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“How can the church and civil society build social conscience for democratic participation?”

“How can the church and civil society build social conscience for democratic participation?”

This was the question on the minds of more than 100 participants at the May 2009 African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching(AFCAST) workshop at the Tanzania Episocal Conference (TEC) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The wide spectrum of guests included Catholic priests, religious sisters and protestant pastors; leaders of political parties including past ministers and one presidential candidate; Christian professionals including lawyers and judges of the High Court; university professors and students; heads of departments of the Catholic Secretariat; and leaders of the Catholic laity council, Catholic women organisation and Catholic youth organisations.

AFCAST envisions a more just, peaceful and humane African society that is guided by Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and where Gospel values are promoted and celebrated. We are a diverse group of Catholics who strive to popularise and contextualise this teaching by strengthening the capacity of those involved in developing and implementing it at all levels of the church and society. One way of doing this is by meeting twice annually for a public seminar on a current social problem relevant to the host country as well as other countries in Southern and East Africa.

The topic of the church and civil society in building democratic participation is timely. This year, Tanzania will conduct local elections as well as by-elections to fill vacant parliamentary seats. Next year, Tanzania will hold general elections to elect the president, parliamentarians and representatives in the city, town and district councils. These will be charged elections as there are many concerns at hand, including issues of corruption.

The topic is also relevant to other East and Southern African countries which have just concluded elections. These include South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. At the time of the meeting, Malawi was preparing for elections and Kenya and Zimbabwe were still struggling with the aftermath of violent election processes.

Justice January Msoffe of the Tanzania Court of Appeals begins the conversation by addressing the role of the church in building a social conscience for democratic participation in the following areas: ethical formation, leadership, policy-making, policy implementation and the supervisory function of state institutions. He calls the church to participate in “a serious examination of conscience” concluding that “If we [as church] have a good and effective conscience, the nation will have a good conscience – because we are the nation.”

Africa, and specifically Zimbabwe, has lessons to learn from the global “shift from the politics of confrontation to that of engagement,” according to Dr. David Kaulemu. He stresses that in both CST and the new political paradigms “we are encouraged, more and more, to focus on people as active, responsible social agents and not merely as cogs in economic machines or pawns in power games.” He views the crisis in Zimbabwe as a product of the absence of “comprehensive solidarity, of universal love or of genuine respect.” While acknowledging Zimbabwe’s past and present reality as a divided nation, he sees the potential for religion as a “resource for moulding forms of political life that accommodate all beings.”

Turning to Zambia, Sr Kayula Lesa looks at democratic participation in national political and economic processes such as constitution-making, the African peer review mechanism, the national development plan, and the Jubilee debt campaign. Using these processes as case studies, she cites a need for deeper research on social issues, emphasis on human values and popular education within a reasonable timeframes as ways to enhance democratic participation in Zambia.

Tobias Jere notes a growing ethnic and religious polarisation in Malawian civil society, particularly surrounding elections. At the same time, he finds hope in the multi-party system which confirmed seven presidential candidates and nearly one thousand aspiring parliamentarians. He expresses concern over issues leading up to the recent elections such as the accusations of vote rigging in the 2004 general elections, loss of confidence in the judiciary and ethnic polarisation and regionalism. He then shares the churches’ contributions to a peaceful election process. His addendum to the article reflects on the May 2009 elections which recorded a landslide victory for President Dr Bingu waMtharika which cut across ethno-religious lines.

The appendix gives an example of a “Code of Conduct for Peace-building among Ethnic Groups, Faith Communities and Political Parties in Mangochi District” in Malawi as one way civil society can enter a politics of engagement.