Thursday, December 24, 2009

Journeying for Justice - Stories of an ongoing faith-based struggle

Journeying for Justice – Stories of an ongoing faith-based struggle”, compiled by the PACSA 30th anniversary Collective, Cluster Publications and Jive Media, Pietermaritzburg, 2009, 144pp
It is undoubtedly the case that the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (PACSA) was, and perhaps still is, a highly significant organisation, in the life of Pietermaritzburg and the surrounding areas of that city. The book correctly locates the beginnings of the organisation within the context of a developing Black Consciousness ideology in the 1970s. The major premise on which it was formed was to start a white organisation, which would set about “converting” white people – or rather to win them over to a more democratic frame of political consciousness.

Now, whether it actually ever really did that, is difficult to tell. The book does not deal with the question directly, but rather suggests that although that may have been the impetus for its beginnings as an organisation, it soon found itself pulled into the whirlpool of broader political involvement in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.

At the same time, the book (and I would understand here that the book comes from the organisation itself) also seems to give the impression that the issue of white “conversion” was so vast and so impossible a task, that perhaps it would be true to say that not even PACSA itself believed that achieving this was ever a real possibility – certainly not to the extent which would have been needed to change the outcome of a whites only election.

What happened, and what is engagingly documented in the book, is a range of information dissemination - “Factsheets” - which provided white people (and indeed anyone else) with the kind of information they would not get easily elsewhere (because of draconian government restrictions at the time, on the media).

Another way in which PACSA sought to create solidarity around the cause of liberation was through “Agape” (fellowship) meals. These were Ecumenical quasi-Eucharistic events in which like-minded people could come together to affirm each other and to share bread and drink in a meal of fellowship. These, apparently died away after a while – but their significance in creating a committed community of like-minded and mutually supported individuals seems hard to overestimate.

Having lived in Pietermaritzburg during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, I knew many of the personalities featured in this book. I never involved myself very directly in the work of PACSA, because I was, in fact, working underground for the African National Congress. And this was the problem: For me to have been an active member of PACSA would have unnecessarily exposed the work I was doing elsewhere to the security police, so I could not. Pietermaritzburg was, however, an extremely small place and whites involved in the struggle at any level were few and far between – so we all knew each other fairly well – and I am sure the security police knew all of us too!

This is one of the features of the organisation which the book does not deal with adequately, in my opinion. I suppose it is understandable in what amounts to a commemorative publication. But the fact is, PACSA also had its problems. It was a small organisation. Its connection to the liberation movements was somewhat idiosyncratic at times. It was, or at least appeared to be, a church organisation, but it seemed to operate almost like a political organisation – taking orders from no-one. This made it fairly unpredictable on the one hand and on the other, sometimes much too close to some of the highly problematic positions taken by the Heads of Churches , at the time.

Let me say immediately that Peter Kerchhoff, founder and major driver of PACSA between 1978-99, was a man I admire greatly. I have said so elsewhere and I have no hesitation in saying so again now. But he did not function politically. He functioned, 99% of the time, from his heart. And that could be extremely difficult, every now and again, from a political perspective.

This aspect, the book does not deal with. It is, of course, part of the bigger issue of the relationship between the Church as a whole and the struggle for liberation. That there was a relationship, is obvious. That the Liberation movements needed the Church, is also obvious. What is not so obvious is how timid the Liberation movements were in the presence of the churches, on the one hand, and how difficult it was, from within the Liberation movements to work with them, because of their almost total lack of strategy and accountability. PACSA seems to me to have fallen, frequently, between these two stools of church accountability and political responsibility.

Bar that point – and I would say it is a fairly significant point – the book is well worth having, if one is either interested in the period, of if you lived through it. It certainly brings us now, to a point of anamnēsis - “remembering”. A remembering beyond nostalgia. A remembering which takes the lessons of the past to be used in the present, in order to change the future. PACSA certainly did that when I was living in Pietermaritzburg. I understand that it continued to do so on a range of issues, including Land and Gender, after I had left. I have no doubt it will continue into the future.

The question for me is always going to be – to what extent is an organisation an extension of the Church, sometimes at its most difficult and its most reactionary and to what extent is PACSA prophetic to both Church and society. Because I am fairly certain the latter is what the organisation wants to be.

Which makes me wonder why such an important issue was, seemingly, avoided in this book.

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