Speech at St. George’s Cathedral Exhibition of 20th Anniversary of the Historic Peace March of September 13, 1989
September 10, 2009
Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar
Greetings of Peace!
I would like to commend Dean Rowan Smith and the leadership of St. George’s Cathedral as well as Gordon Oliver and the many others who have helped to organize this commemorative exhibition of a watershed event in the history of the city of Cape Town and indeed of our beloved country as a whole.
In many ways the Peace March of September 13, 1989 opened the way for unprecedented civil protests against apartheid across the country and created the conditions for the final phase in the long and arduous struggle for the eradication of the evil apartheid system.
This exhibition and the Interfaith Service of Celebration commemorating the 20th anniversary of a defining moment in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle are significant for a number of reasons.
First, we often lament the fact that our many of our Youth who were reared in post-apartheid South Africa lack the spirit of activism that animated and energized their parents.
But what have we done to empower the new generations of youth to use our collective memories of the heroic anti-apartheid struggle to secure a better future for South Africa?
This exhibition and the formal commemoration on Sunday is one creative way of passing on that legacy to the next generation.
But why the cynic may ask, is a memory of this Peace March and anti-apartheid struggle necessary at all?
For one thing the apartheid legacy of racism and economic injustices continue to bedevil life in democratic South Africa.
The City of Cape Town is often depicted as the most divided one in the country.
There is still much work to be done to rid our city and our country from the scourge of racism and economic injustices.
A second reason why a commemoration like this is vital is that it serves not only as a reminder but as source of inspiration of what is possible when ordinary citizens are united.
The historic March of September 1999 was an outcome of the strong interfaith links and solidarity that had been forged by the different religious communities and denominations of Cape Town in the struggle against apartheid. A number of observers have noted that the once vibrant interreligious movement has been in some disarray. It has struggled to make the transition from a “theology of resistance” to a “theology of reconstruction”. The interreligious movement has lost a good deal of its motivation, intellectual vitality and support base, and is currently held together by a small band of committed activists with an undefined agenda. The most obvious example is the virtual collapse of the flagship of the South African interreligious movement, the WCRP (SA). The challenges facing interreligious activists in post-apartheid South Africa is to encourage the nurturing and formation of a new crop of progressive religious leaders and to strengthen and reinvigorate the grassroots interreligious movement.
Last but not least, it is my hope and earnest prayer that this commemorative event will reinvigorate the religious community with regard to their prophetic role as the moral conscience of our nation. In this regard the role of the religious communities and in particular its leadership should not be focused exclusively on seeking patronage with political power but rather seek to become an integral and vibrant part of the broader civil society and non-governmental organizations. Religious leader’s needs to resist temptations of being apologists for the political authorities, of simply getting co-opted by government or powerful political parties in serving their expedient agendas.
The role of the religious community should be that of a moral conscience of our nation alongside other organizations in civil society. Religious leaders have a duty to exhort and challenge government whenever we perceive them to be failing in their political mandate. They were elected by us and we have a political right and obligation to censure and criticizethem. At the same time we also have a responsibility to support and collaborate with government in areas of mutual concern and benefit. Genuine support and critical distance should not be opposed positions in our relationship with the state. Such a position is complex and demanding but it is free of the expediencies and political opportunism of opposition political parties.
We were all touched and deeply moved by the generosity and hospitality of religious communities across our city and country to the plight of our fellow African victims of the xenophobic attacks of May 2008 .
I am also inspired by what appears to be the re-emergence of a strong civil society. The launching of Social Justice Networks by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is a case in point.
The challenge facing us at this critical juncture in the history of our beloved country is how do we build on and sustain the revitalized civil society in our city and across our country.
It is my hope, and I believe the goal of the organizers, that this exhibition and the commemorative interfaith service on Sunday will be used as the starting point for a new consciousness and appreciation of the vital role of ordinary citizens, people of faith and of none, in the struggle to heal and transform our city and our country.