What's a Good Christian Boy Like You Doing In a Place Like This?
Mark Manley muses on his political life
So why not just do life? Play sport, eat pasta, be romantic, get married, have kids, work, retire. Inter-sperse with bits of church, music, holidays, studies, buying things, family duties, and friends. Why put up with death threats, alienation, accusations, dirty tricks, and a non-career?
During school I was made aware of differences in our society. My father would purposefully take me into places where others in our socio-economic group would not venture, like townships, rural villages, and so on. Of course, being white and male in South Africa meant that I was being groomed to be a boss - but one who would at least have been exposed to other elements of life. Good teachers also helped break through the boundaries of Christian-National Education, to broaden my understanding of politics in an unjust, immoral country.
But it was only at university that I came face to face with the harshness and complexity of our environment. I was committed to music, Contempo-rary Christian Music, Praise and Worship leading, and singing in restaurants and pubs to put myself through my degree. Then I was asked to stand for the SRC as, I suppose, someone with some leader-ship ability. Ours was a very politicised campus with, amongst others, both Marxist radicals and very conservative reactionaries coming to uni-versity directly from the bush war of Rhodesia. I was reluctant to get involved. I did not know enough. I had not read sufficient-ly. I did not have any close black friends. The list went on and on why I should not be in politics. Then it happened - one of those rare moments when you are in a place at a time that changes every place and time in your life from then on. I was in a music store in the other CBD (SA towns often have two CBDs - one developed around white business and the other around black and Indian business). Outside was a peaceful protest that was common in those days. The protesters were black school kids protesting yet another injustice of Bantu education. The police arrived, and with batons, rifle buts, and sjamboks started to beat up the kids and break the protest. I was horrified, then angry beyond my emotional containment. The shop owner and a friend prevented me from going out and taking on the police myself. I realised the futility of physical resistance. In an instant I knew that my greatest contribution to preventing this kind of injustice was to get involved in politics and influence the minds of decision makers.
I stood for the election, and was elected. Stood again the following year, and was elected SRC president. Mine was a difficult platform. I was a Christian who did not fit the usual politico labels. Clearly on the side of justice and reformation in the country, I was also a selective pacifist and a non-Marxist -- but not committed to raw capitalism.
It was a time of difficult decisions and actions. Staying out of the way of the police ... I heard later that they had placed an informer in each of my classes. I still wonder what they put in their reports. I was no threat to the state. Pity the money used for spying wasn't used to serve the ends of justice and development.
As a Christian (evangelical / charismatic type) I could cope with opposition and derision from those that I recog-nised as not coming from my belief system and politically gave as good as I got. The pain was felt when friends, Christian brothers and sisters, could not cope with what I was doing politically. And so, in the insidious way in which the church is so adept, I was alienated and discredited in the minds of that group where I thought that I had the most support, and to whom I thought I did not need to explain my actions.
This was a powerful lesson that has stayed with me throughout my life. Everyone needs to be politically edu-cated, even in a situation as black and white as the old SA. In politics support comes from strange places, those who want to use and abuse. And this is not very different in most church contexts. Being accountable to God, responsible for actions, and true to core beliefs and principles is often prophetic and thus lonely. The big danger is a lone wolf Christianity of persecution complexes and unhealthy cynicism.
You don't get into politics, politics gets into you! Once the importance and influence of politics was perceived I could not stay away. For Christians too, political homes are uncomfortable. There will always be compromises and discomfort in group decisions. But that is politics in the real world.
To cut a long story short, I was elected to local government and later elected mayor of Randburg - a town of about 200 000 people. Here again the battle was not about territory, squatters, bulk services and low income housing projects. The battle is usually against the bastions of fear and prejudice erected in the minds of people through years of indoctrination, selfish ma-terialism, and a predisposition towards failure in both community and individual endeavours.
Has being a Christian made a difference to my politics? Of course! If I was not a Christian I would not have ventured into politics to start with, but it has also created a stability (not stagnation) of thought and activism in a tumultuous world of rapid change and breezy allegiances. We can choose our friends but not our family, so it is that we have to learn to tolerate those that have different perspectives than our own. Likewise over the years some fellow believers have become real close even though we differ dramatically (sometimes with much drama) on a number of political issues.
I have been asked - "Are you a Christian politician, or a politician who is a Christian?" I think this is a naïve question. Central to my being, values, attitudes and behaviour is my belief. But my identity is a complex thing. I am also a father, husband, business person, cyclist (of sorts), musician, broadcaster, commuter, Italian food consumer, wild life enthusiast, and a whole lot more. I endeavour to be integrated in truthfully adhering to my core beliefs as the governor and stimulus of my behaviour. It so happens in my life that large chunks of behaviour are devoted to the responsibility of influence through politics. Conversely, large chunks of my belief have been formed through my experiences in politics.
The challenge is to be authentic. In a world influ-enced by actors' characters, spin doctors, and advertising, politics is not about election promises, but rather about creating a future of substance, justice and righteousness - by being substantial, just and righteous today. May God help us.
The Big Picture Volume 1, Lent 1999 p.16