8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on Holy Ground
Dimensions of an African Assembly
The setting challenged, disturbed, inspired, by Hugh McCullum

What the assembly did

* called for a special WCC focus on Africa at the beginning of the 21st century;

* expressed support for WCC member churches in Africa as they work to create a just society, to "overcome the scourge of HIV/AIDS", and to establish "appropriate ethical values in work, governance and management";

* urged member churches to work through their governments and United Nations' organizations to encourage respect for human rights, promotion of an alternative economic order, debt relief, reductions in the arms trade and peace with justice in the Sudan, the Great Lakes region and other areas of conflict;

* approved a background paper on Sudan, outlining the history of the present conflict and of WCC peace initiatives and supporting ongoing peacemaking efforts by the Sudan Ecumenical Forum and the Inter-Governmental Agency for Development.

It was an African assembly first and foremost. Bewildering, chaotic, colourful, rich with spirituality and that mystical African gentility and humility so difficult for the Western mind to grasp.

The rains came. That made for soggy, muddy pathways through a University of Zimbabwe campus green with growth and splashed with African colours. Rains are so critical in Africa where droughts too often destroy the continent's development. For visitors, the daily deluges and spectacular thunderstorms may have been a nuisance; for Africans they meant life.

Drums throbbed, mbiras hummed and there was a kind of infectious happiness that comes from a spirituality and culture that defy the more cerebral Northern sense of order and logic.

Local sellers soon added their own blend of colour to the campus
Photo by Joan Cambitsis

Writing in the eighth assembly newspaper Jubilee, Noel Bruyns of South Africa described the "otherness" of African spirituality and the misconceptions of Europeans who thought Africans had no spirituality because there were few outward symbols.

Mercy Oduyoye of Ghana told about the Creator God of Many Names whom her ancestors knew long before the missionaries came; and Barney Pityana of South Africa said, "We have only known God in the people of our everyday experience... the entire activity of the people, their very being was a devotion to the deity who was the Creator."

The traditional soul of Africa reflects an innate spirituality and holiness.

But also for all to see at this strange assembly in Zimbabwe were Africa's massive contradictions and a sense of near desperation at its marginalization, its horrible wars and epidemics, corruption and desecration of fundamental human rights.

The genocide of 1994 in Rwanda -- considered to be the most Christian country on the continent -- threatens now to engulf a third of Africa and destabilize much of the sub-continent.

The AIDS pandemic, in which the assembly's host country buries 1000 of its most productive men and women each week, causes fear and doubt and raises enormous questions about punishment and the anger of the ancestors for abandoning the old ways called ubuntu in southern Africa -- "I am human because of and through other humans."

The assembly, in many ways conceived and run on Western lines, with Western liberal values, clashed head-on with the reality of Africa, which boasts of its rapidly growing Christianity, the fastest in the world.

From the convoluted technology that faltered and fluctuated in technically backward conditions to the colonial legacies of rigid university and government bureaucracies, Geneva and co-opted staff struggled to change the WCC in a location where change is resisted and comes slowly. Technology and systems almost foundered before delegates ever arrived.

It is this technical and economic marginalization, coupled with stunted political institutions, that causes Christians from the North, burning with zeal to help and to be in solidarity with the poverty-stricken but immensely important continent, to express bewilderment at what their role should be.

Bearing in mind that Africa is not a homogeneous continent but a place of vast differences, take Zimbabwe, the host country, as a microcosm of post-colonial Africa.

After a long and vicious bush war, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980. Its potential, despite its racist history, was huge. Reconciliation was the watchword. Development aid poured in from churches and NGOs, moderate socialism prevailed, the land was rich and the infrastructure sound. Zimbabwe would be the powerhouse of southern Africa, since its big neighbour South Africa was still a pariah in most of the world, locked in the rigidities of the apartheid system.

Today Zimbabwe is in crisis. Its economy is in tatters. Its governance is autocratic at best, dictatorial and corrupt at worst. Its human rights record at home is poor and abroad it has taken the lead in the war in the Congo which threatens all of Central Africa. Zimbabweans have rioted and gone on strike against President Robert Mugabe and his unpopular ruling party. HIV/AIDS has struck so hard that Zimbabwe is now officially the most infected country in the world.

In the months leading up to the assembly Mugabe lashed out at the WCC for even considering allowing discussions of human sexuality in the Padare, and government media lambasted the churches for introducing Western "perversions" such as homosexuality.

But as Mugabe's popularity waned and the assembly grew in interest despite media censorship, the party line became muted and cabinet ministers lined up to support the largest event of its kind in the country's history. Despite this, Mugabe continued to attack all opposition, especially the trade unions. By the time the delegates arrived at Harare, the university had been officially closed for eight months, depriving students of badly-needed higher education, and a wide range of opposition political activity had been declared illegal, including the right to strike.

However, at 74 and with at least two more years until he faces elections, Mugabe remains a shrewd and effective politician. He took the assembly by storm, making a passionate appeal to participants to help to end what he termed "a global conspiracy against poor nations". He told a plenary session in which he was the only speaker that today's global order belongs to the "strong" and the "heartless" in a world dominated by "bullies".

Calling on the WCC's support -- and knowing its African agenda -- the president singled out the debt burden, unequal international trade, depressed commodity prices and speculation as factors wrecking the economies of poor African nations. He called on the WCC to be the conscience of the international community and challenged it to "lead in calling the world back to sane and human goals that edify God's image".

President Robert Mugabe made a stirring
address to an assembly plenary session

Photo by Chris Black/WCC
Click on the photo to order (ref. 7116-19a)

It was brilliant politics. Besieged at every turn and with a weak international image, the old liberation struggle leader reminded the WCC of its support for his country in the late 1970s and paid tribute to the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR).

He was featured in the assembly daily, top story in the government-controlled press and the next day allowed a small demonstration to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to proceed without a murmur.

It was only a few days later that the country's unions and human rights agencies pointed out to the assembly that it was meeting in a country under a semi-state of emergency and demanded that Mugabe's ban against the opposition be condemned.

When people riot against food prices in the next months, we hope the WCC will be here to protect us from the government's police and military thugs, said an NGO coalition leader.

Churches in Africa have a mixed history in fighting oppression. In South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and the former Rhodesia, the churches were and are courageous in combating oppression. But many churches in Rwanda and Burundi, for example, turned a blind eye to or even participated in those countries' genocides. The Zimbabwe churches, with the exception of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, are quiet in most cases and fail to lead the battle against poverty and corruption.

This participant couldn't resist dancing to
the music which greeted him outside the pleanry hall

Photo by Chris Black/WCC
Click on the photo to order (ref. 7120-19)

While the WCC may take pride in the growth of Christianity in Africa and, as general secretary Konrad Raiser has suggested, even place its future in Africa, some Christian leaders are less optimistic. They suggest the growth is wide but the depth shallow.

Christianity in Africa is too easily overcome by forces of ethnicity, patriarchy, corruption, hatred, political manipulation, racism, classism, regionalism and traditionalism, stated a Malawian theologian, Dr Augustine Musopole.

And Rev. Clement Janda, general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), warned of glorifying the growing church in Africa: "Where is the depth of the church? Why cannot people see each other in the face of Christ, but only ethnicity?"

Christians in Africa, said Janda, need the solidarity of the rest of the world in "eradicating poverty, establishing democracy, human rights and good systems of governance and finally setting standards for a moral universe".

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© 1999 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor