An interview with South Africa’s Anglican Archbishop Njonkulu Ndungane – who announced in 1997, “The time has come to invoke the Doctrine of Odious Debt” – on Oprah, AIDS, and how Christians are battling international debt.
Njongonkulu Ndungane first became known to the larger world when he clashed with then-South African president Nelson Mandela. Ndungane charged Mandela with inadequately securing the rights of the elderly in the Eastern Cape region. Mandela said the archbishop was ill-informed and was undermining the government. Ndungane declared, “No one will silence the church.” In that moment, Ndungane was no longer merely the successor to Cape Town’s charismatic Desmond Tutu. He had his own voice and prophetic call.Ndungane comes from a long line of Anglican priests and was taught in Christian schools. His conversion, however, came through the political formation he received when he became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1963, Ndungane was jailed for three years for “conscientising people.” Half of that time was spent in what he calls “that great university of Robben Island,” South Africa’s most notorious prison. It was here, while mixing cement by hand and carrying it to the building site that would later house Nelson Mandela, that Ndungane decided to become a priest. He was ordained in 1974, received his master’s degree in Christian ethics, became a bishop in 1991, and Anglican primate of Southern Africa in 1996.
Currently, Ndungane is spokesperson for the Micah Challenge, a Christian debt relief movement from the global South. He was interviewed in March by Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger and assistant editor Elizabeth Palmberg in Washington, D.C.
Sojourners: You’ve said that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) “give an entry point for us to make a better world for all.” Why is 2005 a critical year for the MDGs and the fight against global poverty?
Ndungane: The world today is suffering a new kind of injustice – a new kind of apartheid. You have a few people in the developed world dominating the affairs of the rest of the world. It is sinful that in a world in which there’s been so much prosperity because of globalization that we find this divide between the super-rich – the people with a lot of resources in the developed world – and the many people who go hungry every day.
Economists tell us it doesn’t have to be like this.
Five years ago world leaders came together and said that we need to do something about global poverty, and they set up the Millennium Development Goals. Five years down the line we have not done well at all. In a sense, 2005 is a kairos year for us to set up manageable and attainable strategies for halving world poverty by 2015.
I hear people say, “If you work hard, then you can improve your condition.” That’s putting it too simply. If you’re born in Darfur or in Somalia, you can’t help yourself. You’re trapped in that cycle of poverty.
It’s up to us to help liberate those who are trapped in that cycle.
Sojourners: You announced in 1997, “The time has come to invoke the Doctrine of Odious Debt, [which] argues that where a debt has been incurred to strengthen a despotic regime it should be declared odious and written off.” What are examples of church-based “best practices” that you see addressing global poverty, international debt, and the MDGs?
Ndungane: I was part of the launch of the Micah Challenge, whose whole objective is to galvanize a Christian voice – to say that we want a better world for all – using what the prophet Micah says in Micah 6:8. “What does God want you to do? Only this,” says the Jerusalem Bible, “To love kindness, to walk humbly with your God, and to do justice.” The Micah Challenge was developed by the Micah Network, which consists of 260 Christian-based community development agencies in the global South, and the World Evangelical Alliance, representing 2 million evangelical Christians, predominantly from the South.
Also, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation are saying that if we challenge the developed nations to be true to the 0.7 percent of their gross national product they pledged for development assistance, then we must also challenge ourselves. Churches, in terms of their diocesan and national budget, should also pledge 0.7 percent of their income toward development programs.
You see, politicians are very nice people. They like to make statements. But they are not very good at implementation. I think it was [former U.K. Secretary of State for International Development] Clare Short who said, “Faith leaders, you have got a responsibility to push us as politicians.” We can deal with students when they are protesting, she was saying, but we can’t deal with mother unions or women’s groups when they knock on our doors. Of course, we know that power from below really does put pressure on politicians.
Sojourners: You helped the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown understand the mechanics of global poverty and put a face on it for him. Are there other political leaders who have responded to debt relief and global poverty issues the way Brown has?
Ndungane: In 1998 I led a delegation of bishops to meet with Gordon Brown. We talked about debt relief. I’m not saying that he wasn’t convinced then. But after his visit to Africa – he won’t be the same again.
He has become very visible and very vocal. We had potential for this in the United States with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who traveled to Africa with [U2’s] Bono. O’Neill saw for himself and was transformed. I’d like to invite [current U.S. Secretary of the Treasury] John Snow to ride in a 4×4 and visit Africa, to see these AIDS orphans.
I think people become champions once they come face-to-face with the real faces of poverty and suffering and hunger. Oprah tells a story about how she went as a guest of Nelson Mandela to this school in South Africa. She was just bowled over – she wept when she saw what is happening, and she made a commitment to that school.
It’s not that we are asking too much really. These things are possible. These goals are realizable. It just needs the political will. I mean, if you think that the world community this year will spend close to a trillion dollars on armaments – four-and-a-half days of that spending will guarantee universal primary education for all. And the world will be a better place. Because if you have girls going to school, they will get jobs, they will make sure there’s food on the table. Notice I say “girls.” Women get things done. I’d rather give my money to women’s organizations than to men’s organizations. That’s my prejudice.
Sojourners: What is the Anglican church doing to address AIDS in Africa, especially as it affects women who are the economic hub of a community?
Ndungane: First of all, let’s start with the church and its false theology that links sex with sin, with guilt and punishment. There have been evangelists – and they have not stopped coming to Africa – who say that HIV/AIDS is a punishment from God. I ask you, and I ask them, how can a woman who is faithful to her husband say she has brought it upon herself when she has an unfaithful partner? Statistics tell us that in many parts of Africa the majority of women who are HIV positive are married and have been and are faithful. How can women in a marriage situation apply this “ABC” approach (Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms)? You can’t abstain in marriage! They are faithful, but they have unfaithful partners. They can’t negotiate on condoms because, in some cultural settings – and in most of sub-Saharan Africa – the man dominates the household, even the bedroom.
We have begun shouting from our rooftops that HIV/AIDS is not a punishment from God. It is a disease, like any other disease, that is manageable, that is preventable, that is treatable. We need to give loving care and support to people living with AIDS. We’re engaged in addressing men, in giving respect and dignity to women. For the past four years I’ve led an annual men’s march in which we say, “Real men don’t abuse women. Real men respect the dignity of women.” We call on men to respect their wives, their sisters, their daughters, their mothers. One of the joys of these marches is that we see young boys also joining in.
One of my dreams is to have one-stop health-care centers in every parish – especially in the rural areas where clinics are often very far from where people live. A one-stop health-care center where people can get voluntary counseling and testing, where people can get nutritional advice and medication. That’s my dream. We have the infrastructure because churches are found in almost every village. We are one institution in Africa that has a sitting audience at least once a week.
We know that this year 3 million people will die of AIDS. We know that, in South Africa, the majority of new infections are among girls ages 15 to 24. That’s bad in terms of our future.
Statistics are mind-boggling. But if you can put a name and a face to one of those people…. If for one moment you were to think about that AIDS orphan being your beloved grandson, or that child who can’t go to school because she has to care for sick relatives being your beloved granddaughter, then you begin to understand.
Sojourners: The church raises a moral voice for a just economy because we believe that God wants humans to live with dignity. How does human dignity affect a person’s relationship with God?
Ndungane: First, they have self-respect. They feel they can stand up with dignity and are able to be the kind of human beings God wants them to be, and be fully human. They learn to appreciate the world more and more. They feel that they have a stake in the world. If we invest in people, if people are happy in this world, then they would not be so susceptible to people with evil intentions. We have a moral responsibility to make God’s world a just world – a world where everybody has what’s necessary for human dignity.
We worship a God of hope, a God of love. We worship an inclusive God – a God who says, “There are no aliens in my house.” We worship a God who, through grace, is able to transform people’s minds and hearts.
There’s a gift of the African church, in its warmth, vitality, its own spirituality: It is the concept of Ubuntu, which says that “I am because we are.” It’s a kind of high doctrine of humanity that is the foundation of the notion of koinonia and belonging together. That gives me hope.
Rose Marie Beger and Elizabeth Palmberg, Sojourners Magazine, Vol. 34, No. 7, July 1, 2005