A Church with the Next Generation
Mike van Graan
Verantwoordelike Vernuwing

Thank you for the honour of the invitation to address this conference.  “A church with the next generation”.  That’s the theme that we are addressing at this conference, and I’ve been asked to reflect on this theme from the perspective of someone engaged in the arts, and in theatre in particular.

I often think that there are similarities between the theatre and the church.

Both are public spaces.  People attend these institutions to achieve some form of enlightenment, some form of spiritual, emotional and psychological catharsis.  Both the church and the theatre are rooted in particular social orders, and are called to engage with those realities, to play a prophetic role and to challenge where necessary.

But I also wonder about whether the church and the theatre in contemporary South Africa – as opposed to the roles that they played during the apartheid era – I wonder whether the church and the theatre have sold out their historical mission, that they have conformed to the new social order; that they give people what they want, rather than what they or society need; that they have become silent and forsaken their prophetic voices for fear of alienating the new kings in power, for fear of losing access to the material and social fleshpots that the new order dangles to those who conform.

In our theatre schools, we are taught that art mirrors society, that theatre reflects our social order back to itself so that in the mirror of the arts, we may see and celebrate how beautiful we have become, or be disgusted by just how ugly we still are, so that we may do something about it.

It was with this theme in mind that I wrote a play, Mirror, Mirror as part of an artist residency at UCT’s Drama School for the final year acting students last year.  Here were young people about to enter the world as actors, as artists, and I wanted to challenge them to think about their role.  The world into which we graduated was much starker; the injustices much more apparent so that the choices that artists made about the kind of art that they would do, were clearer. Now, there are many more possibilities – the lure of film, television, commercial theatre, international stages – the lure of fame and possible fortune for artists.

The play was about South Africa, and it was aimed at a young audience.  I knew that young people don’t want to be force-fed about apartheid, so I wrote the play as a fairytale, set in the time of the Wizard of Id, where a queen ruled the peasants with an iron-fist.  The peasants eventually overthrow the queen, and when they rule, they very soon reflect the same tyrannical excesses, the greed, the corruption and the abuse of the poor, as Queen Amanda.

Young people loved the play.  It was a parable about the society in which they lived; without mentioning the words black or white, they knew exactly what it was about. And they saw their lives, their fears, their anxieties reflected in the play, and it allowed them – through the satirical laughter – to cathart, and to feel affirmed.

One of the lessons to be drawn from this is about the way in which we communicate to young people – the challenge is to be creative in order to connect with them, rather than repeat the same boring ways in which we’ve always spoken – often down – to them – as articulated on the vox pops.  How does the Church, the theatre, communicate with a generation on Mixit, You Tube, Myspace, Facebook, many having their own blogs?

Reach young people, and reach their parents.  One of the interesting things about the Mirror, Mirror cast is that it included the son of one of our ambassadors and the daughter of a serving Cabinet Minister, who came to see the play as a result.  He didn’t like what the play was saying, but conceded that it was a message that he and his ruling party colleagues needed to hear.  “And to think that I have to hear this from my own daughter,” he said, shaking his head.


How relevant are we – not just in content, but also in form – are we – the church and the theatre – to the next generation?

But before we talk about being with the next generation, we have to ask, how relevant are we to the lives of this generation?

After the start of negotiations in the early nineties, and particularly after the country’s first non-racial elections in 1994, there was a feeling of uncertainty among theatre-makers: “what are we going to make theatre about now that apartheid has gone?”  As if the election of a democratic government and the adoption of a constitution based on human rights were the magic wands by which we attained the promised land, with theatre no longer having to concern itself with macro-political dramas in which ordinary people have bit parts.  So now we can get on with our happy clappy rainbow national musicals, our proudly South African, flag-waving, carefully demographically quota’d theatre, and our praise poems about people having electricity, running water, houses…and access to beetroot and garlic.

I wonder if that’s been the same with the Church, that after the era of apartheid in which the Church was a leading institution in the struggle against apartheid, proclaiming apartheid to be a theological heresy, taking up human rights issues at the highest international levels, now – post-1994 – believed that the promised land has arrived, and that they no longer need to play a prophetic role.  Interestingly, when someone like Archbishop Tutu raises his voice about something, he is told by the current rulers to stick to matters of the cloth, just as he was told by the apartheid regime.

About two years ago, the internationally-renowned journalist – John Pilger – wrote an article in the Sunday Independent about how the ANC government had failed the people of our country.

The next week, the Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel wrote an angry response, pointing out that in fact, 700 new health clinics had been built, there were 215 mobile clinics, the child support programme had 7 million new beneficiaries, water was provided to 10 million people, sanitation to more than 6 million, electricity to 16 million and more than 3 million hectares of land were redistributed to benefit about 700 000 households.”  This, then, is indeed a land of milk and honey, and there clearly is no longer a need for the prophetic voices of the church and the theatre.  And both can retreat from their broader social roles to concentrate on issues of personal morality. Or that would appear to be the case.

Yet, there were other statistics not mentioned by the Minister.  Like that 41% of our economically active population is unemployed.  That’s 8,5 million people, and, for all the complaints about affirmative action, 87,5% of unemployed people are black African men and women.  In the Western Cape, 80% of the unemployed are young people between the ages of 20-26.  Ours is the worst province for black African males with only two out of every 100 able to find employment.  Of the 11,6 million who have jobs, more than 60% earn R2500 or less per month.  After Brazil, South Africa has the highest rate of inequality, with 45% of our citizens – 18 million people – deemed to be poor.  In 2000, the poorest 50% of our country’s households received a mere 1,6% of the total income, down from 1,9% five years earlier. By contrast, 6% of our population captures 40% of the earned income.  The Sunday Times reported that we can boast at least 20 billionaires and that in the last few years we’ve created a few thousand new dollar millionaires.  Yet 50% of our country’s households get by on R20 per day, or R600 per month.

There’s a general claim – almost a boast – that South Africa is a Christian nation, implying the broad influence of the Church in the lives of people and in our publi
c life.  Yet, poverty and the growing gap between rich and poor, are not just economic questions; they are profound questions of morality. For all the beating of our breasts about the immorality of apartheid, we have to question why we do not similarly beat our breasts about the immorality of poverty.

The crime statistics make absolute nonsense of the notion that we are a Christian country, that we have any sense of morality as a nation, or that the Church has any significant influence in the lives of our people and our society at large.  Fifty people are murdered each day.  Fifty human beings who have their God-given lives taken away from them.  144 women are raped – every single day. And that’s just the ones that are reported.  41% of rape victims are children, with 15% of all reported rapes being children under 11.  58 children are raped…every single day.  This is the next generation.  What does the Church being with them mean?  

In this morning’s newspaper, a headline screams out “80 children are serving time for murder” of whom five are girls.  In addition, there were 130 children awaiting trial on charges of murder.  That’s 210 children.  By the end of May, there were nearly 3500 children in custody for various crimes

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation blames an uncaring and crime-hardened society for the increase in crime levels, and said that children are being exposed to crime as a result of inadequate child-rearing and youth-socialisation facilities.  Where is the Church in all of this? 

Open the morning newspaper, and Sydnee Maree, a black athletics icon, is found guilty of fraud.  Open the evening newspaper, and a white sports icon, Garth le Roux, is found guilty of fraud.  More than 40 000 civil servants are on charges of corruption, of stealing from the poor.  Another report states that corruption within the medical profession is rife, with doctors fraudulently claiming medical aid payments for services they did not provide.  Greed is rife – across colour, across class, across gender.

And if that is not enough to make us weep, then weep for the 311 000 people who died of AIDS in 2004, comprising 44% of all deaths in the country that year.  What a way to celebrate 10 years of democracy!  More than 850 people dying each day.  Among 15-49 year-olds, it is estimated that 70% of all deaths may be attributed to AIDS.  The latest UNAIDS Report states that the estimated 5,7 million South Africans living with HIV make this the largest HIV epidemic in the world.  The same report states that “the estimated number of maternal, paternal and double orphans due to AIDS in Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania rose from 1,2 million in 2001 to 2,9 million in 2007.”  There are a significant number of child-headed households as a result.

Behind all of these statistics, are real people, human beings, young people – the next generation, whom we will inherit, having failed this generation!

Our leaders are in denial.  About poverty.  About crime.  About HIV/AIDS.  The question is – is the church in denial too?  If not, where is its voice?  Why has it been so silent?

In the mid-eighties, I worked with a man I greatly admired.  He was brutally tortured in detention.  The apartheid government tried to kill him by poisoning his clothes.  He kept on being a prophetic voice, despite being alienated from his own church.  I was the organising secretary for the Kairos Document, a bold statement by the Churches – or a section of the church – about the immorality of the apartheid state.  He was Frank Chikane.

For nearly a decade, he has been the director general in the Presidency, a presidency that has presided over increasing poverty, over the widening gap between rich and poor, over the genocidal neglect of people living with HIV/AIDS, over the racial polarisation of our country, over the rise in crime and murder, over the decline of our neighbouring country that has starved, tortured and murdered its people, not only its opponents.

Is this the parable for what the Church has become?  Once, a prophetic voice of outrage against injustice, a bold and courageous actor in the cause of human dignity, and now, a silent Pharisee reaping the benefits of alignment with power, quietly affirming and blessing our new heresies?

How dare we expect future generations to take us seriously when we have so seriously abdicated this generation?

Similarly, we used to talk about protest theatre, but why is there so little theatre of outrage about current injustices?  When last was there a piece of local theatre dealing with the ravages of HIV/AIDS in this country?  We choose not to do it, because this is not what our audiences want.  They want laughter, comedy, musicals.  The theatre, like the Church, is part of the problem.  We exist for the elites, not for the poor, the vulnerable. 

I remember very clearly, a keen moment of crisis of faith in the mid-eighties.  One Sunday afternoon, I attended a rally, a very moving rally in support of six men who were about to be hanged, and listened to the mother of one speaking about her son.  It was an afternoon of deep emotion.  That night, I attended a church, and there was absolutely no connection with what I had experienced that afternoon.  The emphasis was on the transcendental, on loving God, on the personal; there was nothing about one’s neighbour, about horizontal love, about the lived experience of the majority of people.  I didn’t go back to that church again.

I wonder if that is how it is for young people today.  And, by the way, when we say young people, we do not talk of one homogenous grouping. They are as different in class, colour, history, culture as the adults of our country.  But how relevant are we to their lives?   What is our relevance to the lives of thousands of young people who believe they have no future here?  And leave?  What is our relevance to the lives of thousands of young people, who have bleak futures in our country, and who don’t have the option to leave?  What is our relevance to thousands of young people who have no futures in their own countries and who come here, seeking a better life?  What is our relevance to young people who are doing well here, driven by ambition, by dreams of selfish success, with little concern for the sea of misery around them?

We are not going to find out how to be with the next generation in our churches in leafy suburbs.  Or – I’m afraid – at conferences like these.  Just like we are not going to find relevance to the lives of people by waiting for them to come to where our theatres are.

We will discover what is needed, what is relevant and how to be Church, to be servants, to minister – not in the corridors of denial, but by visiting our prisons and courts, by having relationships with refugees of xenophobia in hastily set-up camps, by spending time in townships and rural areas with the poor, the marginalised, the downtrodden, by visiting hospices – homes to the sick and dying, by being exposed to orphanages.  For it is in these places that the next generation, the one that really needs us, may be found.  It might not be the people who will afford to tithe and keep the church bureaucracy thriving, or the theatre industry growing, but it is here that the mission of the Church will have its sharpest relevance. 

It does not have to be loud, it does not have to be with words, it can simply be through deeds and action, but the theatre – like the church – have a duty to speak truth to the powers that be.  They may not like it, but then, our mission is not to have them like us. 


I’d like to end with a poem which is my personal mantra as an artist/playwright:

I am not a patriot
For pointing out naked emperors
For not joining the chorus of praise singers
For allegiance to country, not party

I am a traitor
For practising constitutional freedoms
For cho
osing the margins not mainstream
For saying what others but think

I am anti-transformation
For still sprouting non-racist mantra
For being happy with grey amidst black and white
For not being a brother to opportunism

I am a sell-out
For donating my poetry to resistance
For refusing to live in denial
For declining thirty pieces of silver

I am an apartheid spy
For not turning a blind eye to corruption
For loyalty to principle not expedience
For daring to uphold the law

I am an ultra-leftist
For supporting human rights in Zimbabwe
For believing HIV causes AIDS
For not being a millionaire socialist

I am a racist, a coconut
For breaking the silence with a whisper
For preferring thought to propaganda
For standing up amidst the prostrate
For repeated conspiracy with the questions what, how, why

I am a danger to society
For not martyring my mind
For not terminating my tongue
For not sacrificing my soul

I have been here before
But then as a communist
An atheist
A Marxist

And I am here again
As some other “ist”
This time, as artist

Labels they come and labels they do
Hard on the footsteps of those
Who defend new privilege with old morality
Who appropriate history for contemporary pillaging
Who now crucify the people on their electoral crosses

I have been here before and I shall be here again
For as long as the poor – like Truth – are with us.