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Pretoria bishop shares South African issues, upholds common global mission

By Matthew Davies
[Episcopal News Service]  Bishop Johannes Seoka of Pretoria, the second largest city and administrative capital of South Africa, and his wife Timeya, met with staff at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City on April 25. They spoke about some of the issues facing their country and described ways in which the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (CPSA), the oldest Anglican Province on the continent, is reaching out to the community and helping to make a difference in its local context.

The main challenges are unemployment levels -- estimated at more than 25 percent -- crime and HIV/AIDS, Seoka explained.

The CPSA, with dioceses in South Africa, Mozambique (Lebombo and Niassa), Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Angola, runs a variety of programs dedicated to alleviating poverty and almost every one of the 24 dioceses has a social development desk that encourage self sustenance through income-generating projects.

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town has also been at the forefront of poverty issues, often speaking publicly about the need to take seriously the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. declaration that is dedicated to the eradication of extreme poverty by the year 2015.

The CPSA, along with other denominations, is able to meet with South African president, Thabo Mbeki, and his cabinet at least three times a year, Seoka explained, citing good relations between the Church and State.

"We are trying to find ways collectively to address these issues," he said, noting the government's recognition of the Churches' contribution and commitment to social justice. "They are not on the ground in the same way that the churches are."

Issues of crime, especially in the Western Cape, are attributed mostly to alcohol and drugs, Seoka explained, and many young South Africans are adopting Western culture -- especially its music, clothing and lifestyle.

"Race relations are improving, to which the Church has contributed, and women are said to be more successful -- they enjoy better education and are very prosperous in terms of business," he said. "We are also said to have the largest number of women politicians in the world."

Education and HIV/AIDS

With sub-Saharan Africa having the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the world, raising awareness of the disease and caring for those who are infected or affected has been one of the biggest priorities for the CPSA for many years. The prevalence rate among adults in South Africa alone is 21.5 percent.

"We administer one of the biggest HIV/AIDS programs in South Africa," and the Diocese of Pretoria runs a hospice that encourages bead work and accommodates furniture-making facilities, Seoka said, explaining that people with the disease, when kept busy, live much longer.

Malaria also is a very serious health threat, particularly in countries north of South Africa and at its 2005 provincial synod, the CPSA resolved to take malaria as seriously as HIV/AIDS.

Education is another area to which the church is committed, Seoka explained, adding that the CPSA is trying to reestablish an education board.

Church schools have become elitist and very expensive, Seoka said, "so we're trying to reintroduce a cheaper education." Most Anglican schools in South Africa manage outreach programs where children from disadvantaged schools can benefit from local teachers and facilities.

"We have raised enough money to ensure that if a child has the potential to do well they are not deprived from education," Seoka said.

He mentioned the Global Anglican Conference on Mission scheduled for March 2007 in Cape Town, to which various members of the Anglican Communion who are faced with issues of development have been invited.

"We will take a lead, but we don't want to be seen as monopolizing -- we want to be inclusive," Seoka said. "The conference is likely to bring together people who don't agree on certain issues."

Called to Common Mission

The relationship between the CPSA and the Episcopal Church "is very compatible," Seoka said. "The problem comes with other provinces in Africa, but that is more at the primates' level. There are many bishops who are keen to work with the Episcopal Church -- some have even told their primates this."

Timeya reminded Church Center staff that there are some U.S.-based Episcopalians who create an environment that enables African bishops and primates to be hostile towards the Episcopal Church.

"We shouldn't make the assumption that the opinion of the primates is the opinion of the church in general," Seoka said, suggesting that Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria should be addressing the conflict between Christianity and Islam in his own country rather than interfering in the affairs of the Episcopal Church.

"People should not deliberately divide the church for personal agendas," Seoka concluded. "We have a common agenda, the same God and same redeemer and we have been entrusted with the mission in the world."