Poverty, Oppression and Freedom

“The people shall share the nation’s wealth.”  Really?

This optimistic slogan—painted post-apartheid—spanned a 20 metre bridge I recently crossed on the outskirts of Cape Town. Pastor Phumezo picks me up in his struggling 4WD from a comfortable Villa near the ocean and boutique shops, drives us toward Mandela Park Community Church.  This white Australian boy wasn’t quite prepared for where he was going: Kyelitsha.

Kyelitsha, Phumezo informed us, is a sprawling township of around two million people, second only to Soweto.  Seventy percent of people live in corrugated iron shacks, below a subsistence income of $250 USD per family per month.  The vast majority are unemployed.  Crime is at epic proportions.  Hospitals are almost nonexistent to support the 30 percent of residents with HIV/AIDS.

As we enter the township, rubbish lines the streets, and a few cars are overturned next to a pile of burning tyres.  Phumezo explains that this is the remnant of recent riots; locals protested the lack of basic services.  We skirt around the mayhem, and pass over this concrete bridge.  It mocks the people with its empty promise: “The people shall share the nation’s wealth.”  I later asked Phumezo’s congregants if this promise had come true.  I didn’t need the translator to interpret seventy Xhosa people shaking their heads.  How do we make sense of post-apartheid poverty?

Mandela is a hero in South Africa, and remembered for this struggle against the apartheid. But he was always a realist.  He recognized that “the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”  Further, he knew that abolishing political apartheid was not full freedom: “we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.”  In Mandela’s analysis, he left South Africa ready to take the “first step on a longer and even more difficult road.  For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”[1]

I suspect Mandela was not surprised that post-apartheid South Africa is no utopia.  The subsequent battles with
bureaucracy and crime are perhaps even more fierce than what went before.  That said, I wonder if the problem is deeper than even Mandela suggested.  Perhaps our predilection for labelling and segregating ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ in neat categories obscures the path to the deepest type of ‘freedom’?

As Miroslav Volf insightfully observes,

“The longer the conflict continues the more both parties find themselves sucked into the vortex of mutually reinforcing victimization, in which the one party appears more virtuous only because, being weaker, it has less opportunity to be cruel. … [The ‘oppression/liberation’ schema] betrays an ideological blindness because it fails to entertain the idea that when the victims become liberators, it is they, and not only the oppressors, who might need to change. … [L]iberators are known for not taking off their soldiers’ uniforms.”[2]

In other words, problems don’t go away with a change of administration.  ‘Apartheid’ is entrenched in the heart of each and every person.  “To live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others …” is the pressing need.  Yet the project flounders because “I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”[3] We are all broken, and we all break.  We were designed for good: to love God, love each other, and cultivate this garden planet.  Yet we’ve turned inward, self-righteously seeing the problem as ‘other’ than us.  We’ve despised and ignored our Creator, abused the other, and vandalized the world.  We have each missed the mark for which we were created.  We are radically segregated from God, each other, our planet, and even ourselves, blind to our “solidarity in sin.”[4]

So what am I suggesting?  Simply this: the first step toward respecting and enhancing the freedom of others, is to recognize that none of us are innocent.  We all share the blame for a world gone wrong.  We are all in need of forgiveness and redemption.  And as cliché as it sounds, the heart of the human problem truly is the problem of the human heart.  But who can ‘fix’ this?

I guess that’s why Phumezo and his parishioners will group together in their simple concrete shack this Christmas.  Amidst the squalour and empty promises of post-apartheid South Africa, they brim with hope.  For in recognizing their own brokenness, they can humbly accept the coming of a liberator born as a powerless baby out back in the shed.  As the only truly “innocent victim,” God-in-the-flesh willingly embraced our poverty as one of us, so that in His love all the nations may genuinely share in His Kingdom’s wealth.  And as these folks each enter this deeper freedom from sin, they walk beyond the apartheid of oppressor and oppressed, black and white, rich and poor, toward true reconciliation.

Dave Benson


[1] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Lancaster Place, London: Abacus, 1994), 751.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 103-4.

[3] Ibid, 124.

[4] Ibid, 84.

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