OPINION | Surely church has role to play in land reform

According to Nomalanga Mkhize christian churches in South Africa are preaching in relation to the land
According to Nomalanga Mkhize christian churches in South Africa are preaching in relation to the land
Image: Getty Images

The other day I was wondering what Christian churches in South Africa are preaching in relation to the land question and the demands for land reform.About 86% of South Africa’s population identifies with some Christian practice or denomination.

Even though there are so many diverse forms of Christianity, it can be assumed that every Sunday, the majority of the country observes the Sabbath.

During the struggle against apartheid, student Christian groups and some of the so-called mainline churches produced some of the most notable activists against the National Party regime.

Black Consciousness activists engaged black oppression through the theological, political and prophetic reading of black theology.

While I understand that for many Christians the church primarily plays a pastoral role, in South Africa the ‘church’ will always be stalked by its own history as a colonising force. Unlike in East and North Africa where Christianity was taken up voluntarily in the Middle Ages, in southern Africa, widespread Christian conversion occurred when people had lost their independence.

If we ask the question, “How was the land stolen?”, we can find in South Africa, the bloody role of the church. Thus the joke about Africans, after praying, being left with the Bible in their hands, while the coloniser had the land.

In South African history the first indigenous person to be baptised as a Christian was Krotoa, the young Goringhaicona Khoi girl taken by Jan van Riebeeck to be a servant in his household.

Krotoa’s uncle, Autshumato had running battles with the Dutch over land.

The May 13 1656 diary entry of Van Riebeeck records that Autshumato kept transgressing the boundaries of the new Dutch fort by grazing his cattle there, because he “maintained that the land of the Cape belonged to him and the Capemen”.

Autshumato would be imprisoned on Robben Island in 1659.

Thereafter, 200 years of war against San and Khoikhoi effectively destroyed their societies and by the 1790s they formed the basis of the first large group of converts living at mission stations.

Christian mission stations became one of the refuges for them against the brutal Dutch boers.

The same pattern was seen among amaXhosa who converted to Christianity in large numbers only in the 1850s after several wars with the colony, and the massive famine following the cattle killing.

It is intriguing that in the city of Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown, there is a rumour that where the Anglican cathedral stands in the centre of the city, was ubuhlanti (the kraal) of King Ndlambe who was expelled by Colonel John Graham in 1811.

Now, I do not know if it is true that the Grahamstown Cathedral was built right on top of the spiritual heart of Ndlambe’s land, what matters is that is the story amaXhosa of the area tell. In Xhosa oral memory, the sacred buhlanti was replaced by the hallowed cathedral of the colonists.

Well, of course the Grahamstown Anglican cathedral came to be a spiritual headquarters for Xhosa converts of later years.

It was a headquarters. The actual church for black Anglicans in then Grahamstown was St Phillip’s mission, in the township.

Racist segregation was practiced by the Grahamstown Anglican church throughout the apartheid years, only a few clergy and members protested these practices.

Many more whites in the colonial churches were very happy to enjoy the benefits of black oppression.

While it is clear that the state must take the leading role in dealing with land politically, surely many churches must audit themselves and deal with the lands and properties they own and how these came to be acquired.

Perhaps some of these properties can be given over for affordable housing for the urban working poor?

This is not to disrespect the sacred mandate of religious institutions. One is simply thinking about how this institution – complicit in colonial crimes – grapples with its own social meaning on the issue of land.