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Review of From our Side: Emerging Perspectives on Development and Ethics


By Kevin Ward

From our Side: Emerging Perspectives on Development and Ethics. Steve de Gruchy, Nico Koopman, Sytse Strijbos. Rozenberg Publishers, UNISA Publishers, Amsterdam, South Africa, 2008. Pp. 288. ISBN. 978 90 5170 974 2 (hb). £29.99.

‘Our side’ is South Africa. The editors of this collection of essays aim to contribute to ‘the ethics of development in our globalised world’ and include contributions from the Netherlands, but the book is very definitely written from the perspectives of the South: ‘from our side of the river’ was a working title in the early stages of the project. A number of boundaries are explored: North-South; heaven-earth; then-now; structure-identity; theory-practice. The plan of the book is designed to overcome this last division. Most of the articles are written by South African academics, often theologians with a commitment to the religious communities to which they belong and the wider mission of the Church. But each article is written in dialogue with another person, usually a developmental practitioner of one kind or another; often a thinker from a secular discipline. This is meant to earth the discussion in the praxis of development, but also to show the interpenetration of theory and practice:

‘A strong thread running throughout this book is the acknowledgement of the practical significance of good theories, and the theory-ladenness of all good practices’ (p.282).

Above all this collection is a reflection on the urgent social and developmental issues which preoccupy post-apartheid South Africa, focusing on questions of human dignity and women’s empowerment; poverty and riches in a neo-liberal capitalist economic framework; minority rights, refugees and xenophobia; constructions of sexuality, power and HIV-AIDS. It is argued that the discounting of religious identities, and the institutional capacity which religion provides, tends to work against that human flourishing towards which development is directed. Religious institutions and identities were of great importance in the political struggle against apartheid. They need now to refocus on the developmental struggle, not least in relation to HIV-AIDS, sometimes called, in South Africa, the ‘new apartheid’. There are some moving accounts in a chapter entitled ‘challenging stigma in the context of HIV-AIDS’ of the ethical dilemmas relating to disclosure of HIV status (to boyfriends, family, providers etc), weighing up the complex issues of individual rights and responsibilities, and the weight of communal ties. Another article articulates the need for practical, realistic and non-moralistic strategies to AIDS programmes, while speaking in a surprisingly positive tone about the ‘No Apologies’ campaign of Focus on the Family (an American organisation whom secular developmentalists, rightly in my view, view with grave suspicion) to give advise on the moral issues involved, in a campaign which relies for its cogency on an appeal to traditional attitudes in all religious communities generally, not only fundamentalist Christian ones. Perhaps a chapter on BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) would have been useful, exploring its rather patchy achievements, its practical obstacles and the ethical dilemmas which this has also raised.

The writers are insiders (in that they are mostly South African and Christian) but they are alive to the limitations of the churches, the critical of the self-interestedness and frequent narrowness of Christian responses to South Africa’s post apartheid developments. There is a moving self-critique, by an academic theologian confronted with the new immigration, mainly of Africans from further north, in places like Hillsbrow, Johannesburg. There is also a fascinating chapter on the place of the Griqua community (and other indigenous peoples and those of ‘mixed’ identity) in the new South Africa. This volume reveals the sophistication of theological thinking on developmental issues in South Africa. It is implicit in the whole discourse that the churches not only should but actually do have important contributions to make to the debates about the new South Africa. Certainly the depth of argument justifies this claim. But in my view it is a limitation of this excellent collection that it did not engage in more dialogue with other religious traditions. It articulates African cultural perspectives and integrates them into Christian theological thinking in impressive ways. But the book would have been enhanced by Muslim, Jewish and Hindu perspectives, as well as a dialogue with those secularists who would prefer that South Africa was not so saturated with religion. It would also have been useful to have had a more systematic assessment of the challenges of new Christian religious movements to the progressive gains of the 1996 Constitution.

Overall From Our Side is an important book both because it gives so many interesting perspectives on development in the new South Africa, and because it is a refreshing example of how developmental issues can be addressed in such creative and interesting ways from southern perspectives.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 74-75]

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