Interview Ahimsa Forum: Renier Koegelenberg by Lauren Herzog

Interview Ahimsa Forum: Renier Koegelenberg by Lauren Herzog

Can you tell me about your background and how you ended up in the position you’re in today and your work with faith communities?

We have a dual identity: on the one hand, we are an ecumenical research institute called the “EFSA Institute”, which is linked to several universities and a council of churches. On the other hand, we are a national interfaith network focusing on the social and development work of faith communities. The national interfaith network developed out of the work of the EFSA Institute – which hosted several national conference on the role of churches and faith communities in social welfare. It started in the southern part of South Africa between three universities (Stellenbosch, Cape Town and the Western Cape) and the Council of Churches.

The late Dr Beyers Naudé, one of the icons in South Africa in the protests against the apartheid system, encouraged me to study in Germany and look specifically at the institutions that developed after World War II within the churches to support them in the rebuilding process in Germany after the war. He was the Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Churches. At the famous Cottesloe conference meeting of the World Council of Churches in 1960, he said, “Churches have to oppose apartheid”. Dr Naudé said to me:  “The challenge of the church in South Africa is: What will the churches do once apartheid has come to an end? Because the problems will not end. How can the churches contribute to the rebuilding process of South Africa?” I did not want to go into a congregation after the completion of my theological studies in Stellenbosch – and had the option to study overseas. I eventually took up a bursary from the German academic exchange service to do my doctoral studies in Germany, under the guidance of Prof. Wolfgang Huber in Heidelberg.

This was a very great privilege that exposed me to many German church initiatives – where a Dialogue Office of the Lutheran Church in Bonn (then the centre of the German government) played a mediating role in several international conflict regions – including South Africa. The Dialogue Office specialised in bringing conflict partners together within the space or platform of the church. The same principle was institutionalised in a network of church-based academies (conference centres) across Germany. They are managed by the churches, but they work at the interface of policy, economics and church. So the academy movement in Germany is quite unique in the world. The churches created these platforms and institutionalised them, focusing on the current and future burning issues in society. The Dialogue Office also developed another popular mass movement – within the Catholic and Lutheran churches – called the Kirchentag, the “church day.” Every second year lay people, church leaders, young people and professional people share a two-day platform – where thousands get together to worship, exhibit their programmes and discuss challenges in society (like the integration of refugees at the moment).

Back in South Africa, with other ecumenical friends, I founded the EFSA Ecumenical Institute. It has been in operation for 27 years – supporting academic research, conferences on development challenges, and raising funds for joint projects. Most of the projects developed into national programmes. In South Africa we do not have the same financial resources as in Germany, but our resources are our universities and church networks. The EFSA Institute was therefore established as an inter-university network (with academics participating), but in its focus it works with church-based programmes and church leaders.

Over the past twenty years EFSA focused on more or less the same issue, namely: what is the development role of churches? This addresses the different levels of being church, but also focuses on the social and economic challenges, such as widespread poverty and inequality in South Africa. Churches have vast and strong social networks that reach into every corner of South Africa.

Interfaith and ecumenical cooperation

Over time EFSA’s work broadened – starting initially with Christian faculties of theology, it later included the work and representation from other faiths and eventually we developed the “National Religious Association for Social Development” (NRASD). The Association was launched at a national welfare conference in 1997 – hosted by EFSA. The NRASD engages jointly with government on policy issues and we jointly make proposals to donors to raise resources for the social programmes of faith communities. In that way we became a partner in the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS and TB in South Africa. We bundled the different programmes of denominations together to ensure coordination between the different faith networks. We apply as a group and we strive to speak as a group. The EFSA Institute serves as the secretariat of the NRASD.

The academic work of EFSA includes research seminars and academic conferences, and we publish some of the research in partnership with universities and donors. One of our focal points over many years has been the role of women in church and society. We have published several books in this process, with contributions from women theologians across Africa. Several of them are now in leading positions at universities and churches.

Our first point of concentration is: How do we contribute to the public and theological role of the church? How do you help to educate pastors? The training of pastors in theological seminaries is very academic, so we have added the gender issue and the church’s role in development as special issues for our conferences with universities. We strive to raise funds for joint research and most of the papers are published after evaluation through a peer-review system – giving contributors credits for their research.

We cooperate closely with other ecumenical networks. In South Africa were cooperate with the South African Council of Churches in joint conferences. On the one hand, we work with some of the largest church networks in South Africa. They are not only the so-called mainline churches (Catholics, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Anglicans), but on the other hand, we also strive to cooperate with the largest churches in South Africa, the so-called “African Independent Churches” (AICs).

The African Independent Churches are Africa’s largest churches – they have a completely unique identity. It’s a mixture of Christianity and local culture. They have a very strong following and are really “the church of the poor” – caring for one another. They have a huge influence on the majority of rural poor black people in South Africa, but also in the whole southern African region. We have partnered with them in adult education programmes – supported by the South African government – focusing on basic numeracy and literacy. Many people in South Africa are still illiterate. If you are illiterate, your chances of finding a job are zero. The best chance of empowering people is to make them literate and we cooperate with the churches as channels to do that.

Another important partner is an ecumenical network focusing on theological education in Africa. It is called “Network for African Congregational Theology” (NetACT). It started as a network of theological schools in Africa in 2000, growing from 8 to 40 institutions in 15 African countries. The goal of the network is to develop leaders who can empower local faith communities to make ethical and moral decisions in all spheres of life. This is a growing network.

Focus on health-related challenges

As part of our focus on the development role of faith communities, we have a strong focus on health-related challenges: Southern Africa has the highest burden of HIV and Aids in the world, affecting many families. In this way we started our partnership with the Global Fund, being a Principal Recipient in South Africa for 5 years (USD 40 million), and now a Sub-Recipient focusing on TB programmes (USD 6 million). In this regard we have a formal partnership with the National Health Department.

This focus links us with the work of the Global Fund and Ahimsa. I knew Dr Christoph Benn, Communications Director of the Global Fund, from his previous work for the Lutheran Church in Tübingen, based at a medical institute. Dr Benn introduced me to Ahimsa and Jean de Lavison’s work, also focusing on the health work of faith-inspired communities.

Focus on welfare and social policy

Another area of focus is the welfare policies of South Africa. We have a long history of policy dialogue with government on social development and social grants. We utilise our links to university expertise in our engagement with different government departments. The practical experience of church welfare services, responding to families in crisis or the effect of HIV and Aids, is a valuable resource. A substantial portion of organised welfare services in South Africa is delivered by the churches, not by government. The government gives substantial grants for poor families with children. Church initiatives work at grassroots level, creating caring networks. They never have enough resources, so they experience the shortcomings of government programmes directly. There are gaps in several areas of government services and we are in constant dialogue with different government departments, especially with the health and social development departments to address these challenges.

One example will suffice: you cannot get a childcare grant in South Africa if you don’t have a birth certificate. Many women don’t know who the father of their child is. If you don’t know who the father is, you cannot get a birth certificate. There are many similar practical challenges. If you want children to be cared for or to provide support to women caring for children, you have to help them to get birth certificates. In South Africa we have a shortage of about 50,000 social workers. And only a social worker can certify a child as being vulnerable, meaning that he needs access to a grant. We have concluded an agreement with the government that through church networks we can help to identify vulnerable children. The state systems are sometimes weak, but we are a facilitator between what the churches do and what the government strives to achieve. We try to focus on children and gender issues, and caring for those who fall between the cracks. South Africa does not have a social security system comparable to that in Europe, although we are the only country in Africa that gives substantial resources to social grants. In fact there are more people receiving grants in South Africa than people who have work. That creates a crisis. This is a symptom of economic failure – empowering people only happens through education: that is the key to better employment opportunities.

Addressing corruption

Recently, because of our interaction with government, we focused on the challenges of corruption. We supported the previous finance minister, Mr Gordhan, who was fired from cabinet because he was an outspoken critic of so-called “state capture” (corrupt deals between state entities and politically connected businesses). Apart from these public forums, with the support of senior church and faith leaders we also support several confidential processes of dialogue intended to build trust between conflicting parties. We have supported the work of Dr Makgoba as mediator in the aftermath of the Marikana tragedy, where many mine workers were killed by police.

Cooperation with mines and local communities

One of our interesting projects at the moment is with the mining industry, because the mining industry is under extreme pressure for economic and political reasons. Currently there is a lack of a clear policy framework for the mining industry; this discourages new investments because mines are run by private capital. Mining companies are listed worldwide on stock exchanges. If investors do not get a return on their investment, why should they invest? They have to make a profit. Because of South Africa’s history, mining is associated with the apartheid exploitation of black labourers. This is part of the negative legacy of mining. There is currently strong political pressure to advance black-owned business through special “black economic empowerment measures”. The danger is that this new elite wants to share first in the income generated by mines – often at the cost of the communities living in poverty close to the mines.

There is a legacy of social conflict around the mines. The communities around the mines remain poor. Some of the local traditional chiefs in the areas where the mines are located misuse their power. In order to receive and retain a mining license, the mine often needs permission from the local or regional traditional authority – a chief. One of the conditions on which a mining license is granted is that the mine, apart from paying its taxes, has to invest in a “social labour plan” benefitting the local community. Funds often disappear and local communities see these massive industries, but they don’t benefit from their presence. There are several billionaires among the upcoming black elite.

We cooperate with a global initiative started by Anglo American and the Catholic Church, which has its own history of dialogue between the mining industry and local communities. It was started by Mark Cutifani, the COO of Anglo American, which is now based in London. They have initiatives all over the world: Canada, the United States, South America and Africa. In Southern Africa Archbishop Makgoba, who is the current chairperson of the CDDC Trust (that includes the EFSA Institute), is the patron of this special dialogue. He created forums where business leaders, trade unions, government and churches can cooperate: “What can we do together?” The pressure is enormous, because if the government is weak in delivering local services, people have high expectations that the mine can provide everything. Mines do invest in infrastructure such as the building of schools, roads, clinics and water pipelines, because they also need the infrastructure. Local and regional governments are asked to fund positions in the schools, pay the teachers, do the maintenance – and they sometimes fail to keep their side of the agreements. This leads to conflict.

Conflict around mines often leads to destruction of infrastructure

There is enormous competition for jobs in poor mining areas that often leads to conflict between the mine and the local community. Local communities do not want people coming in from the outside; they want all the jobs to go to the local community. The challenges around the mining communities are in a sense representative of the broader challenges in South Africa. There is a long legacy of the past that created these kinds of disparities and inequalities, but how do you resolve this? If you kill the mining industry by simply instructing it what to do, the investors will simply leave for greener pastures elsewhere. Then the region loses more job opportunities. If people lose their work, then small towns become ghost towns, because mining provides the only source of income in many of the rural areas. The pressure on mining to create other jobs not linked to mining, or to create a sustainable future for communities around the mines, is a huge challenge for the mining industry. They can be catalysts for development projects, but they can’t fund everything.

The convening power of church and faith leaders

Because of the historical legacy of migrant workers, many people still believe that mines are exploiting local communities. In this conflict mine leadership and local communities expect and trust church and faith leaders to mediate. Church leaders are not trained to mediate in labour disputes, but they have a “convening power” to bring conflicting parties to the table.

Together with the mining companies, we have started a number of pilot projects where we bring all the role players to the table. We ask church, faith and community leaders: What do you want? Apart from infrastructure, what are the important needs for the community? We want to focus this, because we want to focus on human development. Other priorities include programmes on early childhood development. Research in South Africa shows that the biggest chance of helping people out of poverty is investing in quality education for young learners – from very early stage. That is where our education system is currently failing.

We also support healthcare programmes such as “community health literacy”, an educational programme. There is a huge shortage of professional healthcare officials (doctors and nurses) in South Africa. Health and education are key issues. Then you have different priorities and challenges to deal with at local level. Many church leaders have indicated to us that they want safe houses for women and children who are abused. In traditional systems they can’t move out of their homestead. They have nowhere else to go. They are stuck, unless you have safe houses.

We have a problem with the quality of our school education, quite a serious problem. In these new partnerships that we are exploring, we are trying to invest in human development. We believe that if we invest in people, to get them better trained, they will benefit from it over the long term, whether they live close to the mine or not. Of course, infrastructure is needed, and we just ask the mines to consider these as alternative options.

We created church forums around the mines that include all the mainline churches, but also the African Independent Churches as well as other faiths. Although in some areas Muslims and Hindus are extreme minorities (only one or two percent), the principle of interfaith cooperation is important. In some of the pilots, a mine of Rio Tinto along the northern coast of Kwazulu-Natal, requested us to explore the option of a mine chaplaincy. The mine is operating 24 hours a day, people come in shifts and go in shifts, and they express the need for counselling services.

Are those mostly local workers?

Most of them are local, but the top-level positions are people with professional skills: engineers, geologists and economists. But most of the workforce is from the region around the mine. We are in the second year now, mediating those talks between the senior management of the mines and the local communities. We are, in a sense, facilitators, playing an intermediary role. We are trying to find a model of consensus that is accepted by the local communities and the mine leadership.

What makes it complicated is that there are enormously high expectations; they are often unrealistic about what the mines can do, because mining operations are complex. The Chief Executive Officer of a local mine has most of the authority, but he has to satisfy all the demands of shareholders (the mines have to make a profit to survive as an industry) as well as the demands of the workers and the community.

The engagement between leading mining companies and faith communities is a global initiative, but not all mines are involved. The background of the South African initiative – being a part of the global initiative – is that our chairperson, Anglican Archbishop Dr Makgoba, comes from a mining community. His father was a mineworker and was a mining psychologist, so he knows the challenges of mining and of the workforce. He believes that mining is really one of the burning issues in South Africa. If we can manage the conflicting expectations, then we can contribute to the saving of jobs. Many mines are downsizing or laying off workers. Some are closing. If they can’t make a profit and are constantly disrupted, they simply close the mine and go to another country where it is easier to operate. Thus, the conflict between investors and mining communities is part of the transition to democracy in South Africa – that has to be carefully managed.

This also poses challenges to church and faith leaders: “What are we really adding value to?” To come out of our comfort zone of just criticising businesses or government, can we really make a difference? Because of our links and cooperation with academic networks, there is always a research element in our work, which we want to influence the curricula of theological training institutions.

As an ecumenical institute we are small, with only about 10 full-time staff members, but because of our formal partnerships with universities, churches, government departments and international funders, we have a strong network. Our vision is long term: to support the development work of the churches and faith communities on an academic as well as practical level in order to build capacity in South Africa and our region.

It is wonderful what the international community is doing, but there is a deficit: many of the participants at international conferences are from the North (in the so-called developed world). They have the resources and the staff. In our country and region we still have to build strong institutions.

You can’t produce excellence on your own. It is only if you have a range of perspectives that you can really challenge what you’re doing. We have some very difficult partnerships, where people constantly challenge us on the work we do. But sometimes you need friends like that.

The church was a global community long before “globalisation”. But the world is changing constantly and, in that sense, the role of the church is changing. The church has to adapt its role and mission. I think in some areas we have gained experiences in dealing with challenges that are different from those in Europe. We have been exposed to the challenges of multicultural and multi-faith societies, and we have many more refugees than Europe. I think in some areas we can make a unique contribution.

Learning always has to be a mutual, reciprocal process. The whole of the Global South (Africa and South America included) is sometime sceptical about the role of UN institutions, because they are dominated by the G7, dominated by Europe and North America. This is replicated on the level of development agencies and global NGO networks working in Africa. One of our challenges in international cooperation (such as the Ahimsa forum) is to build more capacity and sustainability in local networks. This is, of course, a long-term vision.

Our work has developed over several years and our long-term vision remains to support and strengthen the development role of the church and faith communities. The creation of strong and sustainable institutions is part of that – but it remains a challenge to achieve. Building strong international partnerships is an integral part of this objective.

2018-01-30T09:53:07+00:00October 30th, 2017|Leaders|