have a new constitution, we have a bill of rights, we have a constitutional court, we have a commission for human rights, we have a gender commission, we have a public protector. Our responsibility as society and as church is to ensure that those democratic principles are strengthened and enhanced. And so in terms of solidarity with government, we will move in the direction of entrenching democratic principles.”

The Anglican Archbishop, in other words, seeks to defend all the liberal features of the constitution. Once again, though, he goes further. His solidarity with the government extends to demanding that they fulfil all their delivery promises — with, of course, the enthusiastic help of the church. The government may very well wonder, if that is solidarity, what on earth could criticism from the Archbishop be? The answer is simple. “The critical part of it is if the government fails to deliver.”

Archbishop Ndungane lacks the extraversion, utter frankness and intense personal magnetism of his predecessor. He is reserved and bookish, well-read in church history and given to quoting important theologians — Karl Barth, Hans Kung, Reinhold Niebuhr — in his sermons and conversation. If he had been born in another time or place, it is easy to imagine him getting on with his theology, being an effective and compassionate priest. The political pressures that will inevitably be placed on him could cause him to subside into those roles. However, a faith created on Robben Island is very likely to withstand all the pressures that can be placed on Bishopscourt.