Faith Focus: Giving a voice to South Africa’s voiceless

Graham Philpott, left, with Church of Ireland Bishop Patrick Rooke in Durban
Graham Philpott, left, with Church of Ireland Bishop Patrick Rooke in Durban

South African humanitarian worker Graham Philpott, on a recent visit to Northern Ireland, talked of the ‘Theology of Land’ and described what life is really like for the vast majority of people in his home country

Durban is a world class city that hides an unpleasant secret in plain sight.

It’s more than 20 years since apartheid ended in South Africa. As Nelson Mandela and the ANC took power amid scenes of jubilation in 1994, there were high hopes that the poor and dispossessed would at last achieve a measure of justice and dignity.

Graham Philpott was one of those who shared this optimism. Despite being a white South African who could have opted for the comfortable life, this committed Christian chose instead to become actively involved in what he calls “our struggle” against apartheid.

In 1987, at the height of white minority rule, Graham decided to live among the shack-dwellers whose flimsy homes of corrugated iron perch precariously on the steep hillsides on the edge of Durban. He and his wife shared a mud-walled shelter with another family, living without electricity or running water, for seven years.

“In 1994, at least 52 per cent of Durban’s population of four million lived in these conditions,’’ said Graham

‘But,’ as Graham has been telling churches and schools in Northern Ireland over the past fortnight, ‘‘our struggle against apartheid has not redressed the past.’’

‘‘Black people are still dispossessed and cannot gain access to what was their land.”

Graham’s organisation, the Church Land Programme, or CLP for short, is supported by Christian Aid in its campaign for equality for the homeless. The CLP was founded in 1997 and initially focussed on church-owned land, challenging South Africa’s churches to become more engaged in the land question and to give up their own farms.

“Land is a God-given gift. But in our context land is no longer a gift, it is a commodity. So the question is, how do we work that land back to being a gift? Perhaps we should look to the ‘Jubilee’ tradition in the Old Testament,’ said Graham, referring to the biblical Hebrew practice of debt forgiveness.

The city of Durban, meanwhile, prides itself on its smart beach-front properties, sports stadiums, and first world infrastructure. But surrounding this glittering jewel on the shores of the Indian Ocean, two decades after the introduction of democracy, there are still hundreds of thousands of lean-tos made of wood, scrap metal and mud looking down on the city. The authorities appear to want the problem simply to disappear.

“The challenge is that there’s such an enormous backlog from the apartheid era that the building of houses has not even been able to match that demand, never mind keep up with the natural growth of the city.

‘What has been exposed over the past few years is the level of corruption in the allocation of housing. Local government officials or councillors will allocate housing fairly randomly – but also through the payment of money to get your name ahead of others.”

Graham also faces a challenge in telling other well-off middle class South Africans the truth about what is happening in their own country.

“We often talk about there being two South Africas. The one for the middle and upper classes and that’s where the media functions and where it engages in issues that affect them. These top 20 per cent have access to courts, they have rights, they have a constitution that works for them, employment is real, and that’s one part of South Africa.

‘‘The second South Africa is by far the larger sector and is still black. In theory they have access to the courts but cannot afford it because it is just too expensive. For them, an institution like the Police Service is to be feared. The police always act against them.

‘‘So we don’t find ourselves able to listen to those who are suffering these issues; to hear from them directly how their lives are affected. And what it really means to be a poor black South African.’’

Graham says the new South Africa is becoming an increasingly authoritarian state with increasing inequality. He argues that the state looks after and protects and defends those connected to it and those in power, both politically and economically.

‘‘For us in the work that we do, it is not for us to hear from those in power, how well society is functioning, because they have an interest in defending it! Whereas to hear from those who are marginalised by society, what is the real experience of living in that place? From that perspective you will often reveal the actual truth 
about a society.’’

Adrian Horsman is head of Media and Communications at Christian Aid Ireland.

Christian Aid is the overseas development agency of eight Irish churches and church bodies. It works with around 500 partner organisations in 40 different countries, including the Church Land Programme in South Africa.

You can find out more about Christian Aid’s work at and the Church Land Programme at