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A letter from Doug Tilton in South Africa

February 13, 2006 

Dear Friends,

Do you use email? If so, can you remember when you got your first email? Can you imagine life without it?

It has been slightly more than 10 years since I first started to receive email regularly. In the interim, email has become a fundamental mode of communication, as essential as the telephone or fax. When I travel or when I host visitors from the United States or Europe, the question often comes up: “How can I check my email?”

Why the discourse on email? In October last year, I moved from the Parliamentary Office of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) in Cape Town to start new duties at the SACC’s national office in Johannesburg, 850 miles inland. My new portfolio was meant to be communications-related. Specifically, I was expecting to help the Council’s nine provincial offices to tell their stories more effectively and to improve the flow of information between the SACC and its 26 denominational members.

At least, that was the plan. When I arrived at the Council offices, I discovered that none of the SACC’s two dozen national staff had been able to receive email for several weeks due to problems with a sick computer network, much of which dates back to my first encounter with email. Staff and partners alike were becoming extremely frustrated with the situation.

Suddenly, I faced an unexpected set of communications challenges. I spent my first couple of months in Johannesburg trying to diagnose the network’s multiple afflictions, to restore email contact with the outside world and, finally, to upgrade key components of the system. For the moment, the crisis seems to have passed, though I am constantly aware of how fragile the whole system remains. I still spend more time than I anticipated administering the network and helping colleagues to address technical problems that arise.

It was difficult to leave Cape Town and even harder to get settled in Johannesburg. I spent my first two months living a nomadic existence, leaving all of my household goods stored in a friend’s garage. Some of my mail still has not caught up with me!

If the high plains of the gold reef on which Johannesburg is situated lack some of the topographical majesty of the Western Cape, the city’s energy and diversity offer some compensation. Johannesburg is South Africa’s financial and industrial heartland. Its status as the nation’s richest province (on a per capita basis) nevertheless continues to mask the huge economic disparities that remain the legacies of apartheid.

The metropolitan area sprawls, and the narrow band of countryside that separates it from Pretoria, some 35 miles to the north, is rapidly becoming urbanized. As in many U.S. cities, a car is viewed as a necessity, though startling gas prices, congested roads and Johannesburgers’ creative approach to traffic laws have prompted me to hold out as long as possible.

Whereas Cape Town is sometimes accused of pretending to be a “European” city, Johannesburg is proudly African. The city boasts a rich blend of people and cultures. Walking the downtown streets or even the corridors of Khotso House, the building that houses the SACC offices, one can hear most of South Africa’s 11 official languages, not to mention others from further afield.

Being situated in the Council’s national office also affords me a better overview of the range of activities in which SACC structures and members are involved. In recent months, the Council has been involved in the annual campaign to halt violence against women and children as well as helping churches to explore ways of responding appropriately to the December Constitutional Court ruling that South Africa’s existing Marriage Act is inconsistent with the Constitution’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Council is also active throughout the region and the world, particularly around efforts to build peace and respect for human rights. In the last half of 2005, Church leaders traveled to Zimbabwe to minister to thousands of families displaced by “Operation Murambatsvina,” the Zimbabwean government’s ill-conceived slum-clearance program. Following the visit, churches gathered and sent several truckloads of relief supplies to homeless people in Zimbabwe. They also stepped up efforts to assist the many Zimbabwean refugees in the Johannesburg area who have poured across the border in the hope of finding jobs, food and security.

In December, the SACC led an interfaith delegation of religious leaders to Rwanda to take part in celebrations to commemorate South Africa’s Day of Reconciliation. The leaders held a series of talks with their counterparts in Rwanda to explore ways in which faith communities could contribute to Rwanda’s emerging truth and reconciliation process designed to address past ethnic violence. They also met with representatives of Rwanda’s community court system to learn more about their efforts to implement an approach to criminal justice that is based on restorative justice.

The Council continues to send people of various faiths to take part in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Established in 2002, EAPPI volunteers monitor and report human rights violations of human rights, offer protection through nonviolent presence, engage in public policy advocacy and stand in solidarity with all those struggling against injustice in Palestine and Israel.

You can read more about recent activities of the SACC, as well as stories from some of the ecumenical accompaniers, on the Council’s Web site. You will never guess who maintains the site.

Grace and peace to you throughout 2006,

Doug

The 2006 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 339

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