Gospel and Culture in South Africa: Preliminary Explorations

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Gospel and Culture in South Africa: 
Preliminary Explorations

Draft Paper for World Council of Churches’ 

Study Process on Gospel and Cultures1

10 June 1996


The Research Institute on Christianity in South Africa (RICSA) is located within the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town and has both academic and grassroots research focii. RICSA has begun to address some of the issues alluded to in the Study Process material, particularly in its School of Theology (a report of which is appended) in 1995. As a way of addressing its contribution to the Study Process, RICSA has approached several researchers associated with in the Department of Religious Studies who are engaged in specialized research relevant to the theme. These have suggested issues arising from their work which impact on Gospel and Culture in South Africa and they are presented here in terms of the three broad themes noted above.

The issue of Gospel and culture is shaped by particular contexts. The state of affairs in apartheid South Africa was of a minority culture trying to protect itself by promoting difference -- something very different from situations in other places where the majority threatens smaller groups. In South Africa, "culture" took on specific profile and attempts by apartheid social engineers to preserve heterogeneous "pure" cultures prevented people from interacting across boundaries and became an instrument of oppression. The particularity of culture in South Africa, therefore, needs to be given special attention. Hence this contribution begins with a clarification of the issue of culture in South Africa.

South Africa is emerging from 300 years of darkness, and South Africans are in the process of discovering each other, appreciating difference but also the joys of realizing commonality. They are learning how locality and identity can enrich the whole. It is the hope of the contributers to this report that reflection on the South African situation may help stimulate this important Study Process.

Multiple contexts in SA (or multiple sources of SA culture)

The terms "Gospel" and "culture" have always been contested in South Africa. In the name of "gospel" acts both of repression and liberation have been performed and legitimated. The assumption has been that there is a single Christian tradition which "we" stand in and which "they" deviate from, either ideologically or culturally. Likewise the term "culture" was under apartheid an injunction to separate rather than a call to unity (community). The assumption of many discrete cultures (each with a specific "community" and "polity") in South Africa has been problematized by scholars, especially within the discipline of social anthropology (see Thornton 1988). Indeed for many, nation-building this side of the new democratic order implies the creation of a common culture, a common sense of "South Africanness" (see Villa-Vicencio 1995).

An emerging South African culture has multiple sources: African indigenous, European and Asian; African traditional, Christian and Muslim. These sources, or traditions, must be understood as as mobile and dynamic rather than static; or, in the words of David Chidester (1992:1), "taken up as well as handed down". For three hundred years they have interacted in a mutually transformative way, providing resources for resistance and conquest, for dissent and domination. Any discussion of "culture", or "tradition" in the South African context, therefore, must eschew talk of reified and timeless entities with sacrosanct boundaries which once violated cease to exist.

The term "Christianity" must also be recognized as dynamic, plural and contested. Though originally clothed in European garb, Christianity is in a process of "naturalization" in South Africa. No longer do settler, mission and indigenous groups exist as discrete elements — though as the rest of this report will make clear, the emergence of a distinctive "South African Christianity" also struggles against the burdens of history.

A number of issues emerge around the issue of Gospel and Culture in South Africa. Perhaps these may be organized into three broad subsets:

1. Multiple identities. How are multiple denominational, national, racial, class and gender identities held together? Does one have to choose between "being African„ and "being Anglican„ (or for that matter, "being Christian" at all)? How does "being a woman" impact on "being African"? How does the sense of identity as a Black woman differ from that of a white woman, especially in terms of social location?

Does a "Christian" identity make any difference in integrating other identities? An affirmative answer to this, while theologically necessary, is problematized by the crisis of the ecumenical movement faces in South Africa. How do European-originated denominations relate ecumenically to African Initiated Churches? What about "African identity" in the mission churches and how do perceptions of Africanness relate? Is it simply a matter of one taking indigenous traditions more seriously? Finally, what does all this mean in terms of "becoming South African" — a member of that popularly imagined "rainbow people of God"?

2. Traditional practices. How does Christianity relate to African traditional practices and rituals? Is there a conflict of "religions" or worldviews implied in the very term "African Christianity"? And more importantly, is there a sense in which the indigenization of Christianity is also its transformation? (ie that the transformative relationship is not only "Christ transforms culture" but "culture transforms Christ"? Are there evaluative criteria which held in deciding which practices so transform Christianity that it loses touch with its historical roots, with its expression in other (ie non-South African) contexts?

3. Modernity and beyond. The other side of this is of course the relation between the culture of modernity, Christianity, and African traditional culture. One issue which is especially important is SA's challenge to (1) develop its economy to provide employement and (2) ensure a safe and habitable environment for future generations. This is not only an issue in which the myths on which modernity is founded (Prometheus, culture against nature, male against female, etc) are called into question, but also the resources available within traditional cosmologies for new understandings of the relation between humans and the environment (and whether these are appropriate within contemporary industrial society). In fact, the whole (in both senses of that word!) question is about how "environment" is to be defined.

Multple identities, multiple contexts

Mapping South African Christianities

The Christian church is a community that has the potential to unite across racial, ethnic and gender boundaries, thereby modelling a new community for the new nation. However, in its diversity South African Christianity reflects the multiple sources and resources within South African culture mentioned above, as well as the boundaries they have created. Historically the various ways Christianity took root in South African soil produced different "styles" or "ethos’s" of Christianity, "mission", "settler" and "indigenous" (see de Gruchy 1995; Villa-Vicencio 1995; Kiernan 1995); ideologically there have been "church", "state" and "prophetic" theologies (see the Kairos Theologians 1985) — theologies that may or may not parallel the "styles" mentioned.

Christianity has also been divided ethnically, as in the case of the Afrikaner NGK and its mission "daughter" churches. While most churches have at least in principle been open to all races, it has been part of the practice of South African mainline churches that persons are excluded from visible leadership positions on the basis of race. (And not only race. It was nearly a hundred years before the Church of the Province of Southern Africa elected a South African born Archbishop, and only years after that a black Archbishop.)

While Christianity came to South Africa in its European forms, a number of specifically South African forms have evolved within the dynamics of the country. The most well-know of these are the African Initiated (formerly "Ethiopian" and "Zionist") Churches. Sometimes a European denominational identity has merged with an African polity to create a separatist tribal church. Comity agreements amongst missionaries tended to make tribal boundaries into denominational boundaries, creating de facto "state" churches where denominational and ethnic identity are difficult if not impossible to disentangle. While this may have hearkened back to the ties between European national churches and states, it also reflects African holism which eschews the compartmentalization of religion and politics.

For many scholars, especially on the left, these "new" churches were really assertions of African traditionalism or proto-nationalism over against Colonialism, using the language and discourse of religion because an overtly political discourse would have been dangerous. (Ironically these scholars were agreeing with the colonial officials who sought to ban so-called "Ethiopian" churches in the early part of the century.) More recent scholarship, however, recognizes these churches as religious movements in their own right, with rich symbolic and spiritual resources contributing to the "naturalization" of Christianity in South Africa (Bredenkamp & Ross 1995; Ranger 1986).

Black theologians, having treated the topic of African culture with suspicion during apartheid days, are now turning to indigenous traditions to create a new theological profile for a new society (see Pityana 1994; Moore 1994). Indeed, this is part of a fresh movement on the part of some theologians to take the popular Christianity of black townships as source of theology (see Cochrane 1994). The interest in Africanization is not confined to black Christians desiring a more "authentic" style that reflects African cultural practices. At RICSA's School of Theology in 1995, by far the most popular workshop among whites present was that on the Africanization of liturgy and spirituality. And perhaps ironically, strong resistance to Africanization remains an issue in black-dominated congregations of euro-denominations. Western forms carry more status, and sustain boundaries between euro-denominations and AICs, especially Zionist churches. Two examples of this will follow below.

Gender, Ethnicity and Difference

In South Africa there are many religio-cultural issues that are equally relevant to women and men. In other words there are situations where "blackness" or "Zuluness" or "Afrikanerness" or "poverty" supercede the issue of gender in the Gospel-culture relationship. This caveat aside, there are certain issues in these matters specifically related to gender.

There is no such thing as a stereotypical "South African woman". Women in South Africa may be found in numerous situations from the rural, illiterate subsistance farmer to that of the urbanized, educated business executive. In between there is a vast range, embracing the spectrum of socio-economic, educational, cultural and ethnic factors. The complexity of the situation is increased by the fact that at every level South Africa is a country in transition. Boundaries are under constant renegotiation and the popular image of the "Rainbow nation" suggests a coming together of diversities into new unities. In what follows, some of the issues which emerge when the relationship of Christ and culture is examined in South Africa are noted.


  • Metaphors traditionally used to describe the person and work of Christ need to be scrutinized. As an example, tens of thousands of South African women are employed as domestic workers, often involving low wages and appalling living and working conditions. In the past, apartheid influx controls forced many to serve as surrogate mothers to white children while their own children were raised by other family members (usually grandmothers). For the many women who have suffered under this system, the images of Christ as surrogate victim and suffering servant are inadequate and even oppressive. Communicators of the gospel are challenged to find alternative metaphors for the person and work of Christ in these situations. American Womanist theology provides some interesting resources here. What if Christ were to be reimaged as a contemporary African (or Afrikaans or English-speaking) woman? What forms would her suffering take? What would bring her joy? What issues in culture, society or religion might she challenge?

  • While culture can be empowering, it can also be disempowering and must be criticised from the perspective of the gospel. Most South African women come from backgrounds of entrenched patriarchy, for example from Afrikaans or African traditions. The issue of self esteem arises here; for the gospel must assure women that they are loved in their own right, as creatures of God not simply in relation to significant men in their lives. This is an especially sensitive issue in relation to African traditions where women are seen primarily as child-bearers. Empowering in this context means that communicators of the gospel must positively engage in providing skills which allow women alternative opportunities for fulfillment.

  • Womens organizations illustrate the paradoxical relations between black and white women in South Africa. Within the Methodist denomination, for example, many attempts have been made to bring Manyano and Womens Auxiliary groups together. None have been successful. One of the stumbling blocks is the distinctive red, black and white uniform worn proudly by black women on their way to their weekly Manyano meeting. (Interestingly this dynamic also applies to other socio-cultural and religious groupings). The uniform functions to confer status on persons who, often the poorest of the poor, have no other status in society. This illustrates the dialectic between coming together across cultural or racial boundaries and remaining apart for the sake of retaining identity.

Traditional practices and Christianity

Christianity is by nature an incarnational religion. It never appears apart from a cultural web of symbols and practices. Sometimes the web is spun so tight that Christianity is identified with its host culture's good and bad aspects. In the case of South Africa this problem is exasperated by the fact that the culture that brought Christianity was also a culture which exerted tremendous power. Empowerment necessitated not only becoming a Christian, but adopting its European garb. The fact that Christianity continues to be identified with Europe perpetuates a number of dualisms especially in relation to the indigenous ethos and cultural practices.

  • Healing and medicine. Perhaps few things better demonstrate worldview differences than understandings of health and healing. When missionaries came to Africa, they imposed a western understanding of sickness and its causes and marginalized those who continued to appeal to indigenous understandings. Today western ways of understanding wholeness and health are taken for granted within African churches. They are accepted without question, and even assumed to be "Christian". However indigenous medicines are viewed with suspicion. Those who avail themselves of traditional healers are disciplined by churches, forcing them to go "by night". This creates hypocrisy, a kind of dualism in which one is African and Christian, rather than a Christian African (or African Christian). And yet in many ways the indigenous understanding of health and wholeness is closer to the Gospel traditions than that of the west which separates physical from spiritual and communal dimensions.

  • Liturgy. The practice of singing in churches has been transformed both through the development of an indigenous hymnody (starting with Ntsikama and Tiyo Soga) in the missionary churches and through the development of indigenous choruses (short, pithy songs repreated over and over) in the African Initiated Churches. When these choruses are sung in so-called "mainline" churches, they take on a special power and express a sense of common Africanness with those in different ecclesial institutions. This is not so, however, with symbols. Established churches continue to use vestments and symbols more reflective of Europe than Africa. Within the Anglo-Catholic churches the veneration of African saints (except for Augustine, of course) is rare. Again the cues seem to be given from Rome or Canturbury about who are to be honoured as spiritual forefathers or mothers.

  • Rites of passage. Even in the secularized western world, the church continues to have a privileged position in terms of administering rites of passage. But in South Africa, churches are ambivalent about these rites. This is another legacy of missionary condemnation of what was considered strange and "other", and fosters the same dualism noted above under health and healing practices. If however life as a whole is the sphere of the Gospel, then such practices cannot be defined as outside its ambit.

The Culture of Modernity

The Study Process has identified as one of its interests the relationship between local and global forces. Southern Africa, like other contexts in the two-thirds world, has felt the impact of that global force called modernity (understood as the socio-cultural matrix that with its attendant ideologies that has dominated Europe and North America since the Enlightenment) and its missionary arm, colonialism. The people of the southern Africa people have responded in varying ways, shaping and creating different kinds of local communities -- including ecclesial communities.

Modernity has had a profound influence on the lifestyle and cultural values of the people of the South. In many cases it was Christian missionaries who were the promoters of modernity, leading to an incipient connection between modernity and Christianity in the minds of the colonized and missionized. As noted above, for many Africans "being Christian" and "being modern" are of a piece. The recognition of this captivity by some indigenous Christians led to the development of African Initiated Churches and African theology as attempts to counter modernity with a renewed, "Africanized" understanding of Christianity.

Christian theology in South Africa needs to take note of this heritage which has impacted so profoundly on the history of the country. Especially in light of the South African situation, now understood as that of a developing rather than a "first world" country, those values of modernity which can be affirmed as compatible with the Gospel must be separated from those which are destructive. In particular:

  • the promotion of values and lifestyles of the western world as the ideal to be striven for and the measure by which societies are to be evaluated. This is often expressed through the description of societies either as "developed", underdeveloped or "developing". While the need for the transformation of society and with it the eradication of poverty is to be affirmed, the goal of such a transformation must be the establishment of a just and equitable human society within the context of a flourishing creation.

  • the rejection of traditions and norms of non-western cultures as "primitive" and therefore valueless. Attempts must be made to recover those non-western, non-modern values which are compatible with the gospel. In the African context, these would include communalism and holism. These values are a significant correction to the individualism and dualism of modernity.

  • the promotion of the consumer society, in which a person's worth and meaning is determined by the quantity of his or her possessions. This can only be done when the members of the elite self-consciously reject a consumeristic lifestyle and commit themselves to a lifestyle which promotes the welfare of all humanity and the integrity of creation. The church needs to promote the gospel demand of costly discipleship for the rich at the same time as it seeks to empower and transform the life of the poor.

It is important to recognize that the specific ways local communities have responded to modernity in South Africa are not simply reactions of merely local significance. They may also have global import. For instance:

  • It has been said that democracy is "the polity of modernity" (de Gruchy 1995). Yet democracy is not tied to modernity, even though the decline of modernity in the west has gone hand in hand with the crisis of democracy. In South Africa, the denial of basic democratic rights to the majority resulted in local democratic structures such as civic organizations, trade unions (and in some cases churches) acting as informal though legitimate representatives of people. With democracy now granted on a national scale, the promotion of a democratic culture at grassroots levels is now a key challenge. This involves the mobilization of symbolic resources within churches, temples and mosques, as well as African traditional resources which hi-light the importance of consultation, and is one crucial area where Gospel impacts on culture.

 At the same time, few North Americans and Europeans who saw images of South Africans lining up for miles to vote on 27 April 1994 could evade a sense of rebuke at how lightly democracy is taken in the west. Could it be that the local will impact the global in the way that missiologist Orlando Costas (1982) envisioned the centre being evangelized by the periphery?

  • The modern state, after whose image many states in the Two-Thirds world are made, is characterized by "secularity". That is, it refuses to sanction any particular religion or religious movement as priviledged. South Africa is now a "secular state", but perhaps in a way different from many modern states. At a conference co-sponsored by RICSA and Justice in Transition in November 1995, Frank Chikane raised the issue of whether "the secular state" wasn’t another import from the west, inappropriate to Africa where the integrality of religion makes "secularity" meaningless. Charles Villa-Vicencio noted that it was in fact the co-operation of different religious groups (Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, African traditionalists) in resisting apartheid that created the space for a secular state that, rather than exclude religions from the public sphere, included them without priviledging any one. This was perhaps exemplified best in President Mandela’s inauguration where specific religions were allowed to invoke their respective deities, rather than a more generic "civil religion" its deistic God. Not only does this relate to the Study Process’ issue of Christian distinctiveness, but also represents what John de Gruchy (1994) termed the world’s first postmodern inauguration.


The Study Process sponsored by the World Council of Churches is therefore timely for South Africa. Many questions are live in debates about Gospel and culture. Authentic witness is an issue not only in inculturation within African traditional settings, but also in transforming the culture of modernity in light of South African experiences. At the same time, elements of traditional and modern culture that repress rather than express human dignity need the healing judgement of the gospel. Likewise the focus of identity in community in the light of the gospel both frees the particular to be particular, yet relates it to a transcendent identity which builds bridges and creates new kinds of commonality. This is, as Charles Villa-Vicencio has shown, the crucial South African challenge. The focus on local congregations in pluralist societies helpfully hi-lights yet another aspect of the South African challenge: how to empower local churches which not only have different identities present in them, but different experiences (some on the side of the old regime, others as its victims). Here the local church can mobilize cultural resources in becoming a community of reconciliation. Finally, the focus on one Gospel, many expressions frees the local to contribute to and enrich the global.

It is our hope that some of the issues as they are incarnate in South Africa will make a contribution to the whole process.

Co-written by David Field, John de Gruchy, Lyn Holness, James Tengatenga, Stephen Martin, Malinge Njeza. Facilitator and Editor: Stephen Martin.



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