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Lessons in reconciliation from South Africa

Lessons in reconciliation from South Africa

TAMPA – When popular anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani was shot to death in 1993, South Africa was at a delicate stage in negotiations toward reconciliation, and the movement could have stalled without the intervention of Nelson Mandela, Rev. Roger Scholtz told a gathering Sunday at Hyde Park UMC.

Hani’s assassination set off a powder keg of emotions that easily could have erupted into violence if Mandela had not made a national appeal to use the killing as a way to affirm Hani’s desire for peace, said Scholtz, a pastor in the Methodist Church of South Africa and a biblical studies professor at Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary, who is visiting Florida this week.

In a talk titled “Be Reconciled: Lessons from South Africa,” Scholtz described how Hani’s death proved to be a turning point that propelled negotiations for South Africa’s first multiracial election.

The effort was one of many times Mandela, whose death last month set off commemoration ceremonies across the world, would bridge the divide between blacks and whites.

Rev. Roger Scholtz headshot
Rev. Roger Scholtz

The South African experience occurs half a world away. But the lessons can easily apply to the shifting demographics of Florida, said Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, director of Connectional Ministries for the Florida Conference.

“Many lessons that South Africa has learned and is learning are lessons that we need to learn,” said Austin, who also spoke at the gathering.

“Here in Florida, we are a church that represents a growing disparity between the racial, ethnic makeup of this state and the average member in The United Methodist Church. … The capacity that Nelson Mandela had and that others have -- to fling their arms wide and embrace the world and see differences as something other than pejorative -- is unfortunately an ability that too few have.”

Scholtz is a native of South Africa who interviewed Mandela in 2008, almost a decade after the famous leader stepped down as the country’s first black president.

Highlights of Mandela’s efforts to cross the racial divide included a visit to Betsie Verwoerd, widow of H.F. Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, shortly after Mandela’s 1994 election. The following year, Mandela wore the colors of South Africa’s Springboks team at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, inspiring the cheers of 65,000 white rugby fans.

The path to reconciliation in South Africa was long, painful and difficult, said Scholtz, a member of the Doctrine, Ethics and Worship Committee of South Africa’s Methodist Church. It required telling the truth, including people in the conversation that some wished to exclude and acknowledging wrongdoings of the past.

“The pain of the past cannot just be brushed aside,” Scholtz said.

He listed another lesson: “There is pretty much more to everything than meets the eye. We kid ourselves if we think we truly see people for who they are.”

And when it comes to the efforts of Mandela and American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Scholtz added, “We kid ourselves if we think the work that they started is finished.”

"Even when our beliefs differ, it doesn't mean that we can't hold them in ways that honor Christ. Of course, that can't be possible if you aren't actually at the table together."

-- Rev. Roger Scholtz

Austin agreed that the work begun by Mandela and King is far from completed, but she said there’s an ongoing effort to include a wider diversity of voices in conversations within the Florida Conference. She believes that’s critical.

“If we don’t come to the table, either because we believe our Christian convictions or social upbringing -- whatever it is – is such that we shouldn’t even come together for a dialogue, I think that’s a missed opportunity that will, in fact, plague us for years,” Austin said.

From a practical standpoint, the Florida Conference can learn from the reconciliation experiences in South Africa by reframing the way it makes decisions about resources and appointments, Austin said.

For instance, the conference has launched a Young Clergy of Color Initiative intended to look at ways to grant leadership opportunities among clergy of color and to appreciate the value that they bring to the church, Austin said.

The church also needs to consider that, when thinking about new places of worship for new people, those new places might be right in the heart of existing congregations, she added.

Many churches that are challenged to have vital congregations today are continuing to reach out to people that surrounded the church 50 years ago, instead of those who are living there now, Austin said.

Scholtz said Christians sometimes ask, “Who holds the right beliefs?”

He thinks a better question might be “Who holds their beliefs in the right way?”

“Whatever you believe, if you hold it in ways that are arrogant, judgmental and domineering, you’ll be nothing of Jesus in those beliefs – I don’t care what those beliefs are,” Scholtz said.

"Even when our beliefs differ, it doesn’t mean that we can’t hold them in ways that honor Christ. Of course, that can’t be possible if you aren’t actually at the table together.”

-- B.C. Manion is a freelance writer based in Tampa.