Review: VIVIEN HORLER
I Beg to Differ: ministry amid the teargas, by Peter Storey (Tafelberg)
When did the ANC begin its slide from the moral high ground of the struggle?
Peter Storey, former bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and leader of the SA Council of Churches, believes it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it failed to hold Winnie Madikizela Mandela to account for the excesses of the Mandela United Football Club and the death of Stompie Seipei.
Storey was the boss of a central figure in that series of events, the Rev Paul Verryn, a Methodist minister based in Soweto. Storey also took part of the rescue of three boys who had been taken hostage at Madikizela Mandela’s home and seriously assaulted. Seipei, the fourth boy and just 14 years old, died.
Storey refers to having known Madikizela Mandela “at her fearless best, but mixed in with that was anger because of my painful recollection of events when she was at her worst”. The episode was, says Storey, one of the most painful chapters of his life.
In Storey there seems to be little of the kindly suburban minister patting Sunday School School pupils on the head. No, his is a brand of muscular Christianity, fierce, uncompromising and dogged. His legacy includes being chaplain to both Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe on Robben Island, the founder of Lifeline SA and of Gun Free SA.
He was also a committed activist in the struggle, a founder member of the half-forgotten National Peace Accord that did so much to ensure the 1994 elections went ahead, and a friend and associate of Desmond Tutu.
This autobiography of one man is also a biography of South Africa from the time of the visit of the British royal family in 1947 to the calamitous 1948 general election that brought the National Party, the terrible years of apartheid and the damage they caused to a nation, and the dawn of a free South Africa.
Although best known for his ministry at the Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg, Storey was for years the minister at the Buitenkant Street Methodist Church among the people of District Six until that community was broken apart and scattered by the Group Areas Act.
Storey draws his inspiration and his brand of Christianity from the efforts of the founding Methodist ministers John and Charles Wesley in England, particularly Cornwall, in the mid-18th century.
The Wesleys believed in piety but also in charity and justice, and that every single person mattered infinitely to God. This leads, says Storey, to the fundamental question we must ask when faced by fraught social problems: “Does this do honour or violence to the image of God in those whom it impacts? Any political policy – like apartheid – that does such violence is an affront to God.”
This means, he writes, that there is no such thing as churches “interfering in politics” because there is “no area of life beyond God’s moral authority”.
Now you might not go along with this, but these convictions in a strong and committed person can make a difference to a society. They did in Wesley’s time, and they do still today, thanks to the likes of Storey and Tutu.
But the book is not a sermon – it is an often a gripping and occasionally funny description of a life lived in interesting times. Storey tells of an occasion in 1982 when he and Tutu drove to a remote area of the Venda homeland where two Lutheran ministers were reportedly being detained and tortured. The local authorities had no intention of letting the two priests see the tortured men, and told them they were to be deported from Venda immediately.
Ostensibly escorting Storey and Tutu to the border, soldiers drove into thick bush where sub-machineguns were pointed at them and they were told they were to be shot. But then it was over and they were taken to the border.
A shaken Tutu, who was driving, said he and Storey should thank God for saving their lives. He then launched into a prayer of thanksgiving. Storey writes: “I looked at him and saw that not only was he lost in prayer but his eyes were closed. I grabbed the wheel and let him thank God while I ensured that death didn’t get a second shot at us.”
Years later Storey was approached by a military-looking Afrikaner who said he had been a Military Intelligence colonel seconded to the Venda government at the time, and that he had actually given an order for Tutu and Storey to be shot. He said in the event he was glad his order had been ignored and would Storey forgive him?
Bearing in mind Tutu’s premise that when someone confesses one has no choice but to forgive, Storey told the man he did, but was left feeling angry. “I realised I had much to process still.”
In 1964, after a two-year stint with his wife and sons preaching in Australia, Storey had the choice between staying there and coming home to a country where Mandela had recently been jailed for life. They decided to return, but Storey vowed he would live his life in South Africa according to four non-negotiable principles:
- To be a truth teller and expose the lie of apartheid.
- To side with the victims of injustice wherever he found them.
- To seek to be a visible contradiction of the state’s segregation practices.
- To work in non-violent ways to bring in a new dispensation of justice, equity and peace.
Thank God for South Africa he came home. This is a remarkable book and well worth the read.
- Read this and other reviews by Vivien Horler on thebookspage.co.za