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Gerald West

Friday, August 28, 11:30 a.m. | Helios
Religion intersecting de-nationalisation and re-nationalisation in post-apartheid South Africa

Gerald West

What role has religion played in the post-apartheid transition to democracy and how will it be deployed in the period after 2014, the 20th anniversary of South African democracy? This is the question that shapes this paper. Recent research has analysed the political and economic dimensions of ‘the South African crisis’, arguing that this current moment in our democratic transition is shaped by simultaneous processes of de-nationalisation and re-nationalisation. However, while this research hints at the role of religion within these processes, there is no sustained and in-depth analysis of how religion inhabits and contributes to processes of de-nationalisation and processes of re-nationalisation. The paper is framed by the period 1994-2015, but focusses on a pivotal moment within these dual processes. When Thabo Mbeki, then the President of South Africa, delivered the 4th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in July 2006 the Bible was his central source. Mbeki used the Bible, alongside a number of other literary and political sources, to present a religious argument for both de-nationalisation and re-nationalisation. Given that Mbeki’s public pronouncements prior to this on religion in general and the Bible in particular had tended to be rather dismissive, this turn is significant, indicating a deliberate and strategic use of the Bible and religion. The paper analyses this moment, locating it within a trajectory that was set in motion by Nelson Mandela, given clarity by Mbeki, and has been continued by Jacob Zuma (and other political figures and policies). The contradictions of our transition from apartheid to democracy are most apparent as we enter our twenty-first year of liberation and as we contend for the identify and trajectory of our democracy. Just as religion has shaped the conflicts and contours of our past, so it inhabits, constitutes, and shapes the kinds of democratic transformations that might constitute our future.