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Faith and Courage: Praying with Mandela, by Thabo Makgoba 

23 August 2019

John D. Davies on faith under apartheid and at Mandela’s bedside

DESPITE its sub-title, this book is not just another product of the post-Mandela industry. Our illustrious ex-President is indeed present, as the creator of the book’s environment and its circumstance; but what we have here is essentially a life-story of the present Archbishop of Cape Town (News, 28 June) — that’s obvious from the good photographs included. Mandela himself does not come on to the stage until the second half of the book. None the less, of all the books generated in the legacy of Mandela, this is the one that I will most cherish and retain.

This is for three main reasons. First, it tells vividly of the author’s childhood in the lively but cruel conditions of Alexandra, the black township in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. His father was a grandson of a ruling dynasty of sePedi-speaking people of the northern area of South Africa. A pastor in the Zion Christian Church (the largest of the Independent African Churches), with his four wives he provided a complex but dedicated family for Thabo to be born into in 1960.

In the midst of gang warfare and police harassment, his son received a schooling that was dedicated and stabilising; through it, the young Thabo was drawn into the flourishing Anglican church in Alex, and was baptised. During his youth and adolescence, he experienced the daily cruelties and structural injustice that the apartheid system was inflicting. He became deeply involved in student politics. He committed himself to the African National Congress, and seriously considered joining its military wing.

At the same time, his sense of Christian vocation deepened. He became leader of the racially inclusive Anglican Students’ Federation, which enabled him to cross the formidable boundaries of the apartheid system and meet white students in equality as friends. And so he became a priest and an academic scientist.

My second reason for valuing this book is the example that Thabo Makgoba, now called to serve as Archbishop of Cape Town, has been giving of “speaking the truth to power”. Inheriting the tradition set by his predecessors, especially by Desmond Tutu, he addresses sharply and creatively the disorders of his society. But now it is not the injustices of an alien or racist authority which he has to contend with: it is the grievances against corrupt politicians within the ANC, within his own people, that claim his discernment and critique.

President Jacob Zuma (centre) with the Archbishop (right) when he visited Bishopscourt, Cape Town, after his election in 2009. From the book

The appendices of the book contain several of his speeches and addresses, mostly in church contexts where, in the manner of Martin Luther King, he relates gospel values to the disorders that still impoverish many of his fellow-citizens.

My final reason for commending this book is at the heart of its message, reflected in the book’s subtitle, Praying with Mandela. In the former President’s last years, Makgoba became almost a personal chaplain, particularly at the request of Mandela’s dedicated wife, Graça Machel.

So the book contains several of the prayers that the Archbishop composed, particularly during Mandela’s terminal illness and at his death. In their spiritual awareness, their theological depth, their claiming of liturgical phrasing, their situational immediacy, their personal sensitivity, and, indeed, in their length, these prayers stand well in the tradition of the prayers of great spiritual authors of past centuries. Any pastor who is called to pray with people who are near to dying, or who are bereaved, or at funerals, would do well to ponder these prayers, and mine them as a God-given resource.

As a spirit deeply formed and immersed in a community of people who were treated as rubbish by the system in power, and who know what it is like to be on the wrong side of the law; as a voice encouraging organisations to reclaim their vision and to fulfil their ideals; and as a humble Christian claimed by Christ’s gospel of death and resurrection, Makgoba is clearly a blessing to our Church in South Africa. But he is also leader of the design team for next year’s Lambeth Conference. So we shall see him as a treasure for the whole international Christian movement. His book gives us some hope for this lumbering old enterprise.

The Rt Revd John D. Davies was a mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa from 1956 to 1970. He was National Chaplain for the Anglican Students’ Federation, and a regular visiting priest at the Anglican church in Alexandra Township, Johannesburg.

Faith and Courage: Praying with Mandela
Thabo Makgoba
SPCK £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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