A guiding practice for the Anabaptist Network in South Africa (ANiSA) is to create space that restores human dignity for all people.
Space is an ongoing, disputed reality in South Africa, a question of who belongs where and who determines this. Early inter-tribal conflicts were fought to determine this issue, but the Native Land Act of 1913 and the subsequent legalization of apartheid in 1948 polarized all aspects of South African society. Although apartheid officially ended in 1994, the spaces that apartheid created still exist.
Space determines who belongs and who does not. It influences the way we relate to one another. What kind of politics do we want to embody in the spaces in which we participate?
Space is a highly contested symbolic and political issue in South Africa. Apartheid's laws, and the segregated spaces it created, came to represent a violent imposition that dehumanized and oppressed those who did not have a share in the privilege of the system. Thus, in order to challenge the system, alternative spaces were created where people sought to embody a different political reality that was not based on racial superiority or inferiority, but rather in recognizing one another's humanity.
Such spaces provided a new sense of dignity, humanity, and belonging among those who defied apartheid's laws. These spaces seek to restore ubuntu (a Bantu-language word describing the interconnectedness of all humanity) and re-shape people's imaginations in how they can relate to one another. Not surprisingly, the created spaces of domination and violence have been difficult to break down. Thus, even in the new South Africa, space continues to be contested. There continues to be a struggle in finding a place, symbolic or otherwise, where everyone matters.
The work of ANiSA has been to create alternative spaces – however small and humble – guided by Jesus' example, life, and alternative political imagination.
Symbolic nature of space
Segregated space demonstrates what the apartheid system valued, a social order that assumed Whites were the ones that mattered. Everything in society was organized to accentuate this – cities, transportation, jobs, the distance to one's home and job, toilets … everything! Space highlighted privilege.
The meaning of space is not (or should not be) a new concept for Christians. Jesus' birth, for example, introduced meaning in unsuspecting places. Instead of being born in a palace where kings "ought" to be, Jesus, the proclaimed king, was born in a stable. Instead of being born in Jerusalem, the center of political, economic and religious power, he was born in Bethlehem. This was the alternative space – the alternative social location – in which God became incarnate.
Thus, when we pay attention to the social location of God's incarnation, and God's activity in general throughout the biblical narrative, we begin to get a glimpse of God's values and the characteristics of God's rule on earth. We see how the usual assumptions are flipped upside-down. That which did not matter, now matters. In fact, for God, that which did not matter becomes a world-changing reality. A small, seemingly insignificant nation becomes God's chosen people. Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, becomes key to God's self-revelation. A carpenter and his betrothed, not royalty or a religiously elite family, become the carriers of God's lineage and story. That which is weak becomes strong. That which is vulnerable becomes the key to security. An alternative imagination and approach is introduced that flips old assumptions on their heads.
This, however, proved to be dangerous! It was so dangerous that Herod, the king of Israel, the one who was supposed to have the power, felt– ironically– quite vulnerable, so vulnerable that he was willing to kill all of the male babies under the age of 2!
Such an alternative imagination, which was God's original imagination, is also at the heart of what it means to be the church – a social body that seeks to put into practice this upside-down alternative political imagination. For example, in Ephesians 2:11-22, we see that it is precisely when this social body embraces "the other," those who once were enemies or those who did not previously belong, that peace is embodied. Peace becomes possible when we relate to one another while seeking to embody God's all-encompassing love. Jesus becomes the space in which this new social body is created!
Such a reality, especially when it inevitably clashes with those "in power," is a dangerous and revolutionary activity. And yet, as Ephesians 3:10 goes on to tell us, this dangerous and revolutionary activity is the role and function of the church!
Need to create alternative spaces
Living into such new spaces is happening slowly in South Africa. Apartheid infrastructure still exists. Racism and its rooted biases continue to dominate in the education system. The gap between the rich and poor continues to grow. Violence continues to be the go-to method in dealing with one another.
And yet, people want something different. University students in South Africa have had enough and want transformation. People are increasingly calling into question the brutality and violent practices of the police. There is pressure against corruption.
ANiSA seeks to be a space where people can explore a different reality. Those who form the network invite others into their homes. They eat together. They care for each other. They listen to each other. They assume that the Holy Spirit can speak through anyone. They try to embody the peace, justice and reconciliation that they want to see in society. The space it creates provides a sense of belonging, a foretaste of the return to God's original imagination.
Mzwandile Nkutha serves as the coordinator of the Anabaptist Network in South Africa (ANiSA). He lives in Johannesburg with his wife, Lydia, and their daughter. He graduated from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, with a master in arts focus on Peace Studies.
Andrew Suderman teaches Theology, Peace, and Mission at Eastern Mennonite University. He also serves as the Secretary of Mennonite World Conference's Peace Commission. Andrew and his wife, Karen, served with Mennonite Church Canada as coordinators of the Anabaptist Network in South Africa from 2009-2016.