By John Martin

Too many South Africans are being “intimidated to silence,” and political leaders who joined in the “old” struggle against apartheid “now punish those who would speak out against their mismanagement of our country,” the Archbishop of Cape Town has declared.

The Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba addressed a gathering of representatives of the South African mining sector, civil society, and faith communities that he hosted at Bishopscourt in Cape Town on Oct. 8. The aim of the gathering was to discuss the future of mining in South Africa in a meeting billed as a “Day of Courageous Conversations.”

Makgoba said in his opening remarks that this meeting was a first step for South Africa in a process begun at the Vatican two years ago. Makgoba attended a day of reflection hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in September 2013. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the president of the British Methodist Conference hosted a follow-up event at Lambeth Palace.

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Makgoba welcomed mining industry leaders and said they are “seeking to reposition the sector as one that can be a partner for long-term sustainable development with host communities and governments.” He hoped the dialogue would spread to communities “where mining is an integral part of the socio-economic fabric” of South Africa.

He shared a personal remembrance of how his father, a self-supporting minister, used to travel around mining centers selling items of clothing. With his untimely death the young Thabo took on the task of collecting payments. He was impressed by the honesty of his customers and their warm regard for his late father. Later, as a hospital psychologist, he was often called on to counsel miners who had suffered horrific spinal cord injuries in worksite accidents.

Churches “have failed the mining industry, both workers and managers. We have failed to take into account how risky mining is economically, one year a market-based success riding high on commodity prices, the next a business in quicksand,” he said.

“We have failed to understand the aspirations of people who want to earn R12,500 a month for working in conditions of extreme heat on stopes lying kilometres down in the earth. We have failed to understand the constraints on managers facing the relentless pressure of meeting shareholders’ expectations for better results.”

He called on his 60-member audience to enter a time of lamentation, in the same vein expressed by Old Testament authors as they sought to deal with their nation’s defeat and exile, given poetic form in the Book of Lamentations.

“In the words of one of my favourite theologians, Denise Ackermann, formerly of the universities of the Western Cape and of Stellenbosch: Lamenting ‘…is a refusal to settle for the way things are. It is reminding God that the human situation is not as it should be and that God as the partner in the covenant must act.’”

Lamentation, he added, is not navel-gazing; “it is not only exposing your vulnerability, but exposing it as a tool for leadership, because you can’t say ‘Let us move forward together’ without acknowledging the failures of the past.”

At the meeting’s conclusion the archbishop added: “We shared a commitment to seek collaborative solutions to the problems which threaten the sustainability of mining and the communities in which mines operate. I have every hope that the process which today’s discussion initiates will lead to action to develop creative new models of working constructively together.”

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