Stephan de Beer – « Liberating Urban Development and the South African Church »

Stephan de Beer

« Liberating Urban Development and the South African Church: A Critical Reflection in Conversation with David Korten and Gustavo Gutierrez »

1. The (Post)apartheid City 

The spatial injustices of the past remain etched on the South African urban landscape. Whereas forced removals and apartheid legislation displaced black South Africans before the 1990s, gentrification of inner city neighbourhoods, and sprawling urban informal settlements, continue to displace, or marginalize, mostly black South Africans. The majority of our population does not have proximity or access to urban opportunity. 

Today, re-segregation has become evident, not only in urban public schools, but also in new forms of economic segregation separating middle-classes and wealthy gated communities from urban informal settlements and backyard shack dwellers. There are some exceptions, where the starkness of the segregated city is “disrupted” through the suburbanization of homelessness,[1] or the occupation of land and buildings in strategic urban places. In addition to the perpetuation of socio-spatial segregation, many young black South Africans have grown disillusioned with the rainbow of Mandela, suggesting that reconciliation was never coupled with justice.[2] The cry for land, a right to the city, and basic human dignity – still elusive for way too two decades after democracy – is becoming more pronounced, and increasingly impatient.

2. Urbanization, Housing and Homelessness

By 2050 almost 1,3 billion people will live in African citiesToday, 43% of Africa’s urban dwellers live in informal settlements.[3] Both rural-urban and trans-national migration fast-tracks the pace of urbanization across the continent. It is similar in (post)apartheid South Africa. 

The Gauteng City-Region, in which both Johannesburg and the City of Tshwane are located, has a population of 14,7 million people.[4] The City of Tshwane, the location from which I reflect theologically, has around 3,3 million inhabitants,[5] with Pretoria at its core. The person responsible for housing in our city said it will take 40 years to address our current housing backlog, not even taking into account the projected growth rates of our city.[6]  13,1% of all households in South Africa live in informal dwellings whilst that is true for 19% of all households in the Gauteng City-Region.[7] An estimated 200,000 people are homeless on the streets of South Africa. In the City of Tshwane there are more than 6,200 street homeless people, of which more than 1,200 are over the age of 65 years.[8]  

Considering the pace of urban migration, the slowness (and incapacity) in addressing challenges of precarious housing and homelessness, and the seeming inability of African cities to get their heads and hearts around the pace of urban expansion, demands for urban infrastructure, and increasing inequalities, raise critical questions.

3. The Migrant, Homeless Jesus in the Urban Dungeons: A Question of Faith and Theology

The restlessness of the urban poor in our context is growing. Yet, the Church locates itself, according to Vuyani Vellem, not in the dungeons of modern-day urban enslavement,[9] but on top of the dungeons, too often participating in repressing vulnerable people.  If our theological work fails to engage the migrant, homeless Jesus – who makes himself a slave in the dungeons,[10] with the urban poor – then our theological work is irrelevant to the majority of urban people. 

Urban development conversations in our context seldom have a theologian in the room. This is symptomatic both of dominant development discourse’s negative or ignorant views of faith-based action, but also of the lack of theological rigour and savvy to engage urban complexity well. Stuck in our theological or religious silos, we seldom work in transdisciplinary ways, either to participate in constructing the city, or to prepare (read: re-educate) ourselves for an urban future.

If the South African church fails to express itself in radical solidarity with the urban margins, except through escapist ritual, Jesus does not necessarily do the same. In discerning and connecting to the migrant, homeless Jesus in the urban dungeons, we will start engaging issues of land and housing, water and sanitation, street homelessness and informal settlement upgrading. Jesus amongst the urban poor cries out for that.

4. Liberating Urban Development: Deepening Urban Impact

In this section I propose an embrace of Korten’s four generations of development, and Gutierrez’s notion of “integral liberation”, in order to liberate urban development and deepen urban impact.   

Korten’s four generations

David Korten speaks of four generations of development, gradually shifting from relief work (first generation) addressing short-term needs, to community development (second generation) creating infrastructure; and from advocacy and policy work (third generation) focusing on structural changes, to building local, regional and global movements working for long-term political change (fourth generation).[11] Ignatius Swart[12] advocates for a fourth generation approach by Churches engaging development in South Africa. Instead of focusing on relief only, or being co-opted into state welfare or development programmes, the Church will then collaborate with local and global social movements, working for systemic change both at regional and global level. 

Korten’s model is helpful for assessing own developmental approaches, but also to provoke deeper journeys, never negating the importance of relief and community development, but attending more intentionally to structural concerns. This article emphasizes the necessity for liberating urban development – both the process of liberating our urban praxis, as well as ensuring that our praxis mediates deep, integral liberation. 

Gutierrez’ integral liberation

I propose Gutierrez’s “integral liberation” as the purpose of our developmental engagement with urban poverty. He radicalizes our understanding of development, not only mediating personal freedom through salvation from personal sin; or interpersonal freedom through humanizing relations of race, class, gender, or sexuality; but also mediating liberation in a socio-economic-spatial-political sense. I include spatial liberation as part of Gutierrez’s third category and add environmental liberation, drawing on Boff’s[13] insistence that the cry of the poor and the earth are similar cries, caused by patriarchal oppression.  

I suggest as the role of Church- and faith-based communities, and as criteria by which to measure their contribution, the mediation of multiple freedoms: personal; interpersonal; socio-economic-spatial-political; and environmental. A great contribution to faith-based engagement with urban development would be to develop concrete indicators to measure in how far multiple freedoms are being mediated.

5. The Urban Church in the City of Tshwane  

The urban Church in Tshwane, with exceptions, practices a first or second generation approach to urban development, if there is any engagement. Faith-based advocacy or rights work, as expressions of a third or fourth generation approach to development, is rare. Even more rare is the occurrence of South African Church participating in local or global social movements for systemic change.  For many years I participated in an ecumenical movement[14] responding to rapid socio-demographic changes in the inner city of Pretoria, since 1993. In organic ways we journeyed with local communities, discerning the cries of particularly vulnerable groups, and the face of Jesus in them. Over the years, it created a presence and a number of small intentional communities alongside particularly vulnerable people in the city: women at-risk, vulnerable girl children; or homeless people living with chronic mental illness. In these communities, people who were vulnerable, violated or abused, and homeless, found home, and started to access the resources of the city.  We were taught the power of small communities to mediate the sustainable integration of vulnerable people into the big city. We discovered the importance of creating access as a ministry of opening doors, rolling away stones,[15] and mediating freedoms. Small, caring communities became communities of justice, uncovering “the thief”[16] who caused their vulnerability to start with. 

In 1998 the same ecumenical movement created a social housing company[17] offering access to affordable housing but also proximity to urban resources. It engaged in the work of advocacy and awareness-raising, with and on behalf of different groups it was in solidarity with. Some interventions informed policy and practices, especially in relation to neighbourhood organizing, counter-trafficking work, homelessness advocacy and a demonstration of viable models of social housing. As part of its journey it invested in building capacity and leadership of those working with the Foundation. Increasingly it builds leadership capacity of people who are homeless or particularly vulnerable, affirming the agency they themselves practice in spite of the odds stacked against them. 

This movement, as an expression of a faith-based urban development response, embraced the first three generations, but could deepen its third generation work and be more intentional about a fourth generation approach. At times its advocacy approach lacked strategic intent and impact, either being too ad hoc or not connecting well enough to broader-based movements. In recent times it started to build strategic alliances with other social movements to accelerate its impact in terms of ending homelessness, housing advocacy, and activist education.   TLFs longing has always been to mediate fullness of life: disarming the thieves preventing it, and facilitating access to multiple freedoms. I would submit that TLF, and other faith-based communities, would have a liberating impact if they had to embrace Korten’s third and fourth generation approaches more deliberately, combining it with a deep awareness and embrace of its own pastorate as being profoundly political.

6. Urgent Imperatives for a (Post)apartheid Urban Theological Agenda

Elsewhere, with Ignatius Swart, we outlined a possible urban public theological agenda for South Africa today.[18] What I do here is different. Based on the thread of this article, I discern specific challenges requiring immediate and urgent theological attention. 

  1. We have to articulate the illusion of the (post)apartheid city and the on-going pervasiveness of the apartheid city, for faith audiences to understand the wound of the urban marginalized. 
  2. We need to place the challenge of African urbanization – migration, informality, homelessness, housing, the spatiality of justice, and access to appropriate infrastructure – centre stage in our theological endeavour. 
  3. We need to discern the migrant, homeless Jesus in the urban dungeon; and expose expressions of Church being exploitatively on top of the dungeon. 
  4. We need to accompany, theologically, homelessness agendas emerging in cities across the country, as well as faith-based (and other) housing approaches seeking to address precarity. 
  5. We would do well to learn from and collaborate with social movements focusing critically and constructively on land, housing and spatial justice.[19]
  6. We need to theologically locate ourselves in all four generations of Korten, but in particular in the third and fourth generations which have not been practised much by the South African urban church: integrating care, community development, advocacy and policy work, and participation in social movements.  
  7. We need to be re-evangelized into a more integral understanding of salvation as integral liberation.[20] Our faith is indeed political, in its apathy or avoidance of the polis; in its presence in the polis; or, indeed, in its more articulate engagement with the concerns of the polis. We can practice a liberating politics, inside the urban dungeons; or participate in an oppressive politics on top of the dungeons.  

For the urban Church in South Africa to embrace an urban liberationist agenda, would require of theological education to be urbanized and liberated from its anti-urban captivity[21]. If not, the Church would increasingly be irrelevant to the cries of the urban masses. Our salvation is fortunately not in the Church, but in the One who finds himself “outside the gate”[22], inside the dungeons. 


[1] S. de Beer & R. Vally, Pathways out of Homelessness, (Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 2015), 63-65

[2] M.Van der Merwe, ‘Anger and Reconciliation: Lingering Inequality’s Impact on Social Cohesion’, Daily Maverick, 8 November 2016; N.Gous, ‘Reconciliation is Impossible Without Redress’, Times Live, 31 August 2018

[3] S.Parnell & E.Pieterse (eds.), Africa’s Urban Revolution, (London: Zed Books, 2014) 1,3, 64

[4] Gauteng City-Region Observatory, The Gauteng City-Region,, 2018  

[5] Municipalities of South Africa, City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality,, 2018 

[6] A personal conversation with Nonto Memela, Group Head: Housing and Human Settlement, in the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality, 25 May 2018 

[7] Statistics South Africa, GHS Series Volume VII: Housing from a human settlement perspective, Media Release                                                                                                                                                                   20 April 2016,

[8] Beer & R.Vally, Pathways out of Homelessness. Research Report, (Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 2015), 3

[9] V.S. Vellem, ‘The Reformed Tradition as Public Theology’, HTS Theological Studies / Teologiese Studies 69(1), Art. #1371 (Vellem describes urban informal settlements and slums as urban dungeons and modern-day forms of enslavement); K.Cannon, ‘Lessons of Liberation in the Struggle for Freedom’, in P.Dibeela, P.LenkaBula & V.Vellem (eds.), Prophet from the south: Essays in honour of Allan Aubrey Boesak, (Stellenbosch: SUN MeDIA, 2015) 173

[10] Cf. Phil.2:5-8 

[11] D.Korten, Getting to the 21st Century. Volunteer Action and the Global Agenda, (West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1991) 113-132

[12] I.Swart, The Churches and the Development Debate: Perspectives on a Fourth Generation Approach, (Stellenbosch: SUN Press, 2006)

[13] L.Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 2002)

[14] Tshwane Leadership Foundation,, 2016 

[15] Cf. C.Myers, Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), with reference to Mark 16:3

[16] Cf. “the thief” of John 10:10, hell-bent on preventing access to sharing in the abundance of life God intended

[17] Yeast City Housing,, 2018

[18] I. Swart & S. De Beer, S., Doing Urban Public Theology in South Africa: Introducing a New Agenda, HTS Theological Studies / Teologiese Studies, 70(3), Art. #2811, 14 pages.


[19] S. de Beer, Urban Social Movements in South Africa Today: Its Meaning for Theological Education and the Church, HTS Theological Studies / Teologiese Studies, 73(3), a4770, 2017

[20] G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), xxxviii-xl

[21] A. Shorter, The Church in the African City, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991)

[22] O. Costas, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1982)


Stephan de Beer is Director of the Centre for Contextual Ministry at the University of Pretoria, and teaches Diaconate and Community Development in the Department of Practical Theology. His own specialization is in the field of urban theology and community transformation, and he has a particular focus on spatial justice, housing and homelessness. Before he joined the University in 2013, he worked with an ecumenical community organization – the Tshwane Leadership Foundation – responding to inner city vulnerability and change in Pretoria.

Address: University Pretoria, Lynnwood Rd, Hatfield, Pretoria, 0002, Theology Building, Hatfield Campus, University of Pretoria / South Africa.