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“We should add our voice on call for accountability for violence”: South African Bishop

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of South Africa’s Mthatha Diocese and President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC). Credit: Courtesy Photo

Catholic Church leaders in Southern Africa should call on the South Africa’s government to hold accountable the perpetrators of last month’s riots that started after former President Jacob Zuma handed himself over to police, the Bishop at the helm of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference  (SACBC) has said. 

In his Tuesday, August 3 opening remarks at the SACBC Plenary Assembly, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka said the meeting takes place amid COVID-19, social destabilization in South Africa and political revolution in the Kingdom of eSwatini

“What I wish to propose is that we should add our voice on the call for accountability for the violence and looting that has been allowed to happen in the country. Those who by commission or omission of their duties have facilitated this must account,” the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Mthatha said, referencing the violence that saw schools among facilities destroyed in South Africa. 

Bishop Sipuka continued, “After this tragedy, the government committed to give a grant of R350.00 to those affected because ‘it is a caring government’. But if it was a caring government, it would have done more to develop the poor people who have been neglected and whose deep-seated anger was unleashed into violence by the opportunity of the arrest of the former president.”

For this reason, the President of the three-member nation Conference of Catholic Bishops said, Catholic Church leaders in Botswana, Eswatini, and South Africa “need to ride the wave of this moment to demand serious economic upliftment of the poor majority instead of piecemeal grants.”

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In his August 3 address, the President of SACBC who doubles as the First Vice President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) also noted the high level of unemployment among the South African youth.

“While sympathetic to the plight of many young people who are unemployed,” the South African Bishop said, “We must continually challenge them to avail themselves of whatever small opportunity there is.”

He expressed concerns about many youthful South Africans who are “stuck to the mentality of being employed and provided for” and called on them to use the little resources at their disposal to make ends meet. 

“While the government must be challenged to play its role in improving the lives of the citizens, let us also use the little that is around us,” he said. 

The Catholic Bishop who has been at the helm of SACBC since August 2018 also decried the “big man syndrome” witnessed among the people of God. 

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Describing it as “where one person is allowed to do as he wants,” Bishop Sipuka said, “It is funny that in this day and age, people have not realized how the big man syndrome is disastrous for the country.”

He noted that the syndrome is particularly prevalent in rural areas in South Africa and in ESwatini, formerly Swaziland. 

“I see these ructions in both Swaziland and South Africa as an opportunity for the Church to teach people about democracy and to encourage them to vote on the basis of principles and accountability instead of sentimentality and attachment to certain people and parties,” he said. 

Bishop Sipuka also expressed gratitude to Bishop José Luis Ponce de León of Manzini in Eswatini for bearing the burden of dealing with the instability in the country as the only Catholic Bishop. 

"I hope Bishop Jose that the prayers and messages we have been sending were some of the sources of support," Bishop Sipuka said, addressing himself to the Local Ordinary of Manzini, Eswatini’s lone Catholic Diocese.

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In June, protests in the Southern African nation that changed its name from Swaziland to the Kingdom of Eswatini in 2018  were triggered by the death of Thabani Nkomonye, a 25-year-old University of Eswatini Student, allegedly at the hands of police in May.

The demonstrators shifted their focus from “Justice for Thabani” to calling for reforms to the country’s system of absolute monarchy. 

On June 28, the protests turned violent after security officers used force to stop the peaceful demonstrators. The following day, the government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and limited Internet access.

In his July 2 statement, Bishop Ponce de León underscored the need to restore “calm” in the country even as strategies of addressing the reasons behind the protests were being formulated.

“The restoration of calm should not make us think that the reasons behind the unrest have been addressed,” he said, and pushed for dialogue that seeks to accommodate a variety of views and viewpoints in line with what Pope Francis recommends in his October 2020 Encyclical Letter, Fratelli Tutti.

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