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South Africa could become another Beirut, theologian warns.

NEW YORK -- South African Methodist theologian Charles Villa-Vicencio last week said it is hard to speak of the Risen Christ when one is so conscious of the cross and of death.

His remarks were made at the Union Theological Seminary here three days after the death of his friend Chris Hani.

Hani -- the charismatic black leader of the South African Communist Party, a hero to youth and the most popular militant in the African National Congress -- was gunned down April 10 in his driveway by an alleged Polish immigrant linked to the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement.

Hani's murder is part of the "ghastly times" that have become "the reality of life" in South Africa, said Villa-Vicencio, professor of religion and society at the University of Cape Town.

He traces the roots of this bleak reality to South African President F.W. de Klerk's February 1990 announcement to lift the ban on political parties, free political prisoners and move toward "peaceful negotiations" of a new South Africa.

"Hani's death symbolizes in a most dramatic way that there are forces continuing to fight for domination of the political process," he added. "That is the context in which we must now do theology in South Africa."

He said that before de Klerk's announcement, it was easier for Christians to give a resounding no to the immorality of apartheid than it is now to give a qualified yes to the negotiations.

The Reverend Allan Boesak, former head of the Reformed Church in South Africa and a member of the ANC's executive committee, was scheduled to debate Villa-Vicencio at Union but was called back to Cape Town by ANC leader Nelson Mandela. His urgent return was prompted by threats of militant action by Cape Town's Communist Party in response to Hani's murder.

Villa-Vicencio warned that an outbreak of violence in the wake of the assasination or the delay or postponement of one-person, one-vote elections slated for next year could "sink South Africa into another Beirut." There is no substitute, he said, for proceeding with the negotiations, "even though we know they will not usher in all that we hoped for."

Still, he held that further negotiations toward a constituent assembly that would draft a constitution and move to parliamentary elections would be better under an elected interim government led by blacks than by a white-ruled body.

Villa-Vicencio, author of The Theology of Reconstruction: Nation-Building and Human Rights, consults regularly with lawyers and political leaders on the issue of defining a bill of rights for South Africa's new constitution. In this capacity, he recently interviewed Hani.

The theologian said Christians have an important role to play during the negotiations to "assure that the process is legitimate." For it to be so, a bill of rights must emerge -- one that affirms the human dignity of all and underlines the African "communal sense that everyone counts."

Christians must also guard to see that, when the new deal is done, it includes the poor and works for their benefit. The theologian warned against the emergence of a new society in which racial apartheid will have ended, only to be replaced by "economic apartheid."

To avoid such an outcome, he called on South African church leaders -- who are not part of the talks -- to urge the negotiators to consult with the unemployed, underemployed and badly employed. The nation's current unemployment rate is 40 percent.

Villa-Vicencio praised the South African Council of Churches for its role in demanding that the government secure international monitoring of its investigations of Hani's murder. Since last September, an ecumenical monitoring team has been working in South Africa to monitor the negotiation process, the violence and the hoped-for elections leading to a democratic, nonracial state.

Anglican prelate Paul Reeves, former governor general of New Zealand, leads the ecumenical monitoring team, which has the approval of the Vatican and the backing of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference.
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Title Annotation:Charles Villa-Vicencio
Author:Lefevere, Pat
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 23, 1993
Words:651
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