Returning to South Africa after 22 years, my first reaction is to the reality of stunning, peaceful change. In 1993, I spent six weeks in South Africa. The government released Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, after 27 years. Violence was tearing the nation apart and it was far from clear that the country would hold together.

But it did. Mandela, in his five years as president from 1994 to 1999, proved to be an amazingly wise leader. He rejected revenge, promoted reconciliation, and kept the economy growing. In spite of decades of vicious racist policies under apartheid and three centuries of oppression of blacks under British imperialism, Mandela led the country forward.

He asked Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It offered amnesty to everyone who committed atrocities if they publicly acknowledged the evil they committed. Mandela’s dream for a multi-racial society offered the world a model of reconciliation after staggering injustice.

Today, the black majority now governs South Africa. The majority party, the African National Congress, endorses a multiracial society. A free press, a significant opposition party, and the relatively independent judiciary all signal that South Africa today is a democratic nation.

A black middle class has emerged. The government has improved education and health care for blacks—ending decades of discrimination. The government has built 1.5 million free homes for blacks, who under apartheid survived in segregated township shacks. My wife and I returned to Soweto (the black shantytown where we lived for a short time 22 years ago) and we saw a vastly transformed urban area with many improved homes.

That is the good news.

Huge Problems Remain

Corruption and chronic poverty are eroding the dream of Mandela and Tutu for a prosperous and multiracial democracy. About 27 million of South Africa’s 55 million people live below the poverty line—and they are almost entirely black.

South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of income inequality. The bottom 20 percent consume less than 4.5 percent of goods, services, and other resources. The vast majority of the land and most of the country’s wealth remain in the hands of whites who—except for a very few exceptions—see no need to support programs to empower the poor.

Tragically, the administration of President Zuma is widely perceived to be corrupt. Transparency International gives South Africa weak scores for control of corruption and bribery. Last year, South African police began investigating Zuma for spending $24 million in public funds to upgrade his personal residence, including a swimming pool. He has refused to repay any of those funds. In the court of public opinion, Zuma is virtually a criminal, stacking the government and the courts with his cronies to avoid going to jail.

The country desperately needs wise policies that redistribute resources in wise ways that encourage personal initiative and self-help and discourage dependency, irresponsibility, and corruption.

South Africa’s ruling class includes the state elite (mostly black) and the corporate elite (mostly white). Many of the black state elite fought the battle against apartheid, but they now seem most interested in personal wealth. They control the African National Congress, which has had some emphasis on the expansion of economic opportunity for the chronically poor but has not done nearly enough. This excluded population is impatient and angry. Unless meaningful reform occurs, a peaceful, multi-racial society will be very hard to maintain.

Three Questions for the Church

The church could—and should—play a central role in shaping a better future for the country. Most South Africans are Christians. The black church (joined by a very few courageous whites) played a decisive role in the struggle against apartheid.

Unfortunately, the South African Council of Churches (SACC), which was an effective organization against apartheid, declined after Mandela became president of the nation.

During the struggle against apartheid, white evangelicals offered virtually no support to black evangelicals (Soweto-based Concerned Evangelicals) fighting racism.

But now, blacks and whites have joined in The Evangelical Alliance of South Africa (TEASA), which is led by Moss Ntlha, a gifted black evangelical. TEASA represents 3 million South African evangelicals. The organization is active in a broad cross-section of issues from care for people living with HIV/AIDS to condemning the “eat grass” theology of populist pastor Lesego Daniel.

Ntlha, is bringing together evangelical, Pentecostal, and ecumenical allies to ask three questions:

  • What should we celebrate in the first 20 years of freedom from apartheid?
  • What must we lament because of the failures in these 20 years?
  • What needs to happen now in order to move toward a more just, free society where everyone (including the poor) share in its benefits?

If the church in South Africa could unite around this process, it could play an influential role in pressing South Africa’s elites to promote justice and fight corruption.

The next 20 years could be a fresh demonstration of the biblical vision of wholeness for all. The self-sacrifice and spiritual disciplines of Mandela and Tutu help to show the way forward.

Ronald J. Sider, author of more than 30 books, is founder of Evangelicals for Social Action.