Ndungane continues to serve

Former Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town marks many milestones this month and this year, writes Ryland Fisher.

This is a bittersweet year for former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town Njongonkulu Ndungane, who is commemorating several milestones, with the month of September being especially significant.

Ndungane, who turned 75 on February 2, was consecrated as a bishop on September 8, 1991, 25 years ago. He was elected archbishop on September 1, 1996, 20 years ago and he was enthroned on September 14, 1996 as archbishop, a position he held for 11 years.

But this year also marks the 50th anniversary of his release from Robben Island, where he was sentenced to three years in 1966 for furthering the aims of a banned organisation.

It also marks 30 years since his first wife, Nosipo, died in February 1986.

Ndungane, who was born in Kokstad in East Griqualand, but moved to Langa as a teenager, is celebrating the special year with a host of activities, including church services and the launch of an intergenerational dialogue.

“This year and month are special, but I am now truly a senior citizen,” Ndungane joked in an interview at his Glencairn home.

He spoke about his special celebrations, what he has been doing since he stepped down as archbishop nine years ago, but also touched on current issues, such as the state of education and politics in South Africa, and the debate around sexuality in the Anglican church.

Ndungane’s father was also a priest. He was transferred to Langa in Cape Town when Ndungane was 18, and this is where he became politically involved. “We normally played soccer on Sunday afternoons. One day a crowd gathered around Bhunga Square, which is where politicians usually came to speak, and we were told that it was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (the PAC leader) who had come to launch his campaign for the abolition of pass laws.

“We went to listen to him. We forgot about soccer and got captured by Sobukwe.”

This was the beginning of 1960 and Ndungane had just started studying towards a BCom degree at UCT (“I wanted to earn big bucks.”).

However, his studies took a back seat as he began to campaign against the pass laws. “Eventually the long arm of the law caught up with me and I was sentenced in Stellenbosch to three years in prison for furthering the aims of a banned organisation. I remember leaving the court in Stellenbosch in chains, in handcuffs and leg-irons.”

Ndungane said being imprisoned on Robben Island was “hell on earth”.

“I think the whole idea was to make us regret what we had been doing. Of course, we knew there are no people on earth who were bent on freedom who came back empty-handed.”

Both his father and grandfather were priests, but he had vowed not to become a priest because he saw how they struggled. “Before the decision to become a priest, I wrestled with God. I asked how could a good God, who created the world so beautiful, also create so much suffering.

“Suddenly there was a moment when I stopped questioning and found inner peace, as if God had touched me and said, I want to use you in the ministry of reconciliation.’ That was a moment when I decided I needed to think about ordination.”

Ndungane’s first posting as a priest was in Athlone. “I was the first person with this kind of colour to minister to residents of Athlone, which was quite a challenge in itself. The laws of the day did not allow people like me to reside in Athlone, let alone minister to people other than black Africans.

“After a few years, when Desmond (Tutu) became archbishop, he invited me to be his executive officer and it was from that position that in 1991 I was elected bishop of Kimberley and Kuruman, a huge diocese stretching from De Aar to Upington and taking in the whole of Kuruman.”

Five years after being elected bishop, Ndungane became archbishop of Cape Town, following in Tutu’s footsteps. But he said he wasn’t intimidated about filing Tutu’s shoes. “I have always taken the view that the God who calls is the God who equips and God raises people with different gifts for different times. Desmond did a stunning job as archbishop and he had those kind of gifts and charisma to drive that agenda. I was not going to be him.

“It so happened that there was the whole question of international debt, Jubilee 2000. I got sworn in as the patron of Jubilee 2000 which had significance in terms of the abolition of debt to developing countries. The eradication of poverty became a major issue during my time.”

Since he stepped down as archbishop in 2007, Ndungane has been working mainly on two projects: the African Monitor and the restoration of historic schools. “Thabo Mbeki and other African presidents had championed the idea of a development agenda crafted by Africans which they presented to the G8, or the G7 as it then was. The African governments committed themselves to development and the G7/G8 committed themselves to making funds available for development on the continent.

“I realised that there would be a need to monitor the funds that the developed nations give, and what African governments do with it. After consulting with various formations on the continent, civil society organisations and religious bodies, we decided to establish the African Monitor.”

The second project in which he is still involved deals with the restoration of historic schools. “Pallo Jordan, who was minister of arts and culture, asked me whether I would champion the restoration of historic schools into centres of education and cultural excellence. These are the schools which produced leaders of integrity and calibre in our country.”

Ndungane said the celebrations of his special anniversaries started two Sundays ago with church services in Langa. These were followed by the launch of an intergenerational dialogue at Robben Island on Thursday.

“We got people who were involved in the liberation movement and young people of today to enter into some dialogue in terms of moving the agenda forward. We hope that this will be an annual event.

“Then we have a celebratory service in Stellenbosch (today) where we will be giving thanks for all that has been and for all that will be.

“All of this will culminate in a service in Mthatha Cathedral on December 16. Most of my family are there and my father’s and mother’s graves are in Mqanduli and in the tradition of our fathers, we need to do something near where our parents are.”

On the state of South Africa today, Ndungane said there were positives and negatives. “The great thing is that we are a constitutional democracy and that we have a constitution that is a great document and that gives us hope for the future.

“We have institutions that are the guardians so that we don’t deviate from the constitution. The public protector is one and Thuli Madonsela has done a wonderful job. Then we have the judiciary, which is making sure that the rule of law is maintained. We have a vigilant press and a vibrant civil society.

“The downside is what is happening in the present leadership of the ANC. It is sad when the Constitutional Court rules that the president has violated his oath of office and quite a lot of people, even within the ANC, have been saying that he should step down because he is taking the country in a wrong direction. I support that call.

“Our education problems should have been addressed long ago. In 1988, following the national poverty hearings, I made a call for a Marshall Plan on education and the funding of universities. Had we attended to it then, we would not be having this problem.”

Ndungane said the issue of sexuality had been on the Anglican Church’s agenda for many years.

“Sometimes we don’t take the right decisions and sometimes we are nervous to move forward.

“I was privileged in 1998, at the Lambert Conference, to chair a section which dealt with the ethical issues of the day, including sexuality. We put together a group of about 60 bishops from across the world, some from extremely conservative to radically liberal, under one roof to deal with this issue. For two weeks, it was a ding dong with this group until they found each other.

“We said that there was still so much work that needed to be done, and we didn’t want a resolution placed at Lambert, but we wanted our report to go down to the dioceses and parishes for discussion. We could come back to the next session of Lambert to deal with this issue.

“Unfortunately, the archbishop of Canterbury wanted a resolution which was debated in the full house, in the full view of the media. It was a disastrous debate.”

(First published in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 24 September 2016)

You can view the full interview here: