1998 NCC News Archives

National Council of Churches logo represents the church 
as ecumenical ship, serving the world

Back from Trip, NCC Head Calls for
Increased Church Commitment to Africa

April 3, 1998

Following is an interview with the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC), following her participation on the official U.S. Presidential delegation to South Africa March 25-29.

Q: Why were you chosen to accompany President Clinton to South Africa? What was your role? Dr. Campbell: I was in the 70-member official delegation, which included members of Congress, corporate CEOs, President Clinton, Mrs. Clinton, and the Presidential staff. There were two representatives of the church, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Fred Calhoun James and myself.

The President said that he chose every person personally and that he wanted to include people who worked in the anti-apartheid or Civil Rights movements. Everyone on the trip was credentialed not by virtue of their jobs but by virtue of what they had done in the freedom struggle, including the members of Congress who went. One of the wonderful things on the plane was listening to people's stories about South Africa and about the Civil Rights movement.

I think the President's strongest signal to that commitment was naming Jesse Jackson as his special envoy to South Africa. It was interesting how many ministers played special roles. The Ambassador to South Africa, James Joseph, is a United Church of Christ minister. Andy Young's name was often lifted up, who is another United Church of Christ minister, for having played one of the major roles with the UN in relation to South Africa.

Q: Why was it important that the NCC be represented on the Presidential delegation? Dr. Campbell: Because the NCC has a long history both in the Civil Rights Movement and in the anti-apartheid movement, I think our presence was very logical, and I'm grateful to the President for recognizing that. The President said that there was a sense in which my presence as general secretary helped him, because there are many people in South Africa who know the NCC. Among them is Thabo Mbeki, whom I visited when he was in exile, writing the Constitution for the new South Africa.

I think President Clinton knows, as well, that there will be important follow-up that the churches must play if Africa is to be treated as a partner and not as an object of charity.

Q: What was the tone in South Africa, especially in light of what's been happening with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Are the people able to build a different kind of society? Dr. Campbell: Probably the best time to sense the tone was at the State dinner. There were 750 people, all personally invited by South African President Nelson Mandela. The tone has been affected by the way in which Mandela emerged from all those years in prison without hatred, without bitterness, without rancor, but as someone who was prepared to move toward building a new South Africa. He continues to say, "I am not here to punish. I am here to work toward a future that is the future for all South Africans." He says that over and over again.

To me, he is reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr. You never heard Dr. King say that white people should be punished for their deeds. He consistently said "We are all God's children" and insisted upon the inclusion of Blacks in that "all God's children." Similarly, Mandela says, "I will work toward a future for Black South Africans in which there is economic stability, education and opportunity, but I will also make this a safe place for all South Africans." The tone he sets at the top is what makes it possible for people to behave toward one another in forgiving and grace-filled ways. And they are.

Q: Do the churches help with that? Dr. Campbell: The churches absolutely help in that process. The churches are struggling a bit now. The anti-apartheid movement was so much a part of their mission and now the churches need to find their role and mission in the new South Africa. The church has to develop its new identity in a South Africa that is free. Since the church played such a strong role in the anti-apartheid movement, so much of their leadership is now part of the government. Frank Chikane, who was head of the South African Council of Churches, is now the chief of staff for Thabo Mbeki. Beyers Naude has worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Desmond Tutu chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

How, then, does the church give South Africa the kind of undergirding it needs now when the challenges are economic?. How do you create a South Africa where there are economic possibilities for people who for years were basically servants to others?

One of the most powerful statements was made by Thabo Mbeki. I asked him publicly, "What is it you want us to do?" He said, "If the energy that was put into the disinvestment movement could now be translated into the reinvestment of all of Africa, then I believe that we would find progress." He was really saying that the kind of moral energy that went into the bringing down of the system needs to be focused on the rebuilding of Africa, and he was very clear to talk about not just South Africa, but the whole continent of Africa.

Q: When Desmond Tutu spoke to the NCC's General Assembly in November 1996, he pressed the whole issue of forgiving foreign debt. Did that issue come up? Dr. Campbell:  It did. President Clinton made a statement that he felt he had come to understand the debt issue better since he'd been in Africa. Desmond Tutu pressed the debt issue directly with the President, who said that there will be debt reduction for the poorest of the countries, perhaps debt forgiveness. He did not put forward a specific proposal, but he did promise that he would deal with the issue, and he spoke to the members of Congress and said, "Obviously, I will need your support in this." What the specific proposal will be, we will not know until we see it written out.

I have watched as President Clinton has moved through Africa and noted the tremendous emotional power that Africa has had for him. He began to put away his written speeches others had helped prepare and began to speak from his heart and from the knowledge that he was gaining in Africa. There's no question but that Africa informed him and helped him develop his own thinking. I have no question that he will return from Africa with a different agenda than the agenda he took with him. I think it will be a broader agenda, I think it will be deepened on some issues, like debt reduction. There's no question he will continue to focus on the trade issue, because he personally believes that Africa must become a trading partner of the United States. The presence of 12 CEOs of major corporations was an indication of that belief.

Q: What role do the churches have to play in Africa's future? Dr. Campbell: While I think it is up to many people to see that Africa become strong economically and that the business community needs to plays its role, I also believe that the churches have a historic role to play. President Clinton himself said, "We have not treated Africa fairly." He said that during the Cold War, we chose people because they were our friends, not because they were giving good leadership in Africa. I was pleased to hear him say this. His confessional statement is tied to my belief that the future of Africa is a theological as well as an economic issue for us, because Africa has clearly been a continent that has been affected by the racial prejudice that exists in this country.

There is not question in my mind that it is not an accident that Africa is misunderstood, that it gets less aid than other continents, and that it has been treated without the kind of fairness that is due to a continent of its size, history and culture. This is in large part related to the racial bigotry that exists in this country and we have to deal with that issue on a continuing basis. We cannot say that racial prejudice in this country can be contained within our own borders. We export it, and there is a whole continent of people who then suffer. It is important that President Clinton has talked about both a race initiative in this country as well as talking about making trade and relationships with Africa a priority. The churches also are uniquely positioned to be a moral leader and call for an end to the racism that causes suffering both here and in Africa.

As churches, we need to assert that when we dream of a global human community where peace and justice are possible, Africa is essential to the realization of that dream.

Q: There is a curious quirk about human nature that we will rally to the negative, we will fight apartheid. But how do we rally churches to a positive approach? How do we get people to be invested in Africa? Dr. Campbell: Although the churches have played a major role in aid to Africa, they need to move beyond the issue of aid to the issue of partnership. Take the example of Christian missionaries. The missionaries left in their wake some cultural problems. But they also left in their wake a very strong and positive legacy in the hospitals and schools they built, where many individuals who are now in leadership were trained. The very people that we have trained and to whom we have introduced Christianity, now we must listen to them, because they have a message for us about Africa. They are saying to us, "You helped to train us," or in evangelical language, "You helped to bring us to Christ. Now listen to us, because we need you to be our partners as we move Africa to a place of real prominence in the world." I think we need to respond to that.

Can we get people to do that as easily as we got them to object to the system of apartheid? I don't know. I think part of the answer is keeping Africa before our churches. If you look at the NCC, we have one office with only a few people to deal with the entire continent of Africa. It would be my dream that our churches would say "We need at least ten people to deal with the continent of Africa," if we are seriously committed to changing the way in which this country looks at Africa. I believe this Council needs to send a very high level delegation to Africa and we need to help create an Africa policy for our churches that is as important for our ecumenical life as the Middle East policy has been.


Interviewer: Wendy McDowell

NCC Home Page
NCC News Service Index