It was customary in the 1980s to be stopped and interrogated at police-manned roadblocks. And to that end, a car was pulled over one night on the road between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown (now Makhanda).
The driver and his front-seat passenger complied with the shouted instruction to exit the vehicle. They walked, hands raised, palms slanted above their eyes to offset the effect of the bright floodlights, stumbling on the uneven ground. However, the three people on the backseat refused to move. They wore coats, hats on their heads. The police, cocked rifles in hand, slowly advanced, in a half-circle formation, on the car. Closer scrutiny revealed three sheep, seated in an upright position. Two more were found in the boot of the car.
I was at seminary in Grahamstown in those days and these were one of the reports I gleaned from The Eastern Cape Herald, one of the region’s daily newspapers. Stories such as these were sparse in details and I suppose were inserted in the paper to fill space when required.
The reader was left to speculate, as in the case of this incident, about the back story of the report. Were the sheep stolen? The disguise led one to that conclusion. If so, were the animals returned to their owner, or were these regarded as the spoils of police duty on a long cold night in an Eastern Cape winter?
Some of my fellow seminarians and I, sipping our mugs of coffee, would scrutinise these stories with scholarly intensity. Our fervour no doubt kindled by a pedagogical approach to knowledge whereby we were encouraged to interrogate our own understanding of everything we had deemed as fact and as truth.
I had always been comfortable, and to a certain extent still am, with a literal reading of scripture.
So, the thought of Jesus walking on the water appealed to me. If I accepted that Christ turned water into wine then why would I limit his ability to contradict the order, the logic of nature, by raising a young from the dead enabling him to walk away from his funeral? Or feed 5000 people with the padkos of five loaves and two fish which belonged to a young boy The matter of Jesus-made wine, though, is still a contentious matter among the faithful. My mother was heard to remark on that moment when Jesus was told there was no more wine for the wedding guests: “Goetsoe, hulle het genoeg gesuip!”
I remember reading how Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was out in a boat on a lake with some friends. In need of something or other, he climbed over the side and walked to the shore.
The next day Die Burger reported, “Tutu kan nie swem nie!” As a non-swimmer, I took comfort in the gospel alluding to the fact that swimming was for people who couldn’t walk on water. The substantial miracle, for me at least, was how the daily interaction with my fellow South Africans, white and black, led to a deepening of a commitment to live in an honest commitment to justice.
The trial of Rufus Nzo and his fellow band of freedom fighters is a case in point. The accused were scheduled to appear in the High Court in Grahamstown.
They were cut off from the support of their family and others and, for this reason, members of the local Black Sash branch approached the student body of the then St Paul’s Seminary.
Every day, two of us would attend the proceedings as a small show of solidarity. For many of my fellows, it was their small step on the road of struggle. We felt the freedom of walking on water.
- Michael Weeder is the dean of St George’s Cathedral
OPINION: Michael Weeder