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Church of the People

South Africans will tell you, “We are not called the Rainbow Nation for nothing,” and it is definitely the most diverse country I’ve ever visited. Although English is generally understood across the country, it ranks only fifth out of the official eleven home languages. There are also several other languages spoken by many people. Among the official languages is Afrikaans, unique to South Africa. Languages of Africa, Asia, and Europe all influenced its development. This linguistic diversity has led to the languages affecting each other. South African English, for example, is littered with words and phrases from Afrikaans, isiZulu, Nama and other African languages.

Two of my stops during my time in Johannesburg included Regina Mundi Church and the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando, a section of the city of Soweto (Area 57.9 sq. mi., pop. 1,000,000+).

The anti-apartheid movement began in different places around different issues. One issue was the use of Afrikaans as the medium of education in the townships. Being deprived of instruction in English meant that graduates of township schools would be severely limited in pursing their education beyond secondary school. At the end of their school term in June of 1976, students refused to write exams in Afrikaans and a march to protest the imposition of Afrikaans in the schools was planned for June 16 in Soweto (South West Township). On that fateful day, as school children began gathering and marching in protest, they were confronted by police, and violence broke out. One of the youth killed was Hector Pieterson, age 13. A photo of another youth, Mbuyisa Makhubo, carrying the dead boy’s body in the street with Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, running beside him, became an icon of not only the incident, but also of the struggle for freedom and justice. Following this event, youth in other townships across the country demonstrated in sympathy. Today the Hector Pieterson Museum tells the story of the uprising and preserves and interprets the memory, legacy, and history of the national uprisings. It is a most touching experience to spend time reflecting on these events while going from the outdoor fountain that commemorates all who gave their lives in the cause of freedom, through the many short videos, the newspaper documentation, and first-hand testimonials along the hallways of the museum. June 16th is now Youth Day and is a national holiday.

Also connected with the struggle is nearby Regina Mundi, the largest church in South Africa. It is called the “church of the people” and the “people’s cathedral” and can hold 5,000 to 7,000 people. The church has played an important role in the lives of the people before, during, and after the struggle against apartheid. When government forces began shooting the school children who demonstrated on June 16, 1976, the children ran to Regina Mundi for safety. During that time, churches were about the only places people could safely gather. The police fired live ammunition at them. No one was killed there, but many were wounded and there was damage to the church, altar, and statues. Some of the damage to windows can still be seen. In what was once the choir loft, there is now a gallery displaying striking photos taken during the protest and throughout resistance movement. On the walls are touching graffiti written by thousands of visitors, commemorating those who led the resistance, expressing solidarity with the people, and celebrating the end of apartheid.

Visiting these two historic places brought me a little closer to the experience of those whose present is still influenced in many ways by the oppression and forced segregation of the apartheid years. The role of Regina Mundi stands in testimony to the faith of the people and to our Church’s ministry to and support of those seeking human rights during those difficult years. The Catholic community is alive in Soweto with 15 parishes. The lay deanery who gathered to learn about RENEW Africa filled the meeting room beyond capacity, and all who attended were eager to involve their parishioners in the process.

Sister Marie is a member of the RENEW staff, a Sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, and the Project Leader for RENEW Africa.

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