On December 14, 1992, the Free Ethiopian Church of South Africa invited Nelson Mandela to give a speech at their centenary celebrations. 27 years later, Mandela’s speech could as well be a guideline to churches on the continent and the role they can play in politics.
Religion has unfortunately been used as a cloak to hoodwink many on the continent. It has become, not just an opium, but also a dagger that has torn societies around the continent. African traditional religions have been demonized and whole knowledges from our forefathers have been sweepingly condemned. The Ethiopian Church however has played an important role, not just in Ethiopia, but also in South Africa.
Mandela in addressing the Ethiopian church said, “The Free Ethiopian Church of Southern Africa is one of the few surviving institutions from the previous century that is in the hands of the African people . . . Indeed, our people were not only dispossessed of their land and cattle but also of their pride their dignity and their institutions.”
If there is any evidence that Africans can run their institutions outside of Western influence, the Ethiopian church is an example of such an institution. Mandela said, “in celebrating this century, you my brothers and sisters, disproved the lie that the African people cannot run their own institutions.” The Ethiopian Church as an institution could be linked to the African National Congress (ANC) back to 1890. The tenets of the church, which Mandela outlined to be “self-worth, self-reliance and freedom,” were seeds that led to the formation of the ANC.
There is much that current churches on the continent can learn from the Ethiopian Church. While the Ethiopian Church stood firm against apartheid, there is another battle, this time, within, that must be fought, and churches have a larger role to play.
Mandela in his speech, mainly to the South African church, gave an outline of eight tasks the church must engage in: He said, “The church must: warn its adherents against the dangers of superficial changes that may leave power and privilege in the hands of whites and a sprinkling of affluent blacks; keep in public focus the legacy of apartheid; act as the conscience of the present and future society; take an active part in the mobilization of our society for democracy; help in the difficult task of national reconciliation that is underpinned by confession and restitution; put a lot of energy into the war on violence; take an active part in the building of a new nation in South Africa; help in finding a solution to the education crisis that apartheid created.”
While Mandela’s words, though written long ago and in a different context, can still be applied to the new wave of repression going around the continent. It’s a message for the church at a time of oppression, greed and neglect by governments, more especially governments made up of our very own people.
Mandela in his wisdom concluded by saying, “unless we as a society make full use of the potential our churches have, the democratization of our society is going to be slow and distorted in some instance.” There is no denying that the churches in Africa must step up to bigger roles beyond prosperity gospel and miracles and help in the building of nations.