South Africa

South Africa

South Africa’s creeping Christian conservatism

South Africa’s creeping Christian conservatism

After his crucifixion on the back of rape and corruption charges, Jacob Zuma’s road to resurrection and redemption was in part paved by SA’s evangelical and traditional leaders. So what's the flip side? By MANDY DE WAAL.

The rain fell softly at Ifafa in Kwazulu-Natal, where a massive marquee held a sea of women in white who sang: “Somlandela, somlandela Ujesu. Somlandela yonke indawo. Somlandela, somlandela Ujesu. Lapho eyakhona somlandela.” (I will follow, I will follow Jesus. I will follow wherever He goes. I will follow, I will follow Jesus. Wherever He goes I will follow.) 

At the front of the predominantly female congregation, flanked by two religious leaders from the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, is Jacob Zuma, with a garish corsage running from mid-sternum to the upper reaches of his shoulder. The occasion is the Omama Besililo Samabandla centenary celebration, but the leader of the ruling party and head of SA’s government doesn’t miss a beat. 

In the same week in April that Malema and other embattled ANCYL leaders called him a dictator, Zuma would go to church to make his point. “Pray for our youth to have respect for their seniors. If you pray with all your heart, God will hear you, because if there’s moral decay amongst our young people there’s no future for this country,” Zuma told the congregation in what could only be read as an attack on the troublesome youth league. 

Our president is an expert at getting the church to help fight his battles, but the price South Africa may pay for this in the long run could be high. Zuma’s resurrection on the road to Polokwane in 2007 was, in part, run through religious influence.  

After spending a couple of years in the wilderness facing rape and fraud charges, Zuma’s way back into the political fold was carefully supported by some Christian leaders. A cunning strategy in a country where close on 75% of the population is Christian, a religion that readily practices the forgiveness of sins and personal redemption. 

Zuma was ordained as an honorary pastor of  KwaZulu-Natal’s Full Gospel Church in 2007 as priests and bishops promised to back him all the way to Limpopo. 

In 2008, Zuma would create a storm by declaring that the ANC was God’s chosen party: “We shall build this organisation. Even God expects us to rule this country, because we are the only organisation which was blessed by pastors when it was formed,” Zuma told crowds at an ANC rally in Khayelitsha, near Cape Town. “It is even blessed in Heaven. That is why we will rule until Jesus comes back.”

The next year, Zuma was invited to preach at the influential Rhema Church ahead of the 2009 national elections, and Ray McCauley, the church’s charismatic leader, would refer to him as “our leader”. 

Two years later, the mighty Msholozi would tell the people of Mthatha that if they chose to vote for anyone other than the ANC, they’d go straight to hell. “When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC, you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people,” Zuma said

 Yesterday’s faith-based struggle doctrine has been replaced by today’s ruling class prosperity gospel. Zuma himself is cast as a metaphorical messiah, a Christ-like figure who suffered persecution but was redeemed by a populist resurrection. When Zuma was in the wilderness – in the middle of a rape case and facing fraud charges – he’d tell the Sowetan that like Christ, his enemies were trying to crucify him. It is an image that is frequently mirrored to him his supporters and allies.

 “He (Zuma) is Jesus Christ. They spit at him, they throw stones at him, they swear at him … but he never left the ANC,” Free State ANC leader Ace Magashule told party loyalists in a show of support for Zuma when he was facing corruption charges brought by the National Prosecuting Authority.

There’s no doubt that South Africa has come a long way from the time that our government had a more distanced, if not secular, relationship with religion. Nelson Mandela was certainly the most secular of all South Africa’s democratic presidents. He was replaced by Thabo Mbeki, the intellectual and bookish son of one Govan Mbeki. In his book Memoirs, Ahmed Kathrada writes how he recalled Mbeki senior defining himself as an atheist in his prison admission form.

It is not surprising, then, that Thabo Mbeki had an aloof relationship with evangelical religion, which was evident in a Polokwane discussion document called The RDP of the Soul. That document obviously never saw the light of day in the week-long drama that saw Mbeki crucified and Zuma resurrected. 

The RDP of the Soul offers a fascinating insight into a high-road secular scenario. It quotes Mbeki frequently and offers a potent warning about the kind of right wing fundamentalism Zuma’s regime is now fostering: “The fastest growing religion in the world, including Africa today, is right-wing fundamentalism. It began when people thought the discoveries of science would subvert the teachings of the church, and amongst people who sought more emotional satisfaction than that offered by the cerebral assertions of mainline churches. Pentecostalism emerged, and then right-wing fundamentalism took the gap,” the document states.

The obsolete ANC discussion paper posits that in fundamentalism, “faith is replaced by superstition; theology shrinks to a few ‘proof texts’; the salvation of the world is replaced by the salvation of individuals; health and wealth will be provided in response to the faith shown in supporting the church through donations; concern for goodness in this life is eclipsed by concern for life after death; the world will shortly end when Christ will come again to gather his followers into a rapturous after life, and destroy his enemies.”

And then it offers a definitive view of the ANC’s policies on religion under Mbeki: “The ANC is not a religious organisation; it fully supports the Constitutional policy of freedom of religion; it has no policy of interference with those whose religious policies are not its own. But the ANC has a major responsibility to spell out the dangers when people promote organisations which are opposed to the spiritual or material development of our people, whatever religious credentials they may claim. (Apartheid did the same.)”

In his paper The ANC’s deployment of religion in nation building, Gerald West of the School of Religion and Theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal talks about the difference between Mbeki and Zuma. 

“Polokwane has ushered in a new era, it would seem, in the ANC’s deployment of religion in the public realm,” he writes, adding that “Jacob Zuma has clearly brought religion back into the public realm. And while his casual comments indicate a rather rough use of religion, his recent speeches as president of the ANC demonstrate a more nuanced understanding of the role of religion in the public realm.”

West writes that Zuma positions the ANC “more clearly within the prophetic liberation religious tradition” than Mbeki. Zuma is more religious, Mbeki less so, writes West. “Zuma appears more comfortable and fluent in deploying religion in the public realm. He clearly presents himself as a religious man, but in ways which differ from his predecessor and the religious policy document of his party. Zuma is in many ways quite different from Mbeki, the classically literate humanist with a feel for the language of the King James Version and a preference for the Bible’s wisdom tradition, and his spirituality is also quite different from the ecumenical and secular spirituality advocated by the ANC’s ‘The RDP of the Soul’ Policy Discussion Document.

“Zuma is robustly Christian in his religious discourse, favouring the more Pentecostal and ‘fundamentalist’ (in terms of the “The RDP of the Soul” Policy Discussion Document) forms of Christianity,” writes West, adding: “Both the erudite and somewhat bookish religion of Thabo Mbeki and the ecumenical secular spirituality of ‘The RDP of the Soul’ have been relegated to the backseat since Polokwane. Popular religion is now firmly in the front seat.”

Similar to the schism in the ANC between those who would trample the Constitution for power and those who embrace the notion of a Constitution that should limit or fragment power; is the ruling party’s religious divide. The evangelists, flexing their conservative Pentecostal muscles along with Contralesa and its traditional leaders, want South Africa’s liberties hemmed in. They want to cut the Constitution according to their own Biblical cloth. The more orthodox and irreligious amongst the ANC make up a more silent majority, who want the Constitution kept intact.

One of the first things that Zuma did after taking power was to establish panel of religious advisors with the help of Rhema’s Ray McCauley. Zuma’s religious counsel (now called the National Interfaith Leadership Council) will extract their pound of flesh. The interfaith council headed by McCauley wants liberal laws to be axed. Their first salvo was a call two years ago to revisit abortion and same-sex laws.

Another influential lobby group is the Family Policy Institute, which is modelled on US Republican conservative type lobbyists. The conservative group boldly uses an image of Parliament in its logo, and is housed in Parliament Chambers in Parliament Street. The institute is modelled on a conservative American lobby group called the Family Research Council (right down to ripping off the council’s logo). 

Founded by James ‘Focus on the Family’ Dobson, the Family Research Council has been identified as a “hate group” by a civil rights organisation that fights bigotry, called the Southern Poverty Law Centre. The law centre says the Family Research Council bills itself as “the leading voice for the family in our nation’s halls of power,” but has a much darker intent – defaming gays and lesbians.

The Family Research Council makes outrageous claims like those stated in a pamphlet entitled Homosexual Activists Work to Normalize Sex with Boys – “One of the primary goals of the homosexual rights movement is to abolish all age of consent laws and to eventually recognise pedophiles (sic) as the ‘prophets of a new sexual order’.” 

Cape Town’s Family Policy Institute tows a similar homophobic line by stating that homosexuality is a “sin” both for those who practice it, and those who approve of the practice. “The philosophy of homosexuality challenges the design, purpose and intent of human sexuality. This depraved agenda seeks not only to legitimise a lifestyle marked by sexual promiscuity, disease and significantly reduced lifespans, but is also hellbent on radically redefining the most fundamental God-given institutions – marriage and the family,” the institute preaches

As the ANC moves from being a revolutionary organism infused with communism, to a more conservative Christian populist organisation with a Biblical prosperity doctrine, the danger of religious morality influencing our Constitution becomes very real.

There are three main ways in which this evangelical power group in the ANC is influencing South Africa.

The first is through a direct assault on the Constitution, which is likely driven by its religious allies. 

The second would be through introducing new bills like the Traditional Courts Bill, which violates constitutional provisions, but shores up the ANC’s power base. These two methods obviously will face significant civic, media and constitutional challenges.

The last, and probably the most effective, is through running a de facto Christian national state, which the ANC could already be doing in any event, as evidenced in the way anything from ICASA decisions to Film and Publication Board judgments can be influenced by religious lobby groups.

SA’s founding fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters paid a significant price to bring us a Constitution that protects our freedoms and civil liberties. Those freedoms appear to be under real threat. These threats may not be so attention- and headline-grabbing and, especially in the year of Mangaung, so obvious. But they are out there. DM

Read more:

  • Analysis: Dear Heavens, please keep your God to yourself in Daily Maverick 
  • Messianic Zuma loses his crown in Mail & Guardian 
  • Changing marriage: Why the state has no place in the bedroom by Russell Blackford on the ABC 

Photo: President of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Jacob Zuma (C) kneels as a pastor prays for him at a church in Phoenix, about 25 km (16 miles) north of Durban, April 14, 2009. REUTERS/Rogan Ward


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