The promise and challenges of South Africa

Photo: Nolte Lourens/Shutterstock
Published November 20, 2017

“…A high birth rate (and) migration can transform the religious economy of a society…By 2050, by far the largest share of the world’s Christians will be found in Africa, which should have a billion or more believers. By that time about a third of the world’s Christians will be African, and those African Christians will outnumber Europe’s by more than two to one. The Christian world will be turned upside down.”

These insights appear in a recent book by Philip Jenkins entitled: A New Map of the Global Church. I read it just before my partner Marlene and I hosted a 19-day “spiritual travellers” tour with 23 other Canadians to South Africa and Swaziland.

The spiritual focus of our adventure centred on nature, culture and social/ecological justice. Geography, flora and fauna make this region a desired destination. What a beautiful place it is in so many ways!

Combining Jenkins’ insights into religious development with our spiritual goals resulted in significant cultural and justice discoveries for me.

First, the landscape and global impact of African Christianity are evolving and evident from our experience in South Africa. Second, we witnessed what might be termed a “post-Mandela” era there.

Christian Africa, including that part located south of the Sahara, is becoming a force to be reckoned with. Fifty-five years ago when I was first engaged in the study of theology, Africa was very much a mission field. Some of my school colleagues during the 1960s came from these countries. They were still the products of the colonial missionary movement of the nineteenth and early twentieh centuries. The Mandela era changed all that. Today, they are more likely to be senior church citizens, as modern, Indigenous African leadership with new energies, skills and perspectives have risen to take their place.

Secularization is much in evidence in South Africa, as it has impacted many other Westernized nations. But a strong core of African-styled churches is wielding a powerful impact on their societies, making them different from ours. South African Christianity is a unique blend of traditional European and modern African-styled churches. The successors to Archbishop Desmond Tutu represent a kind of “bridge” between influential African and the older Western forms of Christian expression.

It is now a generation since Mandela became the first democratically-elected president of a new South Africa. While he and many of his reform-minded associates are much venerated, significant changes are occurring in what was a miraculous South African revolution. While the old apartheid is thankfully gone, and a beautiful rainbow nation continues to emerge, a new apartheid is taking its place in terms of wealth. “Separation” continues unfortunately, but it is now based on economics, not on race, and remains a major future challenge.

Cultural development in South Africa is an intriguing exercise in comparison and contrast with our own Canadian experience. Remarkable efforts have been made in political and ecological justice. Some of the world’s most advanced human rights legislation is part of the nation’s contribution. At the same time, poverty and government corruption have taken new forms.

Great promise, as well as significant challenges, confront a new generation of South Africans. We were privileged to witness both in rewarding ways.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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