By Linda Bordoni
South African authorities have declared 8 May 2019, the day of National and Provincial elections, a public holiday.
President Cyril Ramaphosa made the announcement this week encouraging all workers to use the day to exercise their right to vote.
As the electoral campaign heats up pitting the ruling African National Congress against a number of opposition parties, the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference issued a pastoral letter inviting all South Africans to cast their ballots wisely and courageously, and not be distracted by false promises.
Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, President of the Bishops’ Conference, told Linda Bordoni, that 25 years after the elections that brought democracy to South Africa, there is an urgent need to eradicate corruption and boost employment for the common good of the country.
“We are asking people to take this opportunity to make things right” Bishop Sipuka said, explaining that while South Africa is truly a democratic country, its recent leaders have not lived up to expectations.
Without telling them who to vote for, he said, we are setting some principles and encouraging people to go to the polls.
Catholic Church in South Africa
Historically, the Catholic Church in South Africa has played an important role in the fight for equality and justice. I asked Bishop Sipuka whether its voice is taken into account by current leaders.
“Yes and not” he said, on the one hand the current government has lumped all the Churches (of different denominations) together, and on the other it divides those who “sing to the tune of the government from those who are critical”. And they, he said, tend to be sidelined.
“The voice of the Catholic Church is not heard as it used to be, because we are sidelined” he said.
A good strategy now, he continued, would be to come together with other Churches with similar mindsets, who would like to be prophetic for the common good.
Social projects and programmes
The South African Catholic Church has long been a major provider of health-care services, education, vocational training and support for those most in need.
Bishop Sipuka laments the fact that lack of support, on the part of the government in the past years, has led to the inevitable closing-down of clinics and to the dwindling of HIV/AIDS programmes that lack funding.
“In spite of all the historical evidence, the government does not appreciate the work of civil society or of the Church” he said.
He also expressed his firm belief that the Church can make a meaningful contribution to the wellbeing of the people, and said that “if there were more cooperation people would be better served”.
The Bishops’ Pastoral Letter asks people to reflect on a series of problems and attitudes and calls for a peaceful, free and fair election. It also contains an appeal for political parties, for the media and a call to prayer.
Role of the Media
I asked Bishop Sipuka what exactly are the media being called to do?
We are calling on the media not to sensationalize things, he said, not to take sides: “just as we are calling on the faithful to vote according to principles, the media is called to do the same thing” because it is not always impartial, pushing different ideological agendas.
“We are calling on the media to be neutral: that they stick to facts and truth” he said.
The Government’s biggest challenge
Commenting on poverty that still afflicts larges swarthes of the country and large numbers of the population, Bishop Sipuka expressed his belief that one thing that is urgently needed is to “put efficient people” in places of public administration.
He said that one of the country’s problems is that too often, money is budgeted but is then either not spent, or badly spent.
“The time for political patronage should come to an end” he said.
Sikupa also dwelt on the momentous problem of unemployment, especially for the young, and said that the ultimate solution is not to be found in grants, but in allowing everybody to participate in the economy “instead of just being the recipients of grants”.
He spoke of the need for rural development and agriculture, an issue he is very clear about as he comes from Umtata in the south east of the country “where up to 40 or 50 percent of the people are unemployed”.
He described a desperate situation in which the youth, including those who are of child-bearing age and their children are dependent on their parents: “they all live on their grandmother’s pension, and that is not good”.
“I hope the President will put his money where his mouth is” and deliver on his promises; not repeat what happened during the last election campaign when the promise of grants was being used to “buy” votes.
Bishop Sipuka also said he hopes the election will not be violent and that politicians will be fair with each other. He noted that there are a lot of tensions among the parties and also within the ruling party that is deeply divided by factions.
“I hope the focus will not be on the politicians and on those vying for this or that position, but on the people and on getting the economy and social system right”.
Finally,Bishop Sikupa voiced his hope that efforts to root out corruption succeed - not only in the government - but also in private sectors, where he explained, businessmen syphon huge amounts of money out of the country as they make huge profits in South Africa but then do not invest in the country “to create more jobs for example”.
“One hopes, he concluded, “that all these things will be addressed because only then, to use the slogan of the Ruling Party: Life will be Better for All”.