Reverend Gordon Oliver is Minister Emeritus of the Unitarian Community of Cape Town and is chairman of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative, a position he has held since 2009. From 1997-2008 he served as a minister of the Unitarian Church of Cape Town. Oliver joined the pastorate after almost two...
Post-Apartheid Reconciliation in South Africa
Georgetown University graduate student Ilan Cooper conducted interviews in May 2009 in Mozambique as part of an ongoing research initiative at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The aim of these interviews was to assess the role of religious actors in South Africa’s...
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Peacebuilding Practitioners Interview Series
We know very little about the role of religion in conflict situations and peacebuilding efforts. Religion intersects with other economic, social, political and other factors in complex ways. And faith communities are often arrayed on different sides of the same issue. In order to learn more about...
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> Fanie Du Toit
> Sharon February
> Gordon Oliver
A Discussion with Gordon Oliver of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative on the Importance of Modern Day Interfaith Work in South Africa
Background: As part of the Peacebuilding Practitioners Interview Series, Ilan Cooper interviewed Reverend Gordon Oliver, who currently serves as chairman of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative. In this interview, Oliver speaks about the role of religious actors in the political development of South Africa, especially during the transition period towards a more inclusive democratic system.
Interview Conducted on May 22, 2009
Can you briefly discuss your experiences and religious beliefs?
I’m a minister of the Unitarian Church. I was for the last 12 years. I retired last year as the Cape Town minister. However, I am still very active locally, nationally and internationally. I am also Chairman of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative. This grew out of the parliament of World religions event of 1999, which takes place every five years and originally has its roots in Chicago. I have much passion for interfaith initiative. I grew up as a Catholic and then became a member of the Methodist Church. Then I moved to the more liberal Unitarian movement. I say liberal as this is a creedless church. We lay no dogma requirements. But I also hold in my own life the value/beauty of all religions. This is related to conflict and your work because, to quote, “if there is no peace between the religions of the world then there will be no peace between humankind”. Interfaith dialogue is key. We must work together for social justice. I was in public life for 18 years. I was on the Cape Town city council and I was mayor for two years. Since I was young I have been passionate about the country’s issues. I was very involved when I was younger in the predecessor to the Democratic Alliance the Progressive Party. This was the torch bearer of white liberal politics. The Cape Town city council was the one council that went on record as being against apartheid. When I became mayor I did not overtly decide to have a political activist stance. However, in the 1980’s apartheid was at its worst and my years as mayor 1989-1991 were exciting ones. The role of mayor was a purely ceremonial one. It was not executive as it is now. One was supposed to be neutral. Essentially a glorified PR role. But I decided to take a stand politically against Apartheid. This in conjunction with Tutu’s stand and those of many others was very successful and received global attention.
How important was your faith in your career?
Religion has always been a part of my life. I have always attended church and I continue to go. I have raised my kids religiously too. There can be no separation of religion and the other spheres of my life. All religions are based on universal values. This is not to say that I am better than anyone. It just determines my ethics and my morality etc... However, when I was proposed for mayor and it was said that I was religious I did not want to be seen that way. I would rather be viewed as a fair person with values which have been derived from religious teachings.
What was the role of religious actors in the pre-transition period?
In this country religious actors were very vocal and active during this period. For example, the Methodist Church (which I was a member of from my late 20’s to my early 50’s) was very active during apartheid’s worst days in the 1960’s-1980’s. My minister would speak against apartheid even though it was a very white church and often people did not like it. On One occasion he gave a very political statement. I wrote to the minister after congratulating him and calling for a plan of action. Within my church there was both support and opposition to activism. But in general I am proud of how the Methodist, Anglican and other Churches performed. They were very vocal. Thus Muslim community too had a strong role as did the Jewish community, although I believe the latter never formally took a stand against apartheid. Though I may be wrong. Religion is very influential in mobilizing people and protecting people. Tutu and the Muslim Sheikhs would attend riots to stand up for justice and also to care for protestors. They often protected them. The church and the Muslim community were always very active.
What was the role of religious actors during the transition?
When Mandela was inaugurated Tutu said now the politicians are in place. Now we can stand back and leave the politics to the politicians. However, he has also spoken out against the current government. There were also at least one priest and one nun in parliament. Tutu’s successor has also stood up for the poor. He has confronted society, although not so much the government, on the issues of poverty. In particular internationally he has been vocally supportive of debt relief. It is nice to see religion doing work: for example ECCO is a religiously based organization which does work with the election processes. It was involved in all four democratic elections and in the last election I was involved with their work. They try and prevent conflict or violence in the elections.
Is the transition complete?
By no means. There are generations of work to do. We are still in the struggle. It is just a new struggle. Now it is a personal struggle. Social as well but mainly personal. The inner conflict has come to the fore. White people are generally not dealing with this enough. We will never reach a perfect society but there is a big role individually and collectively to be played. There is a lot of good will. But by and large the black population has been disappointed that whites have not reached out enough. White people tend to squirm when people say that but it is true.
What was the impact of religious communities on the consolidation of democracy?
Interfaith work is key. The transition is far from perfect. It is nice to see how the government has recognized the role of the religious community, such as with the establishment of the National Religious Leaders Forum (NRLF). The Western Cape Religious Leader Forum is another example. There is a huge contribution to make from this organization. They have already made a small contribution but this is starting to grow. They need to reach out to the communities.
In the broader context society generally & there is a struggle with religion. Religion sometimes reacts after an event/situation. It is not leading society. It is not using its prophetic voice. Tutu is closing that gap but lots of religious leader’s do not inspire society. This is a generalization as some do but still the point is valid. For example, on the issue of sexuality. I have fond memories of the Catholic Church because of my upbringing but they are struggling with these issues. For example, pedophilia and the question of their cover ups. Or the role of women in their church, or birth control. The Catholic Church help under wraps on these issues, whereas the Anglicans are transparent and openly trying to deal with it.
I am in the Inclusive and Affirming Ministers organization (IAM). It was founded by a gay Dutch Reformed minister who was banned in South Africa and moved to Holland. We need to try and change the attitude in the Christian Church with dialogue. The Church struggles with this issue and it is very significant. I respect the internal struggle that is going on and we need to continue work in this field on homosexuality and women’s rights etc...
In terms of politics: I am not aware of any active programs in the church to combat racism. The church is not doing enough of this. The Unitarian Church in South Africa, and Cape Town in particular is small. It has only one formal structure in Cape Town. During the apartheid era the Unitarians did little. They did not want to get involved and are fairly conservative anyway. This was a bad time in their history.
So why is it that the NRLF and others in the religious community have been unable to do much?
The initiative always comes from the government. For example the Western Cape NRLF is too new. It allows an interface between this community and the government but does not have an active enough role. The Interfaith Initiative has also not taken a formal political stand. They are aware of their influence in society but as a collective they have not spoken up. Individuals have but the collective has not. The Cape Town Interfaith Initiative has had a series of meetings on issues that we as people of faith need to engage with other sectors of society. This month there was one on ethical engagement in election processes and next month we will talk about economic justice from a faith perspective. We must ensure we must engage. Religion engaged in conflict in the apartheid era. They were confrontational. But now they are less so. Obviously the stance of those days would not be appropriate now but we need something. Tutu stood up against the apartheid guns and police and cartoons of this have become our history. Religion must engage in conflict lovingly and must stand up for what it believes in.
How would you respond to the accusation that religious communities have been largely silent in the post-apartheid era?
When apartheid ended there was the question of what now. What is my mission? We had suddenly got what we had struggled for so long. There were many questions asked as to what is our role now? Now there needs to be a new struggle. We must get involved in this. We must transform society. Move from a racist/discriminatory society to justice. It is hard for the church to define its role now.
What is the current relationship between the State and the religious communities?
The state has a healthy attitude to religion. The constitution guarantees religious freedom and this is a secular society. This is appropriate.