A great nation…?

There is a resounding line in today’s first reading from Genesis (12:2): “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

Reflecting on these words a few weeks away from the 20th anniversary of our national liberation, I recall what it was like to be South African in 1994. I remember the immigration official at Heathrow Airport in London (no visas needed then) looking at my passport and smiling: “Great country! Great job, your Mandela’s doing. And that De Klerk fellow is decent too.”

I remember the joy and excitement at the Mass of Thanksgiving at the Jesuit college chapel a few days after the elections (and, by the way, I was the only South African there). For the world, South Africa was the country that looked into the abyss of perpetual war and stepped back, saying “Hayibo/nee wat, peace is better.” To paraphrase Harry Potter we were the nation that lived.

What has happened since?

Maybe we suffered because of our shared tendency to take the Old Testament too literally: we, like biblical Israel, lost our way and were punished.  By ourselves.  By our actions.  And sometimes our failure to act.

We became arrogant in Africa, throwing our economic and political weight around like a village bully. At one point we invaded another country – Lesotho – for reasons (‘restoring democracy’) that were at best tenuous. Some of our businesses went on what we might call corporate raids around the continent, buying up large tranches of companies that we considered viable. The arrogance with which we did this was deeply embarrassing.

Given the prevalence of anti-United States rhetoric one hears from South Africans of every race, age and political persuasion, it is ironic when fellow Africans see South Africa as a new imperial power. Ironic, too, because at the same time many South Africans were also working throughout the continent in development projects: unseen, unheard and unsung, they were rebuilding infrastructure ravaged in former war-torn areas.

Back ‘home’, South Africans have become xenophobic and hostile to refugees and asylum-seekers, forgetting too quickly how so many of us had been exiles. In the words of radical economist Patrick Bond, we ‘talked left, walked right’ – professing our social democratic credentials as we became a state choked by crony capitalism and corruption.

Of course, nothing is inevitable, nothing irreparable. Failure can be turned around. Sins can be forgiven. Our nationhood can be renewed, as the Israelite prophetic tradition – symbolised by Moses and Elijah and in a particular way by Jesus – promised. We must, however, avoid being trapped in the past glories of the social transfiguration of 1994 and come down from that mountain to face the problems of today. We can become the great nation again, but to do it we must act against the self-destructive habits we’ve got into.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ
B.A. (Hons), M.A. (UCT), B.A. (Hons) (London), M.Div., S.T.L. (Weston), Ph.D. (Wits)

Fr Anthony Egan SJ has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand, where he currently teaches at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for Spotlight. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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