2 May 2021
Mamelodi Baptist Church
Sermon by SACC General Secretary, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana
(Psalm 9:9-10, 15-18; 10:12-14, 17-18; John 10:10)
9 The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.10 Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.
15 The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden.16 The Lord is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.[c]17 The wicked go down to the realm of the dead, all the nations that forget God.18 But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.
Psalm 10:12 Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless.13 Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”?14 But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand.The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.
17 You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,18 defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror.
Biblical scholars believe that the two psalms 9 and 10 were originally a single psalm. Time will not allow for me to go into the necessary discussion of the combined message of the psalms, except to say that it is a psalm of gratitude to God for victory against enemies; it also reinforces the trust in the God of justice, and laments the bad deeds of the wicked against the helpless.
Today we meet to close out the celebratory week of Freedom Day – Freedom Week, and we do so with the occasion of recognising the workers of our country; and comforting with hope, the would-be workers of our economy. Our message today is that we use the 2021 Freedom Day and Workers Day to make fresh commitments under God, to change the way things are, and the direction of our national life.
A few weeks ago on Good Friday, the South African Council of Churches took the time to focus on the workers of the health systems; those valiant people who leave their homes each day to the frontlines of COVID-19, leaving behind anxious loved ones, not knowing if they will not bring back with them the dreaded coronavirus that they gather from their patients, but go they must, for vocation and duty calls, and cannot be denied! Before we even consider the focus of this day on Freedom Week and Worker’s Day, we take this moment to make one critical call that will demonstrate our compassion, respect and honour for the health workers that are daily exposed to the deadly virus:
Let every person who has reached 60 years register for vaccination, so that they can be safe, but also that they may reduce the danger for health workers. If you have a parent, an aunt, uncle, spouse, sibling, cousin or friend who is 60 and over, check on them and ensure they have registered – let us may the Workers Day resolve to register every person in our worship spaces and neighbourhoods; and make the next 12 days to May 15, Vaccine Registration Time. #Register for Vaccine Now! Protect Health Workers & Protect Our Loved Ones!
“God will never forget the needy;
the hope of the afflicted will never perish.”
Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
These lines out of Psalm 9 and 10 are part of a promise made in the two psalms.
To this, Jesus says:
“I have come that they may have life, and have life abundantly.”
The 1st of May, the International Workers Day, is also celebrated in the Christian calendar in some churches, in honour of St Joseph the Worker.
Joseph the husband of Mary, who brought up Jesus, was a carpenter and would have taught Jesus the skill, value and dignity of creative and productive work.
The value and dignity of work is in the quality of life that it generates for the worker and her or his family and society. Social, economic and political factors that militate against this positivity for the worker, her family and society are themselves the work of the Wicked One that the bible warns against. And the Wicked One can and has become a system, for systemic wickedness against people in need, who live in hope for the fulfilment of their hopes and expectations.
“The Lord is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.
The psalmist may well be in dialogue with the Prophet Habakkuk (1:2-4) who laments:
2 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
And Jesus responds: “I have come that they may have life, and have life abundantly.” And that is why we are here today, in the name of Jesus the source of life. The apartheid system was universally recognised as evil, the work of the Wicked One, denying the abundance of life. Its systemic oppression ensured that the majority of South Africans are excluded from the skill, the value and the dignity of creative and productive work, such as Jesus enjoyed under Joseph.
Apartheid did this through injurious racial and ethnic divisiveness, that left behind, a wounded nation of broken families and communities; a nation at odds with itself, and bereft of trust, compassion and mutual respect. The wounds inflicted by our past are often unconscious and show up in the fracture of the social fabric and the desolation that characterises our human relations. Some of this manifests itself in the present-day South African experience of acts of violence and sexual abuse against women and children, violent crime and lawlessness, racism, xenophobia, as well as many other social ills. In the midst of this, the Church of Jesus Christ is scandalised by unending reports of pastors who rape and sexually abuse women and children; and who raid the closets and bank accounts of poor trusting people. This evil phenomenon of the Wicked One in the church undermines the credibility of the pastoral ministry of the church and has to be eradicated – cut out from the roots.
The systemic oppression created education for subjugation for the excluded majority of its population, with a political dispensation that was the hotbed of corruption and patronage, and which balkanised the country into pockets of labour reserves called Bantustans in 13% of the country, and dense labour townships of barely habitable locations that have now “graduated” into squatter camps we call “informal settlements” with extremely limited scope for the worth and dignity of the human person who is created after the image of God.
Yes, there is no debate, the apartheid system, the Wicked One, ensured that South Africa was to have the highest imaginable levels of inequality and politicised poverty-creation, instead of wealth-creation. It denied the skill, the value and the dignity of creative and productive work, such as Jesus enjoyed under Joseph; it devalued the South African worker. The psalmist says, “the wicked go down to the realm of the dead, all the nations that forget God.” That, says the psalmist, is the fate of the Wicked One. “But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.”
What is the hope of the afflicted? What is the need of the needy who are not to be forgotten by God? What should our message be to them on a Workers Day that closes out Freedom Week? This question is a serious challenge to us today, because apartheid has long gone, and it can no longer be the excuse for our lingering longer in its unacceptable historic designs for South Africa. Millions of the unemployed today, whose Freedom Week we have been observing daily since April 27, were born in the apartheid-free society.
About 56% of young people are not in employment. We learn that in 2020, of the 20,4 million young people aged 15-34 years, about 8,5 million or nearly 42%, were not at school or in any training; not in employment or any form of economic activity – that, at ages 15 to 34, the prime of their energy!
If Workers Day is focused on celebrating the worth of those in employment, and in particular, the unionised minority represented at the rallies and that has professional protection, then we can say Workers Day has little relevance for the majority. For indeed, South Africa is not yet a working class society, it is still largely an underclass society, with many people living below the description of poverty. Our Workers Day is not a celebration, it is a day of lament and a day of resolve to do all we can to create a society where all have the opportunity for a decent livelihood.
StatsSA tells us that 99% of South African poverty is suffered by the so-called Coloured and the so-called African components of the black population; together making up about 90% (8.9% & 81%) of the voting population. Does that mean anything to the rulers? This poverty is a political mathematical problem!
What, to this population, is the promise of Freedom Day; what is the celebration of Workers Day; and what is our responsibility for a nation whose children are in need of skill, value and the dignity of creative and productive work, such as Jesus enjoyed under Joseph?
We are in Mamelodi; the home of Solomon Mahlangu, whose life was cut down, and he gave his blood to nourish the tree of freedom, that we may have Freedom Day! What do we say is his heritage of freedom and the dividend of his investment through the ultimate sacrifice for today’s generation of young people? In this regard, the Psalmist encourages our hope for action under God, and says: “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless.”
But the hand of God is at the end our arms; my arms, and yours; to be directed by the creative minds that are designed after the image of the Creator God. There are things we can and should do to heal the woundedness of our society.
Experts say that the most human potential is best developed between ages zero to 9 years of a child. After that, you sort of live with what you have. Do poor people who have to struggle to put food on the table, have the space, the time, the energy, to focus on the development of children that age, to transmit to them family and societal values in real time, and to prepare them for a comprehensive quality education?
What would it look like if every child between ages 3 and 5 in every neighbourhood, was afforded an early childhood development environment with professionally trained teachers to ensure the critical developmental domains: cognitive, social and emotional, self-help and adaptive, spiritual and moral growth? In every ward or village in South Africa, there are no less than 10-15 churches or worship places of the various faiths of our people. Can these churches and local communities work with municipalities in the Integrated Development Plan to ensure this in every ward? That they may have life, and have it abundantly!
Likewise, there are things we can do to ensure governmental integrity so that Freedom Day can have meaning for the majority of the people in our communities, with responsibility and accountability. Beginning with the upcoming local government elections, do you know the person to whom you can entrust the fate of your neighbourhood? What values must they represent?
Can we together with the SACC, mount and support a public values campaign that ensures the integrity of governance at local, provincial and national levels?
Can we not put out integrity measures for eligibility to public office, the municipal council, the legislature and senior civil service management, such as municipal managers?
This calls into question the practice of political parties putting candidates on municipal and parliamentary lists, who are facing serious criminal and anti-society allegations such as corruption, gender and sexual violence.
These candidates come out of our communities, and we know them; we should not allow the names of those with values we reject, to be put up for our votes.
Likewise, can we not campaign to occasion an electoral reform that frees our legislators from the clutches of party bosses who make it impossible for them to uphold the Oaths and Solemn Affirmations taken in assuming their office, to serve the interests of the people, where faithfulness to the oath clashes with the internal interests of their political party?
Can we not have a mayor, a premier and a president who all know that if they are not ethically upright in terms of accepted public values; or if they do not deliver for the people, they will be removed by the same people? Indeed, there are things we can do to establish responsiveness and accountability in governance, to give greater significance to the celebration of Freedom Day and Workers Day. That they may have life and have it abundantly!
With the psalmist, we say Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. But the hand of God is at the end our arms, my arms and yours; to be directed by the creative minds that are designed after the image of the Creator God.
Therefore, there are things we can and should do to ensure that more people acquire skills, value and the dignity of creative and productive work for inclusive growth that leaves no one behind. In our context, this relates to how economic growth is deliberately set to accelerate opportunities for participation in the productive economy, by the excluded majority of South Africans – at Mamelodi, at Bushbuckridge, Gravelotte, Vuwani, Nongoma, Qokolweni, Pampierstad, Outshoorn and Hopetown in the Northern Cape. Without economic livelihoods that makes a difference for ordinary people in such areas; freedom rings hollow. For every second person in your neighbourhood with no income to feed families, Workers Day loses relevance as a celebration. But it must be a day of ukujika izinto, a day of resolve for action! That they may have life and have it abundantly!
Many years ago, when I was priest and pastor of congregations at KwaNobuhle Township of Uitenhage, now Kariega. I had occasion during a sermon, to ask the children what they do for food when they come home and there is no adult or anything they can eat; they said they go next door to play, and that means, to hope for food. Then if there’s nothing there, they go to the other next door, they go to the house opposite their home, its next doors and so it goes. One of these homes may have bread for the children of these neighbouring homes to share and keep playing. This is in the spontaneous and uninhibited expectation of the solidarity of poor people among themselves, where both want and plenty are commonly shared in solidarity.
It is the same spirit of solidarity that should make me wear a mask outdoors today, even if I think I’m not infectious, just to be sure that I do not unknowingly infect my loved ones, neighbours and workmates. Solidarity of care.
But in the poverty of our economic challenges, especially in COVID time, these children might do the merry-go-round from house to house, but they will share, not a slice of bread, but they will share the common nothing that every home seems to have, nothing, except the knowing look that says – things are bad!
The COVID-19 special grant of R350 has helped a lot, and people are rightfully calling for it to be extended. The SACC supports this cry, as we did initially advocate for its establishment. But, more permanently and sustainably, a basic income grant that is tied to training recipients for productivity would give dignity to people, along with a transition pathway to self-sufficiency. The Black Sash and other civil society organisations are driving this campaign, and we support them.
We would urge Government to extend the COVID grant another 6 months while crafting mechanisms, in partnership with business and training systems, to absorb the middle majority of 19-59, into a product-focused basic income grant regime. It does not help to discontinue help to hungry people without working on alternatives to solve the problems.
St Luke writes in Chapter 9, that when the people got hungry, the disciples of Jesus suggested that they be sent away to fend for themselves; and Jesus replied: “You give them something to eat!” This is the story of the feeding of the 5000. Where there is a will there is a way. We say today in the name of Jesus, “You give them something to eat!” That they may have life and have it abundantly!
What might it take to ensure that every young person under the age of 21, who is not in employment or at school, about 10 -12 million youth, is put through one form of productivity skills training or another for economic inclusion? Every year 1 million children start Grade One, and every year about 600,000 write matric exams; with at least 400,000 unaccounted for. Every year about 150,000 of those who write matric, go to university, some 15% of the original million.
If we ensure that the other 85% left behind gets incorporated into productivity, the 850,000 of each year that starts Grade One, the annual twin events of Freedom Day and Workers Day can be truly a season of the festive celebration of the freedom for livelihoods, for food on the table for the celebration of the fruit of the people’s sweat and intellect. That they may have life and have it abundantly!
If we do not act with urgency, as the psalmist says, we shall be like “the nations (that) have fallen into the pit they have dug; (and) their feet (are) caught in the net they have hidden.” For, “the Lord is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.” Are we, 27 years into democracy, still ensnared by the designs of poverty, lawlessness and want that the Wicked One created in apartheid?
No! For “God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.” With that faith, the church says with the Psalmist, “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless.”
This is the hope of the Promise of the post-apartheid South Africa – a just, reconciled, peaceful, equitable and sustainable society, free of racism, tribalism, xenophobia and gender prejudices; free of corruption and deprivation; with food and shelter for everyone, and where every child born can grow to its God-given potential.
This is the South Africa we must now commit to create with dedication, area by area, village by village, block by block, street by street, where churches exist; and work with all other religious communities without discrimination. And collaborate with local government based on positive public values of integrity and social justice; and not be caught up in political partisanship, thus mortgaging the church to politicians, and undermining our witness in the name of Christ.
If we do this work over the next 4 to 5 years, we shall be able to say: This is the South Africa of a Joyous Celebration of Freedom Day and Workers Day! This is the South Africa We Pray4!
May this Workers Day be an “On your marks” moment for the millions of the excluded majority, to find their pathway to sustainable livelihoods and a celebratory Freedom Day, under grace of the Risen Christ. For God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish. That they may have life, and have it abundantly! Amen.
SACC Communications Consultant
South African Council of Churches
Tel: 084 074 1285 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org