Sentry Duty

Observation alters behaviour. This was a truth made with notable clarity and force by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in relation to prisons – but the effect is far wider. In the courtyard of the Slave Lodge in Cape Town there is a sentry box, re-sited from Fort Knokke (built in 1744). It was part of the infrastructure of military occupation that safeguarded colonial interests, not least those of the East India Company.

I can’t recall whether I’ve ever stood in a sentry box before. Spending some time walking around the box, and then standing inside, brought home to me the altered state that occupying the box brings. A soldier has the benefit of protection bought at the price of limited sight. Narrow slits afford some vantage, but these are inevitably narrow in perspective and focused on particular points of danger. Walking into the box demonstrated how much sound is altered in the small structure. Effectively the sentry’s perspective is limited and defined, while sound is muffled and becomes more distant. Simultaneously the guard is present in, and distanced from, the wider community.

The relationships which colonialism brings are invariably infantilising. The occupying powers ‘know best’ and inflict their religious, economic, military and political stamp on unwilling lands. Spending time with the people from The Warehouse in Cape Town reveals the lasting scars and consequences of a regime rooted in colonial attitudes. In a clear and autobiographical style, people shared with us their identities and histories, and explained how growing up in different decades in South Africa has affected their family relationships; education; type of work; place to live; and friendships.

It was encouraging to hear all this set within a framework of a theology that was natural to reference and practical in its insights. Equally, along with many other things, I found it disturbing to learn that at one point in its history the Dutch Reformed Church had decided that the common cup would not be shared between ethnic groups.

the discomfort of white members in sharing a cup during the offering of the sacraments led to the establishment of the coloured “daughter church” and later that of the black population, which came to be known as the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa.

Konzane, M. P. (2017). Mission calling in a congregation of the Dutch Reform Church of Africa in a transforming society: a case study in South Africa (Doctoral dissertation, North-West University (South-Africa)).

At the start and end of this first day in Cape Town we read Matthew 21. As our pilgrimage progressed I found resonance and connection with a detail towards the end of the passage, when the religious leaders say to Jesus: ‘Do you hear what these children are saying?’ The translation we are using says the leaders were ‘indignant’ when they asked this question. It is not uncommon for discriminatory language to belittle others by making a comparison to children, implying that some adults are less than they ought to be. Daughter churches? As we spoke about the decision to segregate the administration of Holy Communion it also led me to reflect on the common practice in many churches to exclude children from this sacrament. It may seen natural to some, but I wonder whether it is wise.

Inevitably, my first 48 hours in South Africa has raised questions about the mechanics of oppression; all the people caught up in its operation; and those bearing the brunt of its legacy. Where we stand shapes what we can see and how we can hear – and sometimes we all need to take the risk of stepping out of our box to engage with different perspectives. That, as much as anything else, should be our duty and our joy.

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