South Africa


God and elections: Religion and politics meet behind – and in front of – the pulpits this Easter

God and elections: Religion and politics meet behind – and in front of – the pulpits this Easter
ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa and KwaZulu-Natal ANC provincial chairperson Sihle Zikalala were called to receive a prayer from Bishop Zipho D Siwa after Easter service on 19 April 2019. Photo: Aisha Abdool Karim.

Easter weekend saw politicians from across the spectrum attending religious services nationally. It happens every year, but in 2019 there is a sense that religion may have a bigger part to play in the elections than previously. A good 10% of parties registered to contest the 2019 polls have leaders who are full or part-time reverends or pastors.

Easter always sees an outburst of religious devotion from South African politicians, and never more so than in a year when elections are to follow shortly afterwards. But the 2019 national elections are unique in the unprecedented number of religiously-flavoured parties contesting the polls, and the unprecedented number of party leaders who have held positions in the church.

On 8 May 2019, Reverend Kenneth Meshoe of the African Christian Democratic Party will have company on the ballot sheet. The African Covenant Movement’s leader Dr Convy Baloyi, the Christian Political Movement’s leader Brian Mahlati, and the Economic Emancipation Forum’s BJ Langa are all current or former church leaders – and to this list we might add former pastor Mmusi Maimane of the DA.

These are just the leaders of parties contesting the elections nationally. There are further figures of religious authority found among the parties contesting the elections only in certain areas, and others high up on party lists. Provincial leaders of the Congress of the People (Cope) in the Eastern Cape didn’t just attend church this Easter. Cope’s Eastern Cape Premier candidate is Reverend Lievie Sharpley, who delivered the Eastern sermon at the Holy Trinity Church in East London.

This is also the first election in which a powerful church conglomeration – the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ – has launched a political party (the African Transformation Movement) as a vehicle with which to contest the national polls.

This is an interesting development in South African politics, because in the post-apartheid era religious leaders – instead of involving themselves in the political fray directly – have largely stuck to the role of social and political watchdogs.

The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, has epitomised this watchdog role in his Easter sermon at St George’s Cathedral this year, with the likes of Good party leader Patricia de Lille joining the congregation. There, Archbishop Makgoba slammed Parliament for failing to hold the government to account and called on citizens to act to reform the institution “in the spirit of the new life that Easter promises us”.

Makgoba urged voters to give careful scrutiny to the names on party lists, and cast votes “not on the basis of blind party loyalty, but for the group of prospective parliamentarians we believe represents our values best and will act in the interests of the country as a whole”.

Makgoba’s text was perhaps more overtly political than most sermons delivered nationally over Easter weekend, but is illustrative of the quasi-activist role played by some leading church figures, particularly in the final years of the Zuma administration. As noted by Ferial Haffajee in the Daily Maverick recently, opposition against State Capture was mobilised in part by the South African Council of Churches.

What, then, should we make of the more directly party-political role adopted by some churches and pastors in the run-up to the 2019 elections?

For one thing, it’s worth noting that the majority of self-proclaimed church leaders who have established new parties to contest the polls are marginal figures drawn from pop-up evangelical churches, rather than household names from South Africa’s mainstream Christian denominations. The likes of the African Covenant Movement, the Christian Political Movement and the Economic Emancipation Forum are unlikely to make a significant dent in the final vote-count.

South Africa has seen an explosion in fly-by-night pastors employing questionable – and sometimes criminal – practices to win congregants and amass often vast personal fortunes, so it is not unreasonable to suspect that the lure of political power and money could draw some of these characters into the electoral fray for unscrupulous motives.

A less cynical reading is one that political analyst Ongama Mtimka recently provided to the SABC: that the formation of small Christian parties in the run-up to the 2019 polls is informed by the sense of “moral crisis” in South Africa after a decade of State Capture, with religious individuals seeking to “influence the political system with good values”.

Then there’s the fact that, as noted by Haffajee, churches in South Africa enjoy consistently high levels of public trust, particularly when compared with political institutions. An electorate which is increasingly fed up with corrupt or disengaged politicians may choose to put their trust in men or women of the cloth rather than career politicians, in the hope that the former will be more likely to act in accordance with the best interests of the people.

(Whether or not this hope is justified is open to question: former president Jacob Zuma was himself an “honorary pastor”🙂

It is not implausible that citizens disenchanted with politics-as-normal could be drawn to overtly religious parties at this particular juncture in South African history. If the resolutely secular Constitution has failed to ensure that basic needs are met, perhaps it’s time to try the Bible?

There is not much evidence from polling to suggest that South African voters intend abandoning the bigger political parties in droves for religious parties, but there have been some intriguing by-election results so far in 2019.

Possibly the most eye-opening, as Marianne Merten wrote in Daily Maverick, was an astonishing 20% jump for the ACDP in the Cape Flats suburb of Bonteheuwel in January 2019, a previous DA stronghold. In the 2016 local government elections the ACDP won around 1% of the ward; three years later, it bagged 20.56%.

The church-launched African Transformation Movement, meanwhile, won 30% of the vote in a March by-election in the Eastern Cape – although most analysts termed this showing possibly anomalous, as the by-election took place in the party’s supporter heartland. Over the Easter weekend, the Sunday Times also reported that the party is already beset by factional infighting.

There are signs that the major political parties are alive to the potential allure of religious principles for conservative voters at this point: from Cope’s selection of Reverend Lievie Sharpley as a provincial Premier candidate for an ostensibly non-religious party, to the DA’s deployment of former leader Helen Zille to campaign at an NG Kerk in Kempton Park in April.

On the other hand, religion and politics have historically not mixed well in traditionally liberal parties. Mmusi Maimane’s gig as a pastor for the Liberty Church has, on the surface, caused more problems than benefits for the DA, after clips surfaced of a 2014 sermon in which Maimane referred to gay people and Muslims as “sinners” and “sick”.

That potential conflict didn’t stop politicians of all stripes heading to church over Easter weekend. ANC Deputy President David Mabuza and EFF leader Julius Malema made their appearances at the massive annual gathering of the Zion Christian Church in Moria, Limpopo. The DA’s Maimane was at Soweto’s Grace Bible Church.

From Roman Catholic churches to Methodist, Apostolic to Pentecostal, barely a denomination in South Africa was left untouched by a political presence. With less than a fortnight to elections, nobody is in a position to spurn some divine intervention. DM


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