On December 6, 2013, I, along with millions of South Africans, woke to the news that Nelson Mandela had died. For the next ten days, South Africans would be plunged into a liminal period of commemoration: one marked by scenes of celebration, protest, and jubilation rather than tears and lament. As a white North American, conducting field research for my dissertation, this proved an incredible time of reflection. In what follows, I offer some snapshots of how Mandela was memorialized in Johannesburg and what this reveals about the current religious, political, and racial landscape.
Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’
I have been observing and analyzing religious trends in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa for several decades, with a particular focus on new religious movements, variously termed “minority religious groups,” “sects,” or “unconventional religious groups.” My years of living in southern Nigerian cities afforded me valuable insights into the workings of complex religious landscapes. As democratization, neoliberalism, media deregulation, and global religious activism increasingly change the stakes of coexistence between religious groups, and between such groups and the state, the management of Africa’s increasingly competitive religious public spheres has become a more compelling area of investigation.
Unlike Europe and North America, the discussions in South Africa relating to religious freedom do not center on the extent to which religion can be excluded from the public domain but rather the extent to which it can be accommodated. It is not surprising that South Africa has chosen to respond to the issue of religious freedom in a more tolerant manner given its discriminatory-laden history under colonialism and apartheid. While race-based discrimination was the most obvious, religion was a further invidious form of discrimination. Christianity was the dominant religion and was often used by the apartheid government to justify its oppressive laws. For instance, marriages that did not conform to Christian values such as monogamy and opposite-sex unions were regarded as uncivilized relationships that were not worthy of legal recognition. Thus, potentially polygynous marriages such as African customary marriages as well as Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and same-sex marriages did not enjoy the legal protection that Christian marriages enjoyed.
In his new publication, Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa, David Chidester explores South African indigenous religious heritage and the meaning and power of this religion in a changing South African society.
Recently I am struck by the ambiguity of the concept of the religious. Reading Linda Heuman’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, and then turning to Bellah’s book itself, after having been reading Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, I feel as I have before how uncertain it is that we who write about religion in history are all writing about the same thing! Bellah’s book is an attempt to factor that uncertainty into the equation, for sure. In one part of Bellah’s overall reconstruction of “axial transitions” (including the birth of monotheism), he considers three case studies, two Native American and one Aboriginal Australian, with scrupulous care. The idea is to get a picture—before the shift to the ecumenical story, when the forces of the axial age change everything—of developmentally prior, not to say primordial, religions, without adopting anything as distortive as a model or a linear theory.
David Kyuman Kim’s conversation with Jean Comaroff for the “Rites and Responsibilities” dialogue series, which originally appeared on this website last January, has been republished in the May 2011 issue of the journal Cultural Anthropology.
Mahmood Mamdami places the Egyptian revolution and other protest movements in the historical context of popular struggle in Africa.
As National Research Director for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Charles Villa-Vicencio was intimately involved in the historic process that followed the collapse of apartheid and paved the way for a new social order. As a theologian, prior to the commission, he had spoken out against the apartheid regime, writing and editing numerous books that helped lead South African Christians out of complacency about their government’s policies. After the commission concluded, he founded the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, in Cape Town, and now advises peacebuilding efforts around the world. His most recent book is Walk with Us and Listen: Political Reconciliation in Africa (Georgetown University Press, 2009). We spoke at the offices of Georgetown University’s Conflict Resolution Program, where Villa-Vicencio serves as a visiting scholar.
At the end of our last post (an extension of our discussions at the IWM Summer School in Cortona), we asked whether secularism and liberalism in fact always go together, as is often supposed. In our second round of Skype conversations, we began to address this question by discussing a related one: to what degree are liberalism and privatized religion necessary for democracy? This discussion was inspired by our IWM course on “Religion and Democracy,” taught by José Casanova and Marcin Krol, which drew on examples of democratic societies to examine the variety of roles that public religion and liberalism, respectively, play in enhancing or inhibiting democratic life.
Since our previous dispatch from the IWM Summer School in Cortona, we have settled back into our real lives in London, New York, and Washington, DC, respectively. But the discussions inspired by the summer school have continued—over email and group chats—and we wanted to share with you one recent exchange that followed from our course on “Religion and Multiple Modernities,” taught by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Sudipta Kaviraj, and Charles Taylor. The course drew on examples from European and Indian history that prompted us to think about the relation between modernity (a concept that itself was called into question) and secularism.