South Africa – Army battles social, health issues

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South Africa


Dr. Ivan May, Commissioner Israel Gaither, former president Nelson Mandela, Commissioner Eva Gaither, and Len Millar after their meeting in July 2000.

The Salvation Army in the Southern Africa Territory is fighting a battle against AIDS, illiteracy, poverty and the remnants of years of apartheid. Composed of South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho, St. Helena, and Swaziland, the territory claims nearly 22,000 senior soldiers – 350 newly enrolled – and encompasses more than a dozen ethnic groups.

“This is a powerful Salvation Army in this part of the world,” said Territorial Commander Commissioner Israel Gaither, who serves with his wife, Commissioner Eva Gaither, as territorial leaders. “We can be an even more effective force for good in this region of the world. But we must unleash the dormant power possessed by our people.”

The Army here is marching forward. Despite linguistic, cultural, ethnic and racial differences, Salvationists share a common doctrine, belief system, and love for the Army.

Spiritual development and leadership training are priorities for the territory, including developing and training youth. “We have some of the finest young men and women I have seen anywhere. Deeply in love with the Lord, committed to the Army and the mission, and talented! They are making a significant impact,” said Gaither.

Well respected by national and local governments, the Army’s social mission is well understood. “Our spiritual and social mission is perhaps better understood by political leaders within the African communities of the rural and township areas where we are understood to be a church,” Gaither noted. The Army’s programs, however, have been affected by the declining financial support available through the government due to a weak economy and a lack of funds. Without skill and economic infusion, social and economic stability will not be easily attained in South Africa. The country’s unemployment rate is 40%.

Meeting with Mandela

Former South African President Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel (the former first lady of Mozambique) have both met with the Gaithers, and are strong supporters of the Army’s work in South Africa and Mozambique. Mandela met with them in July, along with Advisory Board member Dr. Ivan May and Territorial Public Relations Secretary Captain Len Millar. “Mandela spoke warmly of his appreciation for the work and mission of the Army, being very aware of the Army’s efforts to assist the poorest of the poor. He also commented on the Army’s medical work as well as the care of the children of South Africa,” said Millar.

In her September meeting with the Gaithers, May and Millar, which was held at the Mandela’s home, Machel commended The Salvation Army for its work in Mozambique during the disastrous flooding. She expressed appreciation for the Army’s commitment to the country, and its presence both prior to and in the aftermath of the disaster. “She would like to meet with The Salvation Army in Mozambique, and discuss the possibility of partnership in relief programs,” said Millar.

Corps and social programs

The majority of the Army’s work (75%) is among rural black communities. The remaining 25% of its ministry is in urban, predominantly white settings. Rural conditions are difficult: Sixty percent of the officer’s quarters have no water or electricity. Less than 50% of officers receive full salary. Officers often are circuit preachers, visiting a number of corps. After two years of training college, a new lieutenant is often the best-educated person in the community.

The Army operates 60 social service programs throughout the territory, which are funded by The Salvation Army, the government, and community appeals.

In Soweto Township, home to 7 million and the site of the 1976 student uprisings, the Army has seven corps and a strong presence. Here, in 1993, the Army opened the first home for HIV/AIDS babies in the country. Beth-esda House continues to serve these abandoned infants. (See pages 8-9).

Also in Soweto is the Ephriam Zulu Flats home for the elderly. More than 120 live here, including migrant workers, the destitute, and retired Salvation Army officers. Among its residents is 81-year-old Envoy David Mathunja, whose father was a Salvation Army pioneer and was admitted to The Order of the Founder.

Majors Keneilwe and John Nako, former divisional commanders, are administrators, providing loving support and care to all. They have created a link to the community through making small plots of land available to people for growing vegetables. The home is one of only two facilities in Soweto to care for the elderly. The other is costly and privately run.

The Carl Sithole Center is located next to the Chicken Farm squatter camp in Soweto and is on the grounds of the former Fred Clarke Training College for black Salvation Army officers. Here, at Bethany Children’s Home, 110 girls ages 6-18 receive love, security and education. Some are orphans, some are abandoned, and most have been sent through the court system. “All have experienced trauma in their lives,” explained Major Lenah Jwili, administrator.

The Bethany Combined School, also on the grounds, provides education for 160 children in grades 1-8 who come from the center and the immediate community. In addition to academics, skills such as hairdressing, flower ar-ranging, computer literacy and sewing are taught.

Since 1923, the Firlands Children’s Home has cared for children who were removed from their homes by the court. Today, 61 girls and boys ages 2-17 from different races reside in cottages on the former farm. According to Captain George Pavey, administrator, community support includes volunteers who help with homework and landscaping, and Rotary, which is helping students obtain job skills. There is a chapel on the grounds, and 18 of the resident youth are corps cadets.

Funding is difficult, however. Where there used to be 3,000 charities vying for public support, now there are 45,000.

Women’s ministries

The Army is touching women’s lives throughout the territory through spiritual, social and economic programs, reports Commissioner Eva Gaither. Health is a major emphasis, with a Family Health Program administered through territorial headquarters. Each of the nine divisions has a coordinator. “We concerned with helping women find themselves and raise their status in life, often through education,” she said. HIV/AIDS education is a component of all their work, as is education regarding diseases such as malaria and TB.

One in every five deaths is from AIDS. Many of the women don’t even know how AIDS is spread.” The risk of widowhood from AIDS is great.

Skills training, including sewing, basket making, flower arranging, along with short term loans, help women support themselves financially. “We are empowering women to be self-sufficient,” Gaither explained.

“In addition, sinking boreholes for water provides vital assistance. Nine were sunk last year in areas where there was a Salvation Army presence and the Army was able to get the community to commit to take care of the water supply.

Apartheid aftermath

It is impossible to report on The Salvation Army in South Africa without addressing the issue of apartheid, which separated the races until 1991.

Under apartheid, blacks couldn’t vote, and were assigned to tribal areas. By law, blacks, whites, coloreds, and Indians couldn’t mix socially and all aspects of life–except the workplace–had to remain apart. This included churches. Public buildings, such as the post office, and transportation, including trains, were operated separately as well.

The Salvation Army was not allowed to admit black or other races into their white children’s homes. White officers, by law, couldn’t socialize in their quarters with officers of other races, although some did.

Until 1988, when the two training colleges were combined (before apartheid ended) there had been two colleges, one for white cadets and one for blacks. Cadets mixed once a month on spiritual days. “We alternated which college we met at. We enjoyed being together,” said Major Malcolm Forster.

In the July 1997 issue of The Officer, former Southern Africa Territorial Commander Commissioner Paul du Plessis (a South African), wrote about the Army’s submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Salvation Army was the first church in South Africa to do so. He said: “The decision for the Army to make its own submission was not taken easily, but the conviction grew among the executive officers of the territory that this should be done. We were aware of the international integrity of The Salvation Army and that making a submission was effectively including IHQ and the Army worldwide with its stance on South Africa.”

The following is excerpted from the submission:

“There are ways in which we know we have failed–a growing consciousness brought about in our collective mind by the Holy Spirit. All Salvation Army gatherings since our 1883 beginnings have been open to all races. Our failure has been in allowing the recognition of separate ethnic groupings, seen as normal at the time, but which fostered the idea of separate development. We did not see God’s justice as being grounded in God’s love and some of our people have been morally violated by the inequitable distribution of resources available to us…

“…While we did care for body and soul, we ought more strongly to have attacked the evil which wrecked both bodies and souls in the first place. Professing an apolitical stance, we used this to avoid the kind of protest for which the early Salvation Army was known. We became self-satisfied and paternal, introspective about our own affairs and insensitive to what was happening around us….As an Army we did not willfully commit racial acts. Indeed, we were able to bring healing and help in some of the worst affected areas simply because we were trusted not to become embroiled in party politics. Still, we failed to ‘stand up and be counted’ when it mattered most–and that is painful for us…

“The Salvation Army would want to uphold the principle of not being involved in party political issues. We will endeavor, however, not to hide under this umbrella as an excuse for silence when we should be prepared to speak prophetically and fearlessly on matters of justice.”

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