South Africa

South Africa

Awakening: Religion comes back into politics

Awakening: Religion comes back into politics

In many countries religion crossed with politics leads to a toxic mess. Look at the wars over abortion in the US or Ireland, or culture wars everywhere. To make matters even more interesting, one man’s religion is often intertwined with that man’s culture. But in South Africa, religion has generally been a force for good in our politics. It’s impossible to forget the role the Catholic Church, and how the Anglican Church gave Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu the platform he needed to help fight Apartheid from within. It’s impossible to forget the role people like Bishop Huddleston played. There are signs, now, that religion, and particularly organised religion, is about to step back into the political arena. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Priests played a key role during Apartheid. Whether it was actively participating in the Struggle in some way, shape or form, like Father Michael Lapsley (who lost his hands and the sight of one eye to a letter bomb) or those who allowed funerals to be used for political reasons, people of faith mattered. Whether their hierarchies did enough is still a point for debate, but the fact is that they mattered. Considering the evil that was Apartheid, that was right and proper.

Then, it seems, religion seemed almost to step out of politics. Whether it was because Nelson Mandela played such a strong role as a father to the whole nation, or whether they became more involved in the new struggle for reconciliation, generally speaking, priests and politicians started to see less of each other.

Within government circles, there even seemed to be a slight change in the politics within these different groups. The older, established churches seemed very comfortable during the Mbeki era (don’t forget, the famous Mbeki quote on Jackie Selebi “trust me”, was never actually uttered by him, but by Hindu leader Ashwin Trikamjee after a meeting with Mbeki). That seemed to change slightly when President Jacob Zuma took over. The newer, more businesslike churches seemed to grow more in stature, led by Rhema’s Ray McCauley.

And when politicians and religious leaders did meet, it often seemed to be to support Zuma in some way. Who can forget that he himself was ordained as a lay pastor by one congregation, while the image of him standing with head bowed surrounded by robed men laying their hands on him has been repeated several times. Particularly at moments of high crisis.

This all seems to be changing.

Over the Easter weekend two separate events occurred that signalled this. The first was on Saturday, when Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba led a march to Parliament, demanding that Zuma take responsibility for the Nkandla scandal. This was no one-man mission; his predecessor Njongonkulu Ndungane was with him, as was the man still referred to as “The Arch”. Along with around a thousand people of different beliefs. As a symbol, it matters, but it was not unexpected. Groups like the Anglicans were always going to take a dim view of someone like Zuma, with his, um, lifestyle, and the persistent claims of corruption hanging around him.

What came like a bolt from the Almighty himself, though, was the report in The Star on Wednesday, claiming that Zionist Christian Church Bishop, Barnabas Lekganyane, had told his particular flock not to vote for “embezzlers”. He was also quoted as saying people should vote for “clever and educated” politicians.

This is miraculous stuff. The ZCC is not just any flock; it has a total membership of around twelve million people. Many, perhaps most of them, live in South Africa. What makes this all the more interesting is that the ZCC has remained staunchly apolitical until now. Even during the dark days of Apartheid it didn’t seem to step on anyone’s toes. It was the one organisation that seemed to have enough members that if it had wanted to, it may have been able to put serious pressure on the National Party government.

Then there is the nature of the church itself. Despite its size, you will not find any method of communicating with it directly. It doesn’t have the usual website or contact number. If you google it, you will come across press reports, and archive material about a speech Madiba once gave at Moria. The ZCC doesn’t do interviews. In the same kind of way Catholics don’t do capital punishment, or Anglicans don’t do polygamy.

Which means the chances of us ever getting a confirmation or denial from the church about this report are about as likely as one political party ruling us until…well, until you-know-who comes back. For the first or second time, depending on your beliefs on the subject.

The sheer scale of the ZCC means that should it decide to actively get involved in politics, it’s so big that even the ANC would have to take notice. If it decided to tell its members not to vote, or to vote for someone else, there would be an impact. A big one. How big is difficult to say; not everyone votes for who their preacher tells them to. But it would be an important moment.

For now, there is no big winner in all of this. This is about signs. It’s about a warning. One person who does believe he could be a winner on some scale is the leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, Reverend Kenneth Meshoe. His party has been losing support steadily; now it could become a haven for those who are frustrated with politics as normal, and have respect for religion. That said, he doesn’t appear to be a big enough blimp on most people’s radar screens to really benefit all that much.

What is key to all of this is how the ANC, and Zuma himself behaves. Zuma’s problem really is that he has made religion an issue with his repeated use of religious imagery. You simply cannot invoke Jesus and then expect religious organisations, who claim to speak for him, to stay silent when you behave in a way they believe he should not. The door is open, wide open, for them to get involved, and there’s nothing Zuma can really do about it.

It might be wise for him to stay away from his predictions about the everlasting paradise the ANC will lead us into for a while. If he does, it could be a sign that he’s feeling the warmth of another place slowly enveloping him.

However, the biggest sign for all of us in this is that these developments, this political awakening, if you like, is more proof that South Africa is bigger than any one person, and any one party. If someone pushes the society too far, there will always be a push-back. This is one of those push-backs. From people who have God on their side. DM

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


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