The South End Museum — which preserves the story of a once-vibrant, multicultural Port Elizabeth community that was subjected to apartheid-era forced removals in the 60s and 70s — will be the venue for a special service on the Day of Reconciliation (December 16 2016) at which the Church in the city will apologise for that historical injustice.

“As far as I know it will be the first time that anybody will officially say sorry for what happened then,” said Trevor Jennings, who has been appointed by church leaders in Nelson Mandela Bay to coordinate a church healing and reconciliation task team in the city.

He said the South End Museum board of trustees had welcomed the proposed service at the museum. Plans for the service include four people who were forcibly removed from South End telling their stories, a ceremony in which people will wash each other’s feet as a symbol of Christlike humility, and the sharing of a “love meal”.

The initiative is part of an ongoing Church-supported process of seeking and facilitating genuine healing and reconciliation in the city — the need for which has been profoundly highlighted to Jennings since late last year when he became aware of how people were using “the race card” as a weapon as they positioned themselves for the approaching local government elections.

Getting out of hand
“I just felt that it was getting out of hand and that it was doing the country such a lot of harm, so it started there, and I decided to look at myself and I got a hold of two books. The first was named What If There Were No Whites In South Africa? by Ferial Haffajee, and the second was named Run Racist Run: Journeys Into the Heart of Racism by Eusebius McKaiser.

“I decided to read these books because I was fascinated with their titles. And so I embarked on reading them. I suddenly realised that I had always been looking at racism through my own glasses as a white person in South Africa. These books helped me to put on a new pair of glasses to look at different aspects and how other people saw me as an individual,” Jennings said.

Reading the books led him to a “Damascus Road experience” in which he saw that although he had been involved in transformation initiatives in the city, with sport and with the university (NMMU), he realised he “did not really understand the depth of racism and the depth of the hurt that the people in this country have been through”, and he was prompted to “relook at our country, relook at the history through another pair of glasses”.

In March/April he launched a “whites talking to whites” focus group which meets once a month at the South End Museum to address “our racism problem” and help each other to work through the past and try to come to some common understanding and seek a way forward. He felt that the hurts and divisions and an “argumentative mindset” in South Africa ran so deep that starting with a multi race focus group might be counterproductive.

Whites talking to whites
“Although it is ‘whites talking to whites’ there have been other people there — there have been Coloured and black folk who have joined us for the evening and made substantial contributions and been thrilled by what is going on and the opportunity to talk about these things,” he said.

The focus group core had remained fairly constant over the months and he had not attempted to promote the event in order to increase numbers because “we have found that lots of people are looking for a quick fix formula — three points that you need to do in order to solve racism in the country” and “when they find that there is no quick fix they lose interest”.

He said he expected that within two months the forum would give rise to various city initiatives. Personally, he felt the Church was the best place to launch healing and reconciliation initiatives, but other people in the forum might prefer an open, secular approach. He said the initial focus group was a broad focus group and not a church group, but about 90% of the group were Christians.

At a recent planning session with city church leaders he was asked to coordinate a task team to promote healing and reconciliation in the city.

Road trip

Feeling ill-equipped in terms of what needed to take place to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation, he embarked on a road trip to talk to people who had been involved in the area — including leaders who participated in Christian reconciliation events to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising. People he spoke to and learned-from included community leaders, academics, theologians and intercessors.

“I realised if we want to get a genuine healing process going in this country we have to realise that we are in a spiritual battle,” he said.

He said the spiritual battle was the underlying factor in much of the turmoil on campuses, in politics and other areas.

“If we try and fight the battle but we don’t identify who the enemy is, we are going to be wasting our time.”

The planned service on December 16 at the South End Museum is an initiative of the church task team on healing and reconciliation. There are a number of issues in the city which needed to be addressed in terms of facilitating reconciliation and some of these would be the focus of future Day of Reconciliation events, Jennings said.

“Huge healing and reconciliation needs to take place. Let us not use the day of 16th December as just another braai day but let’s use it as a real day of reconciliation.”

Alluding to other issues where sincere apologies were still needed to bring healing — such as the concentration camps in the Boer War — he said it was important as Christians to take collective responsibility for past injustices.

“If we believe that the Church has the answer and that the teaching of Jesus Christ is the answer, then we should have the courage to take the first step — have the courage to put out our hand first and not have a debit-credit system — I’ll apologise to you if you apologise to me for this,” he said.