Good News to Our City: Economic Inequality

This is part two of the series Good News to Our City.  Read Part 1 – Racial Reconciliation here.

2. Economic Inequality

Let us begin with a statement of fact – whites (including Christians) are (present tense intended) the benefactors of the apartheid system.  Yes, we all know that “all that discrimination” is in the past and that now we are all even (?!)  But to imagine that 40 years of institutionalized (that is even to ignore the fact that racial discrimination was crippling black people long before apartheid was on the statute books) can simply disappear overnight and that previous privileged and disadvantages are no longer valid is simply naive or ungodly.

Let us try an analogy: It is as if we whites and blacks have been playing a game of football and for the first half all the black players have one arm and one leg tied behind their back.  Predictably the score at half time is 28-0.  At half time the whites realize the error of their ways (best case motives allowed) and untie the blacks for the second half but do nothing about the score.  And when the black players, understandably, protest – the white response is anger, whilst pointing out the only now even (?) playing field.

That is Cape Town/South Africa today, we may be 14 years into our new democracy but whites have conveniently forgotten that blacks started this era of democracy 28-0 behind. In order for South Africa to work towards significant economic equality white people have to be prepared to give something up.  The question for Christians in Cape Town today is – where does the Kingdom of God fit into all of this?

Martin Luther once said: “If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time you are not preaching the Gospel at all.” (quoted in Ron Sider p52).

If you have any doubt as to whether this is one of the issues of our time here are some statistics:

According to the 2007 statistics on the City of Cape Town website results:

  • Unemployment in Cape Town is at 16,9% (2007)
  • 58.4% of people aged 20+ have an education level less  than grade 12. (2007) whilst a further 23,6% have Grade 12 as their highest education level.  Leaving only 16,8% of people aged 20+ with a tertiary qualification.
  • 8.4% of people 20+ have less than Grade 5 (2007)
  • 38.8% of households are living below the poverty line (2005)
  • 6.7% of households have no access to safe drinking water (2007), and 5.8%  no access to adequate sanitation (2007) and 2.8% no access to electricity for lighting (2007)
  • 108 889 – informal dwellings were serviced by the city in 2007 (this obviously does not include those that were not serviced)

According to the 2004 Study on Informal settlements:

  • Amongst those living in informal settlements only 16% have Grade 12 and this drops to as low as 2% among the unemployed.
  • 25% of those living in informal settlements are regarded as functionally illiterate.
  • 98% of these were Xhosa speaking with 92% having been born in the Eastern Cape.
  • 39,5% of adult residents were unemployed (34% men and 66% women)
  • 52% of the unemployed had never worked in paid jobs before
  • Average household income was R1315 per month (inclusive of state grants received by 41% of households). At the time of the survey the Household Subsistence Level was R1900.  More than 80% of households fell below this level.
  • 54% of households spoke of times when they had no food for the day.  Whilst 61% did not always have enough to eat.
  • On average 30 people were sharing one toilet cubicle
  • 83% of residents experienced serious problems with flooding around or in their shacks.

According to the Informal Dwelling Count for Cape Town 1993 – 2005 (June 2006),

  • The city had a backlog of housing of 260 000.
  • The 50 informal settlements in 1993 had grown to over 200 by 2005.  Khayalitsha for instance has a total of 13 informal settlements containing  42 170 shacks.  And Philippi with a total of 23 informal settlements containing 15114 shacks.
  • Since 1993 informal dwellings have grown from 28 300 to 98 031 in 2005.
  • Impacting the lives of approximately 400 000 people, almost 13% of the Cape Town population.

According to the City of Cape Town’s Employment Status of Potential Labour Force (those aged 15-64):

  • The total unemployment levels in Cape Town are 19,4%
  • Of those Black Africans have a 34,8% (225473 people) unemployment rate, comprising 31% of the population
  • Coloureds have a  15,8% (147250 people) unemployment rate, comprising 48,13% of the population
  • Asians and Indians a  7,1 % (2072 people)  unemployment rate comprising 1,43% of the population
  • And Whites a 3,1 %  (11987 people) unemployment rate comprising 18,75% of the population


1. In SA this is largely a black-white issue and this is how it is at best perceived and at worst intended.  We cannot get away from the reality that white people including Christians are the major beneficiaries of apartheid.  If we are serious about racial reconciliation (see part 1 of this series) then we must ask questions about an economic system that entrenches the divide not only between rich and poor, but often also between white and black.  If the gospel is to be good news that works to our city then it must be seen to overcoming these divides, uplifting the poor, changing the priorities of the wealthy etc.

2. White Christians (this is a generalization) need to give up their love affair with Western capitalism.  Out of the West and particularly the United States comes a form of Christianity which is often too closely wed to capitalism. Capitalism as an economic system is about the maximum profit for the minimum expenses.  As Christians in business, running businesses, endorsing and using businesses, this “raw capitalism” is most often at odds with the people-centred, looking after the vulnerable, type economics of the Bible.

We have to practice and endorse and look to encourage whatever form of economic system (in one sense that is irrelevant) best looks after “the poor and the widows”, the vulnerable, those who are without means and resources.  Whatever system best allows the greatest number of people to rise above poverty, unemployment, unsanitary living conditions, lack of access to proper healthcare and education is the system/policy/party which we ought to be endorsing.

The sad reality is that most of our decision-making and values are played out not by reading the for instance the Old Testament prophets but by the values which we inherit and endorse as those who are the (continuing) beneficiaries of an unjust economic system.  White Christians fail to critique or even see anything wrong with our capitalist economy mainly because we are the beneficiaries and propagators of an unjust system which continues to make the (white) rich richer and the (black) poor poorer

3. White Christians need to consider their living standards and priorities in the light not of first world countries but in light of Africa.  In a city where hundreds of our brothers (if we limit it to Christians alone for the point of illustration) regularly go to bed hungry how is it that rich Christians so easily justify the luxury motors, holiday homes, bigger and better homes, gadgets, television screens etc?  How is it that rich Christians have wardrobes full of clothes they never wear whilst their brothers and sisters have no shoes or warm top?

How can it be that those who claim to disciples of  Jesus and citizens of the Kingdom of God, have the same lifestyle as unbelievers just without the smoking, sex and foul language?  How is it that whilst are values are supposedly radically different yet our lifestyles are exactly the same?

4. Reformed theology has traditionally  had a defective theology of the Kingdom: we are obsessed with saving souls for heaven,whilst God is busy calling us to join with him in reconciling all things to himself.   While we are busy preaching a message which inadvertently has lowered expectations of life now (what is called under-realized eschatology), God is calling us to live now as citizens of his Kingdom of justice, peace, mercy, compassion, and self-denial.  We are exclusively concerned with personal holiness while God is calling us to lay down our rights, give away our excess, feed the poor and join with God in demonstrating the in-breaking effects of the new life of the resurrection now.

“For the first Christians, the ultimate ‘salvation’ was all about God’s new world; and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people, or being rescued from shipwreck, or whatever, was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate ‘salvation’, that healing transformation of space, time and matter.   The future rescue which God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present.  We are saved, not as souls, but as wholes.” Tom Wright: Surprised by Hope p211

5. As I alluded to earlier reformed theology has traditionally had a deficient theology of the church.  We are all about me and my personal salvation.  At best church is a collection of individuals who share common interests and values and who help each other out occasionally.  The biblical picture has at the centre of God’s working, not the individual but the people of God, the church.  We need a far more communal identity than we often practice.  The biblical picture is that of a family, a body, a building, a people belonging to one another, one new humanity.

A more biblical picture of church cannot accept a situation where we buy a new car, or a bigger house, or more shoes whilst our brothers and sisters go to bed hungry or homeless – and we don’t even care enough to pause and consider what we are doing!   “Our understanding of the poor, it seems reveals a lot about our understanding of God’s grace.” Tim Chester p29

6. This is not a call to give money to poor people.  That may come in time but what white and black, rich and poor need more than anything else in South Africa and Cape Town today is to meet and connect with one another.  As Christians we have to stop giving money to appeals or projects (to ease our guilty conscience) and we need to start giving ourselves.  Ask yourself this question, where would you find Jesus if he was living in Cape Town today?  Among the poor, in the townships, on the gang-ravaged Cape Flats, among the HIV positive crisis?  Where do you think he is calling you to be today?

Stop fearing the consequences. Stop worrying about the future.  Stop thinking about all the logical reasons why you should maintain your comfortable middle-class white bubble.  If you know where Jesus is calling you then why aren’t you following?  That is the only question worth answering!

“It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are all invited to devote our lives to the subversive cause of the mustard seed that is destined to redeem a people and transform a world.” Tom Sine: Mustard Seed vs McWorld p27

Next up: Part 3 of the series Good News to Our City: HIV/AIDS


~ by John on December 30, 2009.

9 Responses to “Good News to Our City: Economic Inequality”

  1. Very appropriate post. I’ve struggled with this issue myself, particularly in terms of applying it to Robin and I personally – what does it mean for us. Your post is a timely reminder that of the importance to get on with it.

    I was wondering about your comments about reformed theology – I wonder if the brand of reformed theology you’re critiquing has actually departed from more historic forms. So for example I think that someone like Abraham Kuyper or Cornelius Van Til would be aghast at certain contemporary forms of reformed theology. I’d extend this even to Calvin who presented a far more holistic view of reformed theology than some contemporary examples.

  2. Good comment about traditional reformed theology – it has always surprised me when you read church history to discover just how active in issues of social justice and good works the previous generations where and yet we who claim to be followers in the same theological and church traditions conveniently ignore these aspects of their theology/mission.

    I think you would struggle to find many of those who are known to us from church history who would share our preoccupation with study and abstract theological correctness in isolation from a holistic discipleship in which their theology of the in-breaking Kingdom touches every aspect of their lives. I mean Luther started a micro-brewery for goodness sake!

    Perhaps a more helpful phrase would be to say contemporary and near contemporary reformed theology.

  3. A challenge for sure – and I still find myself asking,”But why should I feel guilty for something that I did not do?” – of course, I have benefitted unfairly from the apartheid system – at a human level. But have I benefitted at a spiritual level i.e. I got saved in the 90’s, when the consequences of that system were more severe than today. however, look at our society today – the inequality appears to be as wide if not wider, and is also cutting across cultural and ethnic lines. So a danger would be to leave this as a black-white issue.

    I have felt the tugs at my heart recently, one on a visit to a TLC project as part of my company’s CSI annual visit (for shame), and another when observing foster children being brought to work from an AIDS home. I am currently asking myself about how I am spending my time, and Carly and I need to grapple with this.

    As for where the mission field is, I would say that even inside the church, we are generally inadequate at relating to each other properly, of the same class and culture generally. So how do we expect to go out and be successful at building the relational bridges in our communities? I have started reading Sophie de Witt’s book, One to One, and it got me thinking: the reason we are like this is because of our western values, that prioritises me first and my space, ahead of the community. That’s why we need help to related to our neighbours – because we don’t know how.

    As for the point, I always think of Acts 2 when I hear the word “church” – for that is how we should be. I hope that, whether it is through church-planting or other means, that the church (i.e. all of us Christians) will take this seriously for Jesus’s sake.

  4. […] Reading – Economic Inequality Building on my thoughts on this post Good News To our City: Economic Inequality, I thought I would add a list of a few books that have helped me in my thinking around issues of […]

  5. Hey Paul,
    1. Not sure I understand your comment about benefiting humanly and not spiritually? Surely discipleship is more holistic than that?
    2. Good points on the reality that even in church we “keep to our own”. As I know you are a leader in your church – what do you think could be done to help Christian communities become more like Kingdom communities/
    3. As for Western individualism – spot on! This has been my big wake up over the past few years. My values and priorities have been more shaped by my culture than by the Kingdom. I have been praying for God to change that! If you have not read Total Church by Chester and Timmis you should – it is brilliant on just this issues!

  6. Thanks for these thoughts … have you read any of Melissa Steyn’s work? “Whiteness just isn’t what it used to be” , also “Knowledge in the blood” by prof. Jansen.

  7. @ Tom, Read neither but would be interested to follow them up. Would I be able to find these works in a good public library?

  8. May God give me the courage to follow where Christ is leading.

  9. […] Here some thoughts on the gospel as good news to Cape Town in the areas of Racial Reconciliation & Economic Inequality […]

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