Apartheid ended nearly 25 years ago, but South Africa is still a deeply divided nation. A couple of church ministers have a plan that could truly unite the country.
When South Africa had its first multi-racial elections in 1994, Desmond Tutu proudly declared it to be a ‘rainbow nation’ – a multitude of races and peoples living together in peace.
While this is still true, it’s also a nation seriously divided. This was brought home to Phil and Rachel Bowyer, when they tried to get fibre broadband for their home.
‘The guy in the shop showed us the map of where it was available,’ says Phil. ‘On one side of the freeway, it was fibre city, on the other side, nobody got fibre. And of course, on one side, that's where the people with wealth, largely white, lived. We joked that it was like a “fibre Apartheid.” And that's kind of how it is with so many things in South Africa – so much more than broadband.’
For the nation to close the continuing divide and move forward, Phil and his wife Rachel believe the next generation needs to step out of their ghettos and get their heads and hearts together. And they’ve got a plan for how that can happen…
Phil and Rachel are both church ministers. Phil was working for Tearfund in the UK when he heard the calling for the two of them and their child to go overseas.
‘I really felt God was challenging me to stop speaking about poverty and justice and actually go and do something,’ says Phil. ‘I said, "Well, I'm not prepared to go unless you tell me where." And within three minutes, somebody approached me about this opportunity in South Africa. So I hadn't really got a leg to stand on after that.’
It was a clear instruction. However when they asked for further guidance, God just seemed to say ‘don't do anything.’
As they settled into their new home, north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, it became clearer what this meant.
'We saw what a rich culture can be developed when we begin to appreciate one another's faiths, and celebrate each other’s perspectives.’
‘God was actually saying “Don't do anything new. Go and find out what Christians are already doing in the city. Then it'll become clear what I want you to do.” So that was what we did. So for eight months we just went and found out what God was doing for individuals in the city.
‘Almost everybody we met, that was doing important work, said to us, "We're the only people doing this kind of stuff in the city and we're ready to give up." So we were able to say to them "trust me: you're not the only people doing this." And it was at that point when God said "Right, get those people in the same room, and I'll do the rest".’
‘So for the last ten years, we've been gathering people together to share their knowledge, their skills, to learn from one another, as adults.’
Together, they founded Soul Action, getting the change-makers in the region to work together and achieve more. However, Phil and Rachel have got a vision for something larger still...
Across the great divide
‘Living in South Africa, it doesn't take long to work out we're an incredibly segregated society,’ says Phil. ‘People of a certain economic background still live in certain areas, in government-built housing or shacks. White South Africans often live in gated estates with barbed wire fences or electric fences. So our homes are segregated.’
‘Something is broken here: we're not together,’ says Rachel. ‘That division starts at school. We are the product of our education system, and our education system is divided.’
And so, a couple of years ago, Phil and Rachel started hatching a vision for a new kind of ‘rainbow’ schooling for the rainbow nation.
‘We were chatting to some friends, one of them from Northern Ireland,’ remembers Rachel. ‘They have also had experience of a segregated society. And we started asking, "What would it be like if we had a school which was integrated and inclusive and where diversity was actually celebrated?"’ The couple decided to find out. They travelled around the world to find some examples of a more inclusive way of doing school:
‘We've traveled the world, and looked at models of education, ways of doing school that are bringing freedom in areas like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – where they're bringing together Jews, Muslims and Christians. We saw what a rich culture can be developed when we begin to appreciate one another's faiths, and celebrate each other’s perspectives.’
With a world of great examples under their belt, they launched an organisation called Gamechangers. ‘Starting with three-year-olds, we are in the process of establishing a ‘game-changing’ school where children from a whole range of diverse cultural, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds can come together to fulfil their potential.’
'Unless you start thinking and imagining the world like children do, then his kingdom won't come.'
One for all
Rather than seeing the children from poorer backgrounds ‘holding back’ the more privileged kids, Phil and Rachel believe the diversity will actually enrich everyone’s education.
‘We believe a ‘trans-cultural’ school will foster collaboration, critical thinking, creative thinking, problem-solving, innovation and intelligence,’ says Rachel, a trained teacher.
And it seems that the couple are not alone in wanting something like this.
‘Since we've shared this, parents have been weeping,’ says Phil. ‘They’ve been saying things like "Why has nobody thought of this before?"’
One issue was the cost for poorer families: most schools in South Africa are fee-paying, keeping the poorer children out of the better-funded schools. Phil and Rachel’s answer was a sliding scale of fees, with richer families paying more and effectively subsidising the others.
‘Not one single parent in all of those 200 stakeholders has questioned the idea of paying more,’ says Phil. ‘They have more resources; why wouldn't they pay more?’
As well as enthusiastic interest from parents, they have had offers of land for the first school to be built on, along with plenty of other promises of support. Now it’s a matter of bringing their incredible dream into the realms of reality. They have big plans, but not just for the school.
‘My ultimate vision would be that we would no longer be known as the most consistently unequal country in the world’ says Phil. ‘We would be equal, and integrated. That's what I believe God wants for South Africa. And education is the way to begin that.
‘I think the adults haven't made a great job of it,’ he adds. ‘So let's give the kids a go. And that's what Jesus talks about; unless you become like children, the kingdom of God isn't going to happen. Unless you start thinking and imagining the world like children do, then his kingdom won't come.’
Learn more about the work of Gamechangers in South Africa.
Thank you God for the peace there is between races and peoples in South Africa. Please bless the work of Phil and Rachel and others like them, that are seeking to bring the country together more fully, to become a true ‘rainbow nation’.
Phil and Rachel Bowyer are Inspired Individuals. Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals programme exists to identify, develop and connect new leaders who are aspiring to live like Jesus and whose dreams have the potential to transform some of the most needy places and people in our world.