On February 11, 1990, after spending 27 years jailed as a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela appeared on the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall and appealed to his fellow citizens: “Today the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognize that apartheid has no future. It has to be ended by our own decisive mass action in order to build peace and security.”
Just a few blocks away from that City Hall, on an otherwise unremarkable street corner, a small placard reads: “All who pass by remember with shame the many thousands of people who lived for generations in District Six and other parts of this city and were forced by law to leave their homes because of the color of their skins. Father, forgive us.”
District Six—an inner city neighborhood once made up of former slaves, migrants, and artisans—became ground zero of apartheid in South Africa when in 1966 the region was officially declared a “white area.” Over the next two decades more than 60,000 residents were forcibly resettled in townships outside of the city.
While the area once prided itself on its ethnic diversity and social cohesion, the apartheid era government gave legal sanction to racist policies that continue to haunt the entire nation. Less than three decades later, however, South Africa is a transformed country, though not without significant challenges.
By all major accounts, the ruling government is steeped in corruption, employment has stagnated, and crime rates are high.
But what has improved are race relations—albeit imperfectly—and today the country serves as a testament to a resilient people who understand that racial reconciliation is critical to freedom. Their story offers lessons that extend far beyond their borders.
Some have described racial relations in South Africa as a “constant miracle” or a “strong fabric”, and a recent major report from the South African Institute of Race Relations concluded that the results should “fill the country with hope.”
The primary reason attributed to this change? Creating a culture of dialogue.
This lesson, in fact, dates back to John Paul II, (whom Mandela would later meet on three occasions and refer to as his “brother”) in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis and his insistence of “each people’s equal right to be seated at the table of the common banquet.”
It’s one that has been popularized by Pope Francis’s continual call to build a “culture of encounter.” It’s also a lesson the U.S. bishops have taken to heart in the newly released report of their Special Task Force looking to improve racial and community relations here at home.
“For those suffering from injustice in society, one vital component for lasting change is for people to be able to participate in the conversation about their future and the transformation of their lives,” the bishops note.
An essential part of this conversation must be an honest reckoning with the sins of the past, both within and outside of the Church and a renewed commitment to truth telling. John Paul II demonstrated this at the turn of the new millennium when he called for a “purification of memory,” while asking forgiveness for the way that many Christians treated the Jews.
It’s what Pope Francis demonstrated when he apologized for the Church’s “grave sins” against indigenous people in Latin America. And it’s what Georgetown University recently did when they announced proactive measures to atone for profiting from slavery.
The Church in the United States today is made up of almost fifty percent of people of color. This diversity should be celebrated and welcomed—and it should also be accompanied by an aggressive commitment to fostering reconciliation as a necessary condition toward promoting justice and a more intentional solidarity among those in our pews.
Recent polling confirms that most Americans are pessimistic about the current state of race relations in this country, with rising rates of violence and hatred. It seems all the more critical that the Church become not just a leading voice against racism, but a prominent player actively fostering dialogue and promoting concrete solutions within our communities.
The Special Task Force has some helpful recommendations — including a new, comprehensive statement on racism from the full body of bishops — but actual change will require the commitment of parishes and priests, community leaders and churchgoers of all varieties, law enforcement and the laity.
“We are accustomed to a culture of indifference and we must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter…that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of God, the dignity of a living person,” as Pope Francis has reminded us.
As we seek to overcome such indifference, particularly when it comes to racial relations, the Church must appropriately remember what we have done — and what we have failed to do — and renew our commitment to righting such wrongs.