Religion, tolerance and violence: a conversation with Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

After speaking to religious leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba returned home intent on having similar discussions in South Africa, as well as probing the ambition of groups like Al Shabaab and Boko Haram that claim to act in the name of God. KHADIJA PATEL spoke to the Archbishop about religion, tolerance, violence and migration after he hosted one such discussion at the Wits Business School last month.

KP: When you are talking about the South African context, we do have a great degree of tolerance, although sometimes there are problems. Do you think this atmosphere of tolerance is endangered in South Africa?
AM: Yes, in the past crusaders did some things in the name of religion – just as Al Shabaab and these people are doing now – but people are getting scared of saying “let’s put this thing in the open and discuss why religion is easily used”. In the South African context, we still enjoy our relationship with the inter-religious schools but if we don’t raise these issues or create such forums that will lead to courageous conversations, we will have consequences of mistrust and lack of respect where people will easily go back to the ways of apartheid but along the lines of a religious conflict.

KP: So you think the answer is for us to be speaking to each other more?
AM: Yes, exactly, and I think even more than that, we need is a national conversation of values. What are the values that make us more respectful? What are the values that could make us more courageous?

KP: How then does religion play its part in creating or reasserting the value system?

AM: if you look at the top business women and men in South Africa, they are affiliated to one religion or the other. Top politicians in South Africa, they are affiliated to one religion or the other. Top unionists in the country and society, it’s either they are lapsed or affiliated to one religion or the other. So religion can act as that glue because religion exists for others and not for itself. So I think religion can be that bridge, that connects everybody. All religions are filled with love and care.

KP: You’ve already held one public discussion on religion and tolerance; did you learn anything new?
AM: What was most valuable is the need for us to have ongoing, courageous conversations. There is a lot of fear, and fear can be broken down if we sit eyeball to eyeball and discuss some of these things. I was fascinated when the Jewish Rabbi said, “We, within Judaism do not proselytise.” And then the response from a Muslim and Christian person was, “Well, we tell our story and people follow us.” If this was said in a different context, it could have been a controversy, but here it was said so lovingly and people could defend their positions without really getting at each other’s throats. So that’s what I’ve learnt – that talking together is very valuable. It doesn’t really have to be the religious leaders only, but the rest of South Africa needs to talk about the pain of the past; talk about what is happening currently. We need to talk about how we want South Africa to attain its destiny.

KP: Considering the pain of the past that still lives with many of us, and the fact that various different religions seem to have a conflict between them, how do we bridge that in order to have these discussions respectfully without having to get people too emotional? What needs to happen?
AM: It is a difficult question, but, for example, we had that space during our first public discussion and it was just to call forward volunteers who feel that they want to do something bigger than themselves for the sake of the country. The second one is to maybe start by choosing people who know the value of respect. Then the third one: don’t go there if you are afraid of conflict. Trust the ground rules that you are not here to fight but to hear different perspectives and different points of view. If we do these discussions regularly, I think we will get to a point where will give each other feedback without getting too personal. At the moment, I don’t think we know how to give and receive feedback properly.

KP: Is religion a pretext for violence?
AM: Yes, it is pretext. What we need to do is ask: “Why has religion been abused for violence and what are the sources of violence?” We need to ask questions that makes religion what it’s all about: compassion, care, love, mutuality, respect and celebration of difference.

KP: Considering what we have seen in the last few years – the raise of what’s been called a new atheism – how do you as a religious leader in South Africa respond to such arguments?
AM: I think, if you look at atheism, they have created another form of religion and even given it a name. What I want to call for is to look at the values that respect and celebrate the dignity of each person, the values that look at the safety of the environment or the planet, which is our only hope. As a religious leader, I have called for what I call “the new struggle”. I’m saying that we need to be full of courage and have a sense of mutuality as opposed to a violent society and we need to deal with the inequality of opportunities. I always ask :“What are limits of this freedom of speech and freedom of movement?” I’m sure there should be some. If religion is a source of creating that individualism and fear and lack of mutuality, we need to be speaking to religious leaders to say the new struggle is about courage, mutuality and about ending inequality. So whatever made people leave their form of worshipping, whatever practice the atheists would want to achieve, as long as they don’t kill and they respect each person, as long as they respect in terms of the Constitution, as long as there is respect and there is no killings, then we can work together.

KP: The Daily Vox has focused on the  xenophobic violence that we have seen erupt once more in South Africa, and I was at a discussion at Wits a couple of weeks ago where somebody actually asked: “What role can religious leaders in South Africa play in the fact of xenophobic sentiment in South Africa and the violence that it inspires?” How do you think religious leaders can play a part in combating xenophobic sentiments in South Africa?
AM: You need to love your neighbour as you love yourself – that’s very important. And to also go back to one of the values that was used during the dark days of apartheid, that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. On a practical level, I moved from Cape Town during the 2008 xenophobic attacks. As religious leaders we went to Alexander township and we walked the streets of Alex and we used our names and we went to every police station and visited all those that were displaced. By God’s grace, those attacks ended.

Now, recently, I was part of those that organised the march in Pretoria. We walked with the artists, the poets, the politicians and so on, in the streets of Pretoria. We were saying “not in the name of religion” because we are all created in the image of God.

I walked in the streets of Johannesburg up until Newtown and I addressed the masses in Pretoria saying that we should do away with the terms of “makwerekwere” (“foreigners”) because we are all God’s children. Just this Monday I was addressing the Pan African parliament in Midrand, again highlighting what are some of the things that make us undermine our fellow Africans as we celebrate Africa Day.

In Midrand again on Pentecost Sunday, I tried to look at the biblical tools that could make people not afrophobic and xenophobic. So those are the little things that as leaders, you step out of your normal comfort zone and walk in the streets. That could inspire people to not be xenophobic.

KP: What role then can religion play in the global migration crisis? 
AM: I think religion differs, let me make an example. Globally the world is facing a migration problem. Even the people who are religious in Europe have withdrawn patrolling at the Mediterranean Sea. A number of people through Libya are looking for greener pastures in Europe. As you know some have drowned and died in the Mediterranean Sea.

I think people have to ask tough questions on Africa Day like, “why are people leaving Africa in search for greener pastures and making themselves voluntary modern slaves and dying in the Mediterranean Sea”; and “Who are those leaders in other countries that are forcing people into a kind of slavery?”; but equally, “Why are some countries in Europe so primitive and so uncaring and not living up to the religious obligations that they ascribe to?”

Again in smaller countries like ours, we allow the poorest migrants to deal with migration issues instead of having proper policies that can deal with migration. For example, no one in America is a migrant and has to deal with what the migrants deal with in South Africa because there are clear migratory policies.

Maybe in the long term we need to effect policies, we need to effect laws that are people-centred and protect the poor migrant who does not have options. I can now picture Uganda with the migrants from Burundi, how will Uganda deal with it? Where are all the religious leaders?

I know that most of us will be doing charity work by giving them soup and bread, but no one will be asking the hard questions about migration as a whole. So I’m placing more questions about where we are on this global migration issue.

Transcribing by Zilungile Mnisi.

– Featured image: via World Economic Forum Flickr.

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