Don's Diary

November 17, 1995

Sunday. Early arrival in Johannesburg on a packed BA plane. Met by a University of South Africa (UNISA) staff member from the Research Institute for theology and religion where I am to speak later in the week. Spend first night in rural surroundings outside Pretoria in a Franciscan seminary, a racially mixed institution which under apartheid remained outside urban boundaries. The colourful community of black, white and brown students is my first experience of Tutu's "rainbow people".

Off to meet academics from different disciplines for an evening's discussion on spirituality. Welcome night's sleep under a cool thatched roof.

Monday. Early drive to Johannesburg. Although a public holiday, a mini-conference has been organised for some 40 women in a beautiful retreat centre. A whole day's programme on spirituality and interfaith dialogue with me as only speaker. Largely white audience, with a sprinkling of Irish nuns engaged in pastoral and educational work in outlying townships.

I move to a guesthouse closer to UNISA. Lovely garden with heavy jasmine scent in the air. I appreciate the comfort while coping with a busy week's lecturing.

Tuesday. Soweto lecture cancelled. My funding requires a talk to students in an underprivileged educational institution. Speaking to young black ministerial students in Pretoria is an acceptable replacement.

Afternoon rest and work on my lectures before giving a paper to the Dogmatic Society in the evening. Questions of systematic theology come up, but so do cultural and religious pluralism, new educational policies, and alternative learning methods. Key question how to find good teachers, given South Africa's huge needs at all levels of the educational system.

Wednesday. No lectures. The one planned at the University of the North is cancelled due to riots. Instead we drive around different districts of Soweto with a French priest, active in local politics for ten years, as a guide. His black friends greet him with hugs and laughter. We tour a high school. The teachers are despondent about the lack of resources. Seemingly without initiative or leadership, they expect too much from a government which can't deliver. Everybody speaks about the rise in violent crime.

What a welcome relief to meet a family in their small home, what a privilege to be received by Albertina Sisulu, one of South Africa's 90 women MPs (out of 490). More stories about violence, but also about the strength of the women, the mainstay of the families.

We drive another hour to visit a remote rural area with forcibly resettled black tribal groups. Many shacks, primitive temporary dwellings next to rows of water taps and toilets which have given the place the name "toilet town". A few Irish sisters are doing sterling work.

What a contrast to the wealth of Johannesburg and Pretoria. In my guesthouse, too, I hear about the new opportunities and problems. An Afrikaaner forensic scientist tells about his increased caseload created by the growing number of victims of violence; the black senior civil servant speaks of his government service between Pretoria and Cape Town and the slow process of change. From another Afrikaaner I learn about the government's "truth commission" enquiring into the atrocities of apartheid. Can the truth really come to light when so much is repressed?

Thursday. The conference day has come at last. The new "Forum for Religious Dialogue" is launched with a conference on "Religion and spirituality: a search for the experience of transcendence". My paper comes second in the morning. Can enjoy the rest of the day just listening.

Later I visit the large faculty of theology and religious studies at UNISA. The largest distance-teaching university in the world with over 126,000 students (57,000 blacks, 53,000 whites, the rest coloureds and Asians), it is not surprising that theology and religious studies alone has 91 full-time staff (only ten non-white, 12 women). Library very well stocked, more up-to-date and better IT facilities than my own.

Friday. I have to give a lecture at the annual Faculty Research Day devoted to "Challenges Facing Religious Education and Research". Time left for some sightseeing. I choose Jan Smuts's house to learn more about his politics and thought. I love the simplicity of his home and can use his quote, "We are not only starved of dollars, but of spiritual currencies."

A quick visit to the splendid, colonial Union Building dominating Pretoria, followed by the populous Asian market with its historic South Indian Tamil temple of 1905, now a protected monument.

Saturday. Television interview on women and spirituality. Afternoon visit to a simple, early farmstead before going to Sammy Marks's house. Large, opulent family house of a Jewish immigrant who made his fortune in the goldrush. Among his books the promising title The New South Africa, but from after the Boer War. As the attendant commented, all ideas come round again.

Sunday. Late morning service at Pretoria cathedral. Not many worshippers. Sunday family lunch with one of my hosts. Then another packed night flight back to London.

Professor and head of the department of theology and religious studies at the University of Bristol.

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