Bishop McMahon who has recently returned from a visit to South Africa, recounts his experiences there to Brian Dooley
BISHOP Thomas McMahon of Brentwood has just returned from a visit to his "sister diocese" of Dundee, in South Africa.
The dioceses have been twinned for two years, but this was the bishop's first trip to South Africa. He spent two weeks touring the Dundee diocese, which is in the province of Natal. Most of the people in that area are Zulu, and Bishop McMahon celebrated mass in both rich white areas and in black townships.
The bishop described the visit as "one of the most enriching experiences of my life", and told the Catholic Herald of the effects of apartheid, and sanctions, on the Dundee diocese.
"Although the region has been severely hit by the economic sanctions policy, sanctions remain a good policy so long as other countries are putting them into effect. Bishop McMahon recounted how five coalmines have been closed because of South Africa's economic slump, and that the withdrawal of the Bata shoe company, due to international pressure, has meant the shutdown of a factory there, resulting in hundreds of black jobs disappearing.
The twinning of the diocese came about when Bishop Michael Rowland of Dundee met with Bishop McMahon and discussed the best way in which they could carry out the instruction they had both received at their ordinations, to "share responsibility for all churches."
Brentwood and Dundee are very different dioceses: Brentwood is just outside London and is only the size, in geographical terms, of one of the parishes in Dundee. Dundee encompasses such historical sites as Rourke's Drift, the site of the 1879 battle, and the town of Newcastle, where Gandhi joined 5,000 striking miners in a civil disobedience march in 1913.
Newcastle is now a town with separate sections for whites and Indians to live in. The blacks live in special townships a few miles outside the town, in accordance with the South African Government's Group Areas Act, which insists on different housing areas for different colour groups.
It was outside Newcastle, in the township of Madadeni, that Bishop McMahon concelebrated mass with Bishop Rowland.
"That mass", Bishop McMahon told the Catholic Herald "was the most
memorable experience of my life. Mass lasted for three hours, and the welcome into the township came complete with a motorcade and brass band."
As part of the twinning arrangments, Brentwood has sent two priests to the Dundee parish for five years, and hopes to send about £30,000 to South Africa to help meet Dundee's expenses, including plans for an orphanage.
But Bishop McMahon stresses that the financial aid is secondary to the support the dioceses provide for each other in terms of prayer and care.
The bishop also visited the police headquarters in Pretoria to protest against the detention of Fr Mkhatshwa Secretary General to the Southern African Bishop's Conference, but was refused an interview with the chief of police.
He did meet Beyers Naude, however, who is Director of the Christian Institute. Dr Naude explained how the South African Government is trying to immobilise all levels of leadership among the blacks, a tactic which has resulted in at least 22,000 people being detained under the State of Emergency regulations.
Brentwood has also twinned two of its schools with two in Natal, where the children have very different experiences of education. The dioceses are twinned for five years under the agreement, but the scheme may be renewed.
Bishop McMahon said that he was encouraged that some of the apartheid laws were being rescinded, but that these were usually only the "petty apartheid" restrictions, like separate cinemas. The major apartheid laws, such as the Group Areas Act, were still firmly enforced, and he felt that the South African Government was unlikely to contemplate power-sharing in the near future.
The bishop also noticed some tension between the Zulu Chief Minister, Gatsha Buthelezi, and the Church.
"Although the Church agrees with much of what Buthelezi says with regard to the evils of apartheid and his calls for nonviolence, I did detect a certain tension", said the bishop.
Chief Buthelezi is often accused of being too moderate in his aims by other groups like the ANC, and has consistently spoken out against economic boycotts of South Africa.
Bishop McMahon left South Africa with the impresion that it is both a "First World" country and a "Third World" country.
Having visited Pretoria and Johannesburg, and Madadenti and Soweto, he said: "It's very strange to be walking down a street in a very modern city and then to find yourself in the midst of shanty towns. It's difficult to believe that it's all the same country."