Churches - important players in South African welfare work


Poverty in South Africa is still rampant and many inequalities that existed during the apartheid legislation remains. The churches, however, play an important role in the fight against poverty. A new book describes the complex welfare space in the country after the apartheid-era with a focus on the churches welfare work.

The book: “Welfare, Religion and Gender in Post-apartheid South Africa – Constructing a South-North dialogue”gives an overview of the religious situation in South Africa and the position of the churches as well as civil society organizations in general in the welfare system.

These are sometimes the only welfare actors in some areas and are therefore of great importance of the South African welfare work.

Per Pettersson, Professor of Sociology of Religion, program leader of the Impact Programme and one of the editors describes the conditions for the welfare work in South Africa:

– A large part of the black population still livein townshipscreated during the apartheid period.Poverty is widespreadin these areasand it combinedwith other social problems like drug abuseand unemployment as well as HIV/AIDS.Thismakes it difficult tobuild a sustainablelifefor thepoor, he says.

The churches support poor people with education, health care and drug prevention. Through different activities they also provide some structure to the lives of the inhabitants of the townships.

However, churches and religious beliefs can turn into unhealthy enterprises. Sometimes they are gatekeepers of unhealthy beliefs of gender, children and family relations:

– Some of the churches hold socially conservative positions and need to shift focus to the developmental needs of society, says Per Pettersson.

Welfare is not applicable as a descriptive or normative concept in the South African context in the same way as in the Nordic context. Instead it is more relevant to use the concept of development or social development.

– The aim is rather to give the people the capability to improve their own lives. There are many good examples of people who have managed to escape the social problems and poverty in poor areas after support from the churches and other civic organizations, says Per Pettersson.

The first two parts of the book expose the role of religion and churches in the welfare system. Two of the chapters apply specifically perspectives on gender in the church and explore the relationship between religion, gender and development. 

The last part of the book describes the churches role as social agents in South Africa from a European perspective.

– We can learn from South Africa’s experiences. Europe has often come to focus on helping people in need by providing them with aid. We would probably also benefit from a greater use of a developmental perspective with a focus on long-term improvement rather than short-term relief efforts, he says.

The book is the product of a research project in collaboration bet­ween the Unit for Religion and Development Research (URDR) at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, the Research Institute for Theology and Religion, at the University of South Africa and the Impact Programme at Uppsala University.

Authors of the book are: Ignatius Swart, Amanda Gouws, Per Pettersson(CRS), Johannes Erasmus and Frouwien Bosman.

* The book was published in South Africa by the African Sun Media in April 2012 and will be officially launched in Sweden at a combined public seminar and book launch at Uppsala Religion and Society Research Centre (CRS) May 28 at 16.30-18.30.

News from 2013