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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Thabo Mbeki's Bible: The Role of the Religion in the South African Public Realm after Liberation

Since its arrival in South Africa, the Bible has been a focus of struggle,[1] though often in more complex ways than most postcolonial analysis has acknowledged. But what of our current moment? Having played an important role in the liberation struggle, where it was constantly center stage within the public realm, what is the place of the Bible nearly a decade and a half after liberation?

The answer is that the Bible no longer occupies the same kind of place in the public realm in South Africa. Indeed, religion in general has receded to the private sphere. Part of the impetus has been self-imposed. Having partially provided the platform for resistance to apartheid while the liberation movements were banned, religious institutions have readily conceded this territory to the liberation movements and political parties since shortly before the year of our liberation in 1994. Another aspect of this retreat has been driven by our secular state (or, more accurately, religion-neutral state) and Constitution. The effect on prophetic religion has been substantial; here I will briefly reflect on this shift, focusing on Christianity, the religion with which I am most familiar.

From the Public to the Private

The Kairos Document is an illuminating example of where we find ourselves today. With profoundly insightful and deeply controversial analysis,[2] The Kairos Document identified three kinds of theology in South African Christianity. The bold assertion that there was more than one theology was in itself a massive contribution, changing forever how South Africans (and others) view Christianity. The characterization of these three kinds of theology took the analysis further and marks The Kairos Document as one of the most profound theological statements to emerge from Christian sectors in South Africa's long history of engagement with Christianity.

The Kairos Document named these three theologies as follows: State Theology, Church Theology, and Prophetic Theology. Briefly, "State Theology" is the theology of the South African apartheid State (and its church-based substantiation), which "is simply the theological justification of the status quo with its racism, capitalism and totalitarianism. It blesses injustice, canonises the will of the powerful and reduces the poor to passivity, obedience and apathy."[3] "Church Theology" is in a limited, guarded, and cautious way critical of apartheid. "Its criticism, however, is superficial and counter-productive because instead of engaging in an in-depth analysis of the signs of our times, it relies upon a few stock ideas derived from Christian tradition and then uncritically and repeatedly applies them to our situation."[4] The Kairos Document advocates for a "Prophetic Theology," a theology that "speaks to the particular circumstances of this crisis, a response that does not give the impression of sitting on the fence but is clearly and unambiguously taking a stand."[5]

What The Kairos Document referred to as "State Theology" (the theology of the apartheid state) is gratefully gone. Our state is resolutely religion neutral and the Constitution, not the Bible, is its inspired text. "Prophetic Theology" has diminished, with many of its practitioners now in government or "parastatal" structures, implementing the policy of the African National Congress (ANC)-led alliance (which includes the Confederation of South African Trade Unions [COSATU] and the South African Communist Party [SACP]) under the guidance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. "Church Theology," however, is on the upsurge. The space created by the demise of State Theology and the diminishing of Prophetic Theology has been filled by new forms of Church Theology. Church Theology is best characterized in my view by what Walter Brueggemann describes as a theology of "consolidation which is situated among the established and secure and which articulates its theological vision in terms of a God who faithfully abides and sustains on behalf of the present ordering."[6]

Ironically, our liberation-movement-led democratic government, which includes large numbers of theologians who drafted or supported The Kairos Document, exerts considerable pressure on the religious sector to stay within the confines of Church-type theology. In the public sphere, religion is deployed to deal with matters of morality, narrowly defined. So crime, corruption, and condoms are its terrain, not macro-economic policy.

Civil society too seems content to see religion almost exclusively within the ambit of Church-type theology. Celebrating the demise of State Theology and its hold on civil society, civil society is embarrassed by religion and so has relegated religion to the margins of public discourse. Though not surprising, given the evils of Christian National Education and other heresies, the bracketing of religion in a thoroughly religious society like South Africa simply compounds the problem, relegating it to the sphere of Church-type theology.

Obviously, it is not only these sectors that prefer the current predilection for Church Theology. Conservative forces in the churches are reveling in the space that an unlikely consensus over the preference for Church Theology is providing. Church leaders who were vocal proponents of Church (and even State) Theology in the 1980s now share platforms with government officials, and there appears to be a consensus within the institutional church (and other religious institutions) that morality is the terrain of religion.

What The Kairos Document itself got wrong was its analysis about the Bible and its conclusion that "It hardly needs saying that this kind of faith and this [Church Theology] type of spirituality has no biblical foundation."[7] Unfortunately, Church Theology does in fact have a substantial biblical foundation. This was the very argument of Takatso Mofokeng and his Black theologian compatriot Itumeleng Mosala,[8] one that The Kairos Document failed to grasp (to our current cost). Indeed, what characterizes our current moment, particularly within the public realm, is that we have been left with an uncontested notion that the Bible is both about Church Theology and its exclusive property. Even our State President, Thabo Mbeki, seems to be taking up the Bible for Church Theology-type projects.

Mbeki's Bible

The tendency of left-leaning, ex-prophetic theologians to abandon the Bible in our current post-liberation context is understandable but dangerous. Church Theology is regaining its ground at a rapid rate; having been on the defensive in the period immediately after liberation, it has now regrouped, especially as it has been granted more or less uncontested access to the Bible.

Thabo Mbeki, the South African President, has come to recognize, I will argue here, that the Bible remains a significant text in the South African context and has chosen, therefore, to harness its resources, attempting both to coopt this silo of the masses and increasingly to deploy it in addressing the moral fiber of South African public life. While Mbeki has always been fond of and adept at using "classic" literature in his speeches, ranging from local African poetry to Shakespeare, he has increasingly cited the Bible, recognizing perhaps that the masses are more likely to connect with the Bible than almost any other literature and that he must therefore contend for its meaning, appropriating its purported (Church Theology) moral aura.

In his earlier appropriations of the Bible, Mbeki had tended to dispute its contribution. In an address to the 25th Meeting of the Association of African Central Bank Governors,[9] Mbeki begins by tackling "those who are sceptical of our capacity as Africans to overcome our problems of many centuries." "In other words," he says a little later, "Africa and Africans are forever condemned to be the hopeless continent and people." He then immediately cites "the offensive biblical discussion about the children of Ham, Shem and Japhet" in Gen 9:24-26, which he goes on to cite in full. He follows this up with the quotation of Josh 9:23, before commenting on both:

I raise these questions because, as I have said, there are some who are convinced that ours is cursed to remain permanently a hopeless continent.

I mention them also because I assume that before you became central bank governors, you were Africans, whom some claim to be descendants of Ham. I also assume that despite the fact that you are central bank governors, you remain, still, African.[10]

Clearly Mbeki is contesting racist interpretations of these texts[11] and probably the Bible itself, if we assume (as his speech seems to suggest) that these texts are about race.

Mbeki has also been quite negative about the Bible, albeit indirectly. Some years ago, he invoked the ire of many South Africans, when he stated quite unambiguously that those who come out of teacher training, "for instance, with Biblical Studies . . . are not going to get very many jobs for that."[12] Vast numbers of our people have done Biblical Studies at school (under the apartheid era education system), many taking it as far as "matric" and then going on to take it as university. So they were outraged at Mbeki's dismissal of this discipline. However, the discipline of biblical studies in our apartheid educational system was an integral part of the Christian National Education systems ideological agenda, and so Mbeki is making a larger point here than simply questioning its market value. But he must have been aware of the displeasure he invoked by making this statement on radio.

However, there are also clear indications of Mbeki's appropriation of the Bible as an inherently positive text. As early as 1995, while Mbeki was Deputy President, he said that the liberation government's Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) had "established a unique national consensus on the need for prosperity, democracy, human development and the removal of poverty." "However," he goes on to say, "despite its almost biblical character, the RDP Base Document did not provide us with all the answers." This is because, he continues, "We have always known that its many many priorities and programmes need to be distilled into a series of realistic steps, guided by a long term vision and our resource constraints."[13] While he may be making a rather back-handed affirmation here—implying that though prophetically visionary the Bible is not truly realistic—Mbeki does seem to view the "biblical character" of the RDP as a positive attribute.

Most recently, however, Mbeki seems to deploy the Bible more substantially and less problematically. In his "State of the Nation Address" in February 2006, Mbeki used a quotation from the biblical book of Isaiah to frame the address. [14] He quoted the biblical text in English, using the New King James Version (his favored translation), followed immediately with a quote of the text again, this time from the Xhosa translation of the Bible. The focus of this speech is his reflection on the state of the nation within the "historic challenge" set before the nation by Nelson Mandela at "the very first Annual Regular Opening of our Democratic Parliament, on 24 May 1994." Mandela posed the challenge then in the following words, quoted by Mbeki: "We must, constrained by and yet regardless of the accumulated effect of our historical burdens, seize the time to define for ourselves what we want to make of our shared destiny."[15] Mbeki uses these words of Mandela as a regular refrain throughout the speech; and he does similarly with the Isaiah text.

In his usual style, Mbeki draws on a wide range of "classical" literature in this speech, setting up this speech with quotations from Nelson Mandela, then Ingrid Jonker, then Shakespeare, and then the Bible. However, Mandela's and the Bible's words are given a larger rhetorical role, providing the speech with its thematic coherence. One of the things that becomes apparent from a close reading of Mbeki's speeches is how fragile the coherence is. What often holds them together are regular rhetorical repetitions of particular phrases. This feature characterizes the cadence of many of Mbeki's speeches. In this speech, the contribution of Mandela and the Bible is substantial. The quotation from Mandela provides the challenge; the quotation from the Bible provides the promise. In his own words Mbeki acknowledges this, saying,

We have known that it would take considerable time before we could say we have eradicated the legacy of the past. We have expected that the circumstances handed down to us by our history would indeed condemn us to a "petty pace" [alluding to the Shakespeare quotation from Macbeth] of progress towards the achievement of the goal of a better life for all.

And yet today, as I stand here to speak . . . I feel emboldened to appropriate for our people the promise contained in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, when God said:

For you shall go out with joy, And be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills Shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress tree, And instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree . . . [Isa 55:12-13, NKJV][16]

He then summarizes what he is about to elaborate in his speech in the following way, appropriating both Mandela and the Bible:

What has been achieved since Nelson Mandela delivered his first State of the Nation Address, and what we can do, given the larger resources that have since been generated, has surely given hope to the masses of our people, that it is possible for all Africa to hear the mountains and the hills singing before them.[17]

As I will argue more fully below, it is no accident that Mbeki invokes the Bible in the same breath as he invokes the masses. Ingrid Jonker and Shakespeare resonate with the few; Mandela and the Bible with the masses.

Mbeki then goes on to argue that despite continuing political violence, especially in KwaZulu-Natal and including the assassination of Chris Hani, both ordinary South Africans and South African business owners "are firmly convinced that our country has entered its Age of Hope."[18] He then immediately links this "Age of Hope" with the promise of the prophet Isaiah, again quoting the extract cited above, introducing the quotation by saying that "Through our National Effort they [the people of South Africa] can see the relevance to our situation of God's blessings communicated in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah."[19]

There are good reasons, continues Mbeki, for this "inspiring perspective about our future shared by the majority of our people,"[20] given the many "outstanding achievements" made by these self-same South Africans; achievements made in response, Mbeki says, "to the call made by Nelson Mandela in 1994 from this podium."[21] Once again the words of Mandela are quoted. Mandela's words are then invoked again a short while later as Mbeki turns from his analysis of the past to his hopes for the future. The achievements of the struggle against apartheid and the post-apartheid period have ushered in the "Age of Hope." Now, Mbeki continues, it is the government's responsibility to "play its role" in giving "new content to our Age of Hope."[22] He then enumerates and elaborates what the government is working on, focusing especially on the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa, social grants, health care, and land reform.[23]

Having outlined the trajectories of the future, Mbeki draws to a close by stating, "Clearly the masses of our people are convinced that our country has entered into its Age of Hope." Not only will their county "not disappoint" their expectations,

They are confident that what our country has done to move away from our apartheid past has created the conditions for them to appropriate God's blessing to the Prophet Isaiah:

For you shall go out with joy, And be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills Shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands [Isa 55:12, NKJV].

"It is up to us," he concludes,

through our National Effort, to build a winning nation, to do all the things that will ensure that the mountains and the hills of our country break forth into singing before all our people, and all the trees of the field clap their hands to applaud the people=s season of joy. Thank you.[24]

Absent here is any backhandedness. The Bible has taken center-stage with Mandela, offering a vision that can be embraced by all South Africans, even the masses.

Back to a Public Bible

In all of these examples, there are common concerns, but also some subtle shifts. Mbeki remains concerned about the African soul, but we can discern a shift from a soul that includes a socio-cultural breadth to a narrower Church-Theology-type moral soul. We see too, I suggest, a growing awareness in Mbeki that he is addressing at least two audiences, a small well-educated vaguely liberal elite who are somewhat embarrassed by religion (as is Mbeki himself) and a large less-educated mass of religious believers, most of whom are Christians. Mbeki wants to address them both, and the Bible lends itself to this task. It remains classic literature, even for the post-religious postcolonial educated elite. And it resonates with the believing religious masses, for it remains a favored silo.[25]

Gerald West, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa


[1] Gerald O. West. "(Ac)claiming the (Extra)ordinary African 'Reader'of the Bible." In Reading Other-Wise: Socially Engaged Biblical Scholars Reading with Their Local Communities (ed. G. O. West; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007).

[2] Des van der Water, “A Legacy for Contextual Theology: Prophetic Theology and the Challenge of the Kairos.” In Towards an agenda for Contextual Theology: Essays in Honour of Albert Nolan (ed. M. T. Speckman and L. T. Kaufmann; Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2001)

[3] Kairos Theologians. The Kairos Document: Challenge to the Church (Rev. 2nd ed.; Braamfontein: Skotaville, 1986), 3.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Ibid. 18.

[6] Walter Brueggemann, "Trajectories in Old Testament Literature and the Sociology of Ancient Israel." In The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics (ed. N. K. Gottwald and R. A. Horsley; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 202.

[7] The Kairos Document, 16.

[8] Itumeleng J. Mosala, Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

[9] "Address by Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, at the 25th Meeting of the Association of African Central Bank Governors, Sandton, 16 August 2001," n.p. [cited 06/12/2006]. Online:

[10] Ibid.

[11] "Address by President Thabo Mbeki, at the inaugral ZK Matthews Memorial Lecture, University of Fort Hare, 12 October 2001," n.p. [cited 06/12/2006]. Online:

[12] John Perlman and Redi Direko, "Interview with President Thabo Mbeki on SABC 2 on Sunday, 8 Febuary 2004," n.p. [cited 06/12/2006]. Online:

[13] Thabo Mbeki, "A National Strategic Vision for South Africa: Address by Deputy President TM Mbeki, at the Development Planning Summit, Hosted by the Intergovernmental Forum 1995," n.p. [cited 06/12/2006]. Online:

[14] Thabo Mbeki, "State of the Nation Address 2006," n.p. [cited 2 June 2007]. Online:

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] T. Mofokeng, "Black Christians, the Bible and Liberation." Journal of Black Theology 2 (1988): 34-42.

Citation: Gerald West, " Thabo Mbeki's Bible: The Role of the Religion in the South African Public Realm after Liberation," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2008]. Online:


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