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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 06, 2023
Pope Francis greets new Cardinal Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, South Africa, after presenting the red biretta to him during a consistory for the creation of 21 new cardinals in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 30, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Cardinal Stephen Brislin, 67, the archbishop of Cape Town, said he sees “enormous signs of hope” for South Africa today, notwithstanding the poverty, “enormous” corruption and other problems in the country.

In this exclusive interview with America’s Vatican correspondent in Rome on Sept. 28, two days before he received the red hat from Pope Francis, Cardinal Brislin said he found great signs of hope in several areas, starting with the fact that the country had found “a peaceful solution” to the apartheid system in the early 1990s. Today, he noted that, despite the many problems, “the democratic institutions are holding up,” the judiciary is independent and young politicians are offering hope for the future of this country of 60 million people, the majority of whom are Christian (84 percent), including 3.8 million Catholics.

Born in Welkom, a city in the Free State province of South Africa, in 1956, the future cardinal studied philosophy at St. John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria, theology at the Missionary Institute of Mill Hill in London and gained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Louvain, Belgium. He was ordained priest in 1983. Benedict XVI appointed him bishop of Kroonstad in 2006 and archbishop of Cape Town in 2009, where today he is pastor to a Catholic population of more than 272,000 faithful. He served as president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference from 2013 to 2019. He is now the country’s second cardinal and will be an elector in the next conclave. The other cardinal is Wilfrid Fox Napier, O.F.M., 82, who served as archbishop of Durban from 1992 to 2021 and was created cardinal by John Paul II in 2001.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Since South Africa gained its independence the country has changed enormously, and not always for the better. How do you read the situation today?

First of all, we came out of a very brutal situation. And I personally felt that South Africa would descend into a civil war, and that didn’t happen. We managed to get a peaceful solution to this. We must never forget that because that must be a source of hope for us as well as for the future. We are a democratic country, and the democratic institutions are holding out; they’ve been under threat, they’ve been under attack, but they are holding out.

However, we have been beset by an enormous amount of corruption that has negatively impacted our lives, most particularly of the poor. Because, for example, the whole debacle of Eskom [a government-owned company that is South Africa’s main supplier of electric power] and the load shedding [or ongoing period of widespread national blackouts of electricity supply] that we’re experiencing is, in many ways, a direct consequence of corruption. And this affects businesses; it’s affecting the livelihoods of people.

I went to South Africa several times during the 1980s and 1990s and one of the things that struck me most at that time was the great ecumenical unity among the churches and other religions against the apartheid system. But I get the impression today that this ecumenical unity has fragmented.

Yes, it’s fragmented, particularly on the very local level because we always used to be ministers of fraternal churches, Christian churches and basically we would come together regularly. That has virtually all disappeared, unfortunately, because that is where the strength lies.

But the fact of the matter is that we still have good relationships with not only other Christian churches but also with other faiths. So we do have the interfaith movements of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and so on, but it doesn’t have the same impact as it had in the past. But that is changing slowly as well because people are becoming more vociferous and more outspoken, and we see more clearly the need that we have to stand together on these issues that we basically agree on.

Do you see the churches coming together again to challenge the widespread corruption, for example?

Yes, we have done that, but unfortunately, a lot of our action has been in terms of statements, and I suppose statements have a very limited impact. We are becoming much more outspoken about this and have been working together on it. There is a new initiative that has been going on trying to bring different faiths together, and together we will try to tackle these issues.

I remember when I went to Cape Town in 1997, a time when many Black people had returned from the hills to where they had been deported to the city, I saw immense poverty. Has the poverty reduced, or is it still enormous?

It’s enormous, and there’s an enormous gap between the rich and the poor. I think it’s one of the highest, if not the highest gap between rich and poor in the world, according to the Gini Coefficient. And that is a great tragedy because many people in South Africa will talk about the political freedom that we’ve gained but not economic freedom. And this is one of the reasons why a lot of young people don’t see a point in voting. They’ve become far more apathetic because they think that the vote is not going to change anything.

During the struggle for independence, many countries received South African refugees and migrants, but now South Africa is blocking the entry of refugees and migrants from other African countries. How do you read that situation?

The biggest difficulties have been the xenophobic attacks and the incredible violence that has been meted out against people from other African countries. It’s very difficult to understand the root cause of that. Because South Africa doesn’t have the policy of putting refugees and political asylum seekers into a particular camp or area; we put them in with the population. One of the most shocking and biggest scandals that we’ve had in South Africa is terrible attacks against foreigners, and the government is, or seems to be, at a loss to know quite what to do about this.

The fact of the matter is our borders are seen to be porous. This is part of the problem. What we’ve been trying to do is to encourage the government to really try to document people. So if a person has a political asylum [request], that’s fine, receive them, but document that so you can always have a database of who’s who and who’s where.

What signs of hope do you see for the future of South Africa?

They’re enormous signs of hope, but it’s sometimes very difficult to see them, especially if you’re living in South Africa because our economy is so under attack and so vulnerable. But the fact of the matter is one of the signs of hope is what I said earlier, the democratic institutions are holding out. That is so important because the judiciary remains independent, and all the different types of offices are functioning.

There are among the young people, and the new politicians coming on, some really great young leaders who in the future will be able to take over.

I have been struck by the faith of the people in South Africa, and indeed in the whole of Africa. Is that still true today? Or is faith being eroded?

It has not been eroded. People have a wide variety of beliefs, of course, and a variety of different spiritualities. But we are a spiritual country and a very spiritual continent. People do believe. Beliefs might be different, but people do believe in God.

It’s a great sign for the church in South Africa that Pope Francis has named you a cardinal.

Yes, I think that’s so for the people; there’s been a great amount of excitement among people. Hopefully, it’s been a bit of an uplift for the morale of people as well. I had a very lovely letter from the president himself and from other political leaders, from business people, and of course, from the church.

What do you say about the Catholic Church in South Africa today? How do you see it?

The Catholic Church in South Africa is a young church; it’s a vibrant church; it’s a joyful church. We do suffer from difficulties, particularly in trying to bring unity between the different races. I mean, we come from a past that separated people, so now to try to bring people together is difficult, and that is one of the challenges that we face. The fact of the matter is that people like to pray in different ways and worship in different ways, nonetheless, we need to develop a real community of believers.

How do you see your own role as cardinal?

Well, the first thing I’m going to have to learn is what it means to be a cardinal because I’m not quite sure what it means to be a cardinal. But what I have in my mind, most particularly, is what Pope Francis has said to cardinals in the past: “Don’t think it’s an honor; don’t think it’s about the apparel that you wear; rather it’s about giving service.” And I think that is really what I’m hoping I will be able to try and do as best I can: to be of service to the Holy Father, to the church and of course to society at large.

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