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World Perspective | RELIGION

S. African Archbishop's Battle for Poor

Njongonkulu Ndungane sees cancellation of debt owed by continent as key to ending poverty.

September 25, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Njongonkulu Ndungane is the Anglican archbishop for southern Africa.

On first meeting, he is not likely to hold your hand and whisper a joke. Speaking over lunch, he won't insist on saying grace. And, most obviously, his is not a household name the world over.

In short, Ndungane is not Desmond Tutu, his Nobel laureate predecessor who turned Bishopscourt, the archbishop's residence in Cape Town, into a renowned address.

But two years on the job, the third-generation preacher is continuing the anti-apartheid revolution in a big way, fighting for the economic well-being of the poor that still eludes democratic South Africa despite the celebrated legacy of Tutu and other religious leaders.

Ndungane's work on behalf of the dispossessed may lack the historical urgency of the apartheid years, but the stakes are no less significant and his passion no less burning.

"In the time of apartheid, we stood for justice," Ndungane said in Johannesburg last week. "In the post-apartheid era, we have in the first instance the responsibility in the building up of the new society and ensuring that what has been realized with sweat, blood and tears is sustainable."

Poverty, he tells audiences, is the scourge of our time. Money, he said during a recent hearing on the poor, is the root of all evil. Economic freedom, he lectures his anti-apartheid comrades, is much harder to achieve than political freedom.

"Tutu's marginalized and poor were the oppressed under apartheid," said a longtime friend of the two archbishops, who asked not to be identified. "Ndungane's marginalized and poor are those oppressed by the economic situation. He is leading the church in a different era."

Keenly aware of the shadow of his bigger-than-life predecessor, Ndungane does not run from it. In fact, he coyly turns the spotlight on it by insisting that Tutu had it easier, leading the region's estimated 8 million Anglicans during the dark days of apartheid.

Ndungane, 57, worked for years as Tutu's chief administrator and is well acquainted with the struggle against the system of racial separation. He spent three years in prison on Robben Island during the early 1960s for his political activities, at one point helping to construct the cell that eventually housed current President Nelson Mandela.

"His time was an 'against' time, and now is a 'for' time," Ndungane said of Tutu. "It is so easy to break down. Apartheid was there as a monster. The building up is much more difficult."

Having just finished three months of public hearings on poverty in South Africa, Ndungane leaves today for the United States, where he hopes to rally support for one of his favorite causes: the cancellation of international debt owed by African countries.

Ndungane sees the continent's ballooning debt and its intractable impoverishment as one and the same problem. Until poor African countries stop paying off billions of dollars in loans to the United States and Europe, there is no hope of improving health, sanitation and other basic needs, he says.

According to the World Bank, he told a conference of the Nonaligned Movement--made up of more than 100 largely Third World nations--last month, Africa transferred about $15 billion in debt service to the industrialized world in 1996, far more than the continent received in aid from developed countries.

"This equals the amount spent in Africa on education," he said. "It is twice the amount spent on health on the continent. . . . Put another way, the lives of 21 million children could be saved by 2000--just [15] months away--if money expended on debt service could be diverted to spending on health, the provision of clean water and sanitation."

Ndungane will meet with officials at the World Bank, where he will undoubtedly step on some toes on the debt issue. But as his first years on the job have demonstrated, his polite manner and pious demeanor do not mean that he keeps his mouth shut.

He has gained some detractors in the ruling African National Congress for challenging government policies, and he had a public run-in with Mandela when the archbishop, using a clan name for the president, proclaimed that "Madiba magic" was not sufficient to solve the country's many problems.

The two leaders have patched up their differences, but Ndungane says he will not keep mum on issues of national importance, particularly when they relate to the poor.

"We have adopted as our stance being in critical solidarity with the government, although my friends in government emphasize solidarity more than being critical," he said.

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