An Eloquent and Precise Narrative
Professor Gardner's Review
This book, published some time ago, is not as well known as it deserves to be. Patrick Noonan is a Franciscan priest who lived through and was deeply involved in the dramatic events in the five townships of the Vaal Triangle (Sebokeng, Sharpeville, Boipatong, Evaton and Bophelong) which began when their residents initiated a resistance push which many regard as the beginning of the end for “white South Africa”. The book is partly an eloquent and precise narrative of what happened, with mini-narratives by other people thrown in – a striking social and political history of events that have not been fully chronicled elsewhere. But as it focuses in a particular way on the role of the churches in the liberation struggle, it is also an analysis of a remarkable moment in spiritual and ecclesiastical history. Intermingled with all this, Father Noonan powerfully and honestly tells his own story: the book is also a spiritual autobiography.
As a white priest serving in black townships, constantly aware of himself as a partly anomalous figure, Noonan nevertheless succeeded in associating himself very fully and compassionately with the aspirations, the sufferings, the frustrations and the occasional joys of the people among whom he lived and worked. He gives vivid accounts, largely from the point of view of the townships, of the main events of those years: the trial and conviction of the Sharpeville Six, the uprising of 3 September 1984, the arrival of the army in the townships, and the famous, deliberately protracted Delmas trial; and then, after the watershed year 1990, the Boipatong massacre and the many random killings perpetrated by the “third force”. But it is not just the main events that Noonan brings to life. He deals in detail with the complexities and difficulties of the lives of township residents.
In the past the churches have either kept aloof from dramatic political changes or, more frequently, they have favoured the often oppressive status quo. Today most churches are more socially enlightened; certainly the church leaders in the Vaal Triangle found that they had no choice but to support the cause of justice. But this raised many theological and practical issues. How exactly does a priest or pastor, in the course of ministering to his congregation, take a discreet political lead, confront the police, support activists, and negotiate with the authorities? There was however no time to theorise these issues: solutions and actions had to be immediate, on-the-spot. Noonan takes us sensitively through his own prayerful puzzlement, anxiety, calculation and excitement. He is able to view the passionate pains and victories of the political transition in terms of Christ’s experiences.
In the last section of the book his role has changed: he is involved in political education and is then an official observer at the 1994 election. He describes vividly the unbelievable happiness of the newly liberated, and guides us along the path towards healing and reconciliation.
Those years, in those places – and of course in many other parts of South Africa – represented a wonderful breakthrough moment for the churches. There were bad actions perpetrated by those struggling for liberation (and Noonan deals with these scrupulously), but on the whole the spirit of God seems to have been very alive within the struggle. One can’t help asking: have the churches since 1994 managed to maintain a sufficiently high degree of social engagement?