Monday, 2 November 2015


I am certain that if one grows up with Gentle Jesus on one shoulder and a cute guardian angel on the other your entry to priesthood would be quite different to mine. God was not an issue in my home so I’m not sure whether my family were agnostic or atheist. Dinner table conversations tended to revolve around politics, economics, topics such as the Kinsey Report on male sexual behaviour and my grandmother’s latest ‘brainless’ bridge bid.

The tone was often heated but never boring.

Perhaps the reason I’ve remained optimistic about South Africa is that I’ve been hearing predictions about my homeland’s demise ever since I was five years old. As with so many diet fads, it just hasn’t happened.

How clearly I remember my grandfather, who’d just failed to win a United Party seat in parliament, declaring in 1948 that the end was nigh. The Nationalist Party, architects of legislated apartheid, had clocked a landslide win.

My grandmother was more concerned about being raped by black men. This did require a basic sex lesson over breakfast which went largely over my five year old head. But I loved the hat pin she gave me as my very own weapon to carry in my school satchel.

The nuns at the nearest convent had accepted me at ‘big’ school early because I could read and knew my times tables.

They also offered a smorgasbord of Mary, Jesus, God (in that order) and a host of useful saints. It is a credit to my doting family that there were no snorts of derision when I advised my grandmother to consult St Christopher whenever she lost her spectacles.

Ironically it was because I’d been taught by my elders ‘to think’ that  by 14 I was seriously questioning their politics and my own perception of black people. 

My first mentor was a ‘domestic helper’ who used to clean our bathrooms at the convent boarding school I later attended. How patiently she answered my questions about life in the township and her family.

We’d always had ‘help’ in our home but I’d never perceived them as having a life beyond my personal needs.

Although our domestic helpers (note the plural) lived on our property I was not allowed into their quarters. A while before I started school my mother had shown me a tiny bug in a basin and explained that germs were a thousand times smaller which was why we couldn’t see them. 

And, she added, there were lots in those rooms in the backyard. So I was never to visit them and never to eat off a helper’s plate or take mealie pap out of  a pot. 

 Oh, and it wasn’t a good idea to play touch tongues with the neighbour’s kids either – those damn germs were everywhere!

I wish I could tell you I’ll never forget the name of my first black mentor. I'm not sure if I ever knew it because the friendship ended quite soon. The Irish nun in charge of our boarding section forbade the friendship and the cleaning lady was allocated to another part of the school. As the sister explained, it was ‘a class thing’.

Not that I had much social clout to spare.

Although my grandfather was a pharmacist, politician and intellectual he’d died when I was about six, having dropped while on a walk along the main Lyndhurst road. 

We had a large property and I still remember a ‘green mamba’, what we used to call the buses for black people, slowly winding its way up our long driveway. The driver had emptied the vehicle of passengers and brought his body to us.

My father inherited the family canvas business but left most of the shares in his mother’s name so that when my mother divorced him there wasn’t a very generous maintenance settlement. 

As a single-parent my mother couldn’t afford private school fees so a convent boarding school was our best option. 

I’m sure many who read this will horrified by the overt racism in this tale. Fact is even if we didn’t have Country Club membership, we whites were privileged beyond sensitivity. Even the  kindest, most religious folk lived in blissful ignorance of the cruelties of apartheid. 

Frankly, my dears, many were of the opinion that the early missionaries hadn’t done much to civilise the locals. 

Religious folk, including our Prime Minister, a pastor, were really clever at quoting the Bible to justify legislated segregation.

Most of us probably knew more about other planets than we did about the nearest township that provided our labour. Incidentally those townships were spatially designed so that if the ‘natives’ became troublesome they could be easily closed off with half a dozen tanks.

I’m not going to take you too deep down that atrocious pit. You may not be able to bear the pain. 

Suffice to say that by the time I matriculated my political genes had kicked in. I was, and still am, aware that sorry doesn’t do the trick.

As I look back on my priesting I am reminded of the pain of having to disassociate myself from party politics. I cannot tell you what it meant to serve as an observer in our first democratic elections in 1994. The hopes, the dreams, the path towards a rainbow nation. Our beloved Madiba.

Looking back entering the priesthood was much like matriculating. So many years focusing on a particular goal. Then you leave school and the door opens on another chapter in your life. The expectations are invariably unrealistic and reality can be harsh.

However, my years in Soweto were a privilege. 

In 2001 there was such a huge sense of new beginnings and of an emerging middle class. I’m often amused by those who are surprised by the growth of the cell phone industry in this country. 

What did they expect? By far the majority of our population had not been served by Telkom, our state owned telecoms provider. There were very few landlines in Diepkloof but I remember so well my first ‘Baptism class’. Of about 15, mostly young unemployed women, by far the majority owned a cell phone.  

For the first time in their lives my young parishioners were experiencing connectivity!

Meanwhile Archbishop Njongo was waging his battle to have third world debt cancelled. Among the many lessons I learned from him is that the debt incurred by emerging nations had already been repaid several times over. 

They were on a hamster wheel fueled by interest. 

More money was pouring into the global north than the other way round! Jongo’s allies included the world renowned economist Prof Jeffrey Sachs. They were both part of the Jubilee 2000 movement, named after the Biblical exhortation to observe a Jubilee year once every fifty years, in which debts would be forgiven. 

As they campaigned for the UN’s Millennium Development goals and cancellation of debt for highly indebted poor countries they were joined by U2 frontman Bono. (It was never boring working for Jongo.)

At yet another level, Jongo had Ted Karpf serving under him as an Episcopal Provincial Canon Missioner. This was on a HIV/Aids project called Isiseko Sokomeleza (Building the Foundation). 

You may remember an earlier blog in which I mentioned how the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton had agreed that Ted should be seconded to Africa.

In 2001 Ted was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to develop an international development pilot project under an initiative with the 10-million member Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa 
i.e. Jongo’s domain. (Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and St Helena)  

The project would run for nine years supported by the UK Department for International Development  and the US President's PEPFAR programme. These provided more than USD10 million a year. 

Two years later our ‘Big Gun’, as my son used to call Canon Ted,  was also named HIV/AIDS Coordinator of the world-wide Anglican Communion. He developed faith-based responses and community planning programmes globally. 

Traditionally the SA National Aids Council is chaired by our Deputy State President who at that time was Jacob Zuma. 

It may surprise you that in the midst of the Mbeki denialism and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala’s much derided beetroot campaign he provided Isiseko Sokomeleza with welcome support. 

This included addressing the All African Anglican Conference on HIV/AIDS in 2001.

Zuma lamented that the stigma attached to AIDS had resulted in horrific forms of discrimination and violence including rejection, ridicule and death. He spoke of the many families who had suffered untold pain and discrimination.

Jongo, who opened the conference warned the 130 delegates representing 34 countries, "We have an alarming tendency to be dazzled by statistics and a great need to put a human face to the people who are infected and affected."

It would become his mantra.

Ted was also a gay rights activist with a wonderful son and daughter from a marriage of 13 years. He'd ‘come out’ at age 40 in 1988, reporting that the role models were “few and far” between, but sexual liaisons were not. His partner for 12 years was HIV+ AIDS activist Warren W. Buckingham III.

At that conference I met another gay priest, Jape Heath. HIV positive, he was a founder of INERELA+ an international network of religious leaders, lay and ordained, women and men, living with, or personally affected, by HIV.

Jape with Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Both men would go on to earn global reputations for their work in the HIV/AIDS arena. Both would also underscore the invaluable contribution gay priests can make and why they deserve better from their Church.

Although my lifelong best friend was lesbian, she didn’t move in church circles so I’d never understood the unholy hurt religious lesbian and gay people experience.

In short, I’d discovered another insidious form of discrimination that still runs deep.

My friendship with Ted and Jape would add another dimension to my ministry as I increasingly counselled deeply troubled Christian men and women who had opted for heterosexual marriage in a desperate attempt to deny their sexuality and to please God.

I live in the hope that if we could stop quoting the Scriptures to justify slavery and apartheid this is also possible regarding lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans (LGBT) rights.

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