9 April, 2019

With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water?”

~ Numbers 21:4-5 ~

I must confess a certain sympathy with the Israelites here. I don’t blame them for feeling impatient with their wilderness wanderings. It reminds me a lot of our situation. In 1994 we really thought we’d arrived in the Promised Land, didn’t we? Yet in so many ways we are still muddling around in deserts, some the legacy of history and some of our own making. As we negotiate the hiccups and failures of democracy, I hear South Africans of every background sometime mutter: “It was better in the old days…”

I doubt that many really believe this. But the mistakes of policy, the tendency to blame failures on the past, and the growing stink of corruption in public life is enough to make even Moses blanch at times. Yet we should never, never imagine that the solution is a return to Egypt – whether under an old or a new pharaoh. Unlike the Israelites, we have an alternative: democracy.

As citizens of a democracy we have a right – a duty, Pope Francis reminds us – to vote for those who lead us. Parties offer us programmes and policies, and it is our duty to judge for ourselves what we consider best for us. We can choose to vote for the existing ruling party if we are happy with them; we can pressure the ruling party to change policies we don’t like and only then vote for them; or we can decide it’s time for someone new.

It’s a point of debate among political scientists: when does a society that undergoes democratisation (like South Africa) actually become a democracy? Some say that it’s when there have been four or five post-liberation elections. (If that’s so, we are now a ‘real democracy’). Others, and I tend to sympathise with this position, say that a real democracy is when the party of liberation loses an election and graciously hands over administration to the winner. If that’s the case, we may have to wait a bit…possibly until Jesus returns.

It’s a bit like the Israelites asking “When are we going to enter the promised land?”. In a sense they were already there when they crossed the Red Sea, but they couldn’t see it. Perhaps Moses could not see it either. But Joshua did. Do we have to wait for Joshua? Or will Moses regain his sense of direction?


Lord, let us never give up on democracy. Let us find our political bearings and enter our Promised Land, whoever may lead us. Amen.


Catholic Parliamentary

Liaison Office

Jesuit Institute
South Africa

Reflection prepared by and

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) 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. 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.africa. 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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Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ entered the Society of Jesus in 2005 and underwent the usual course of studies in his formation, which took him to such varied places as Canada, France, Ireland, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Whilst working at the Institute, Matthew managed the background technical aspects of much of the Institute's work and was involved in the Spirituality work, completing the Advanced Spiritual Directors Training Course and the Spiritual Exercises Training run by the Institute. He is a member of Spiritual Directors International and was also a part-time lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is currently the Director of Communications for the Jesuits in Southern Africa, based in Lusaka, Zambia.

m.charlesworth@jesuitinstitute.org.za @mcharlesworth
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