“Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.” Ephesians 5:11-14
One of the key themes in this Sunday’s reading is transparency. It is a theme dear to the many South Africans who remember the secrecy and lies of the Apartheid era. We lived then in an age of security legislation and state sponsored terror. In addition, freedom of speech was curtailed. The press was heavily censored; ideas were tightly controlled by censorship. Possession of certain political literature – from classic Marxist texts and pamphlets of banned political movements, to photographs of leaders like Nelson Mandela – could see you imprisoned for up to five years for each ‘illegal’ item.
Of course, Ephesians is not referring to possession of issues of African Communist or the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, but to practices and attitudes in first century society that were hostile to the Gospel message. These attitudes came from two sources: from the ideas and behaviour of non-Christians, including the Roman authorities, and from the early Christians themselves. The greatest temptation (not always overcome it should be said, hence the concern raised in the letter) was conformity to what Paul and early Christian leaders considered to be the immorality of the society.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that South Africans who saw our society in the past as immoral resisted the temptation to conform to the security state mentality. Lawyers used the law to expose injustice. Journalists, despite press censorship, tried to publish accounts of atrocity and injustice. A few courageous parliamentarians like Helen Suzman, working in the legislative ‘belly of the beast’, regularly invoked their parliamentary privilege to attack prison conditions and police repression. Religious leaders, invoking a higher law than the land’s, did the same.
After 1994, the TRC – created by an act of Parliament – did what was done before, but this time officially. Whatever one thinks of the effectiveness of the TRC in other respects, it sought to bring to light what the Apartheid regime had done in darkness: political assassinations, violent repression of resistance, harassment of activists, detention without trial and torture as a tool of state. It also revealed what many ‘comrades’ had done. In bringing light to the darkness, it repeated what Nelson Mandela had said at his inauguration: “Never again!”
When political leaders, journalists, lawyers, clergy, and now wider sectors in society, do the same today – when they protest new security legislation or attempts to gag the media from reporting on matters of public interest – those who lead South Africa should not be surprised. Nor should they complain about us being unpatriotic. We are doing what we’ve always done, our patriotic duty, producing light’s fruit. In a democracy we can – we must – do nothing less.