Opinionista Laurie Gaum 17 July 2017

Churches and other religious institutions can contribute to SA’s recovery

For some time we’ve been warned of the ticking time bomb we’re sitting on in South Africa. In the process of looking for a moral compass, returning to basic values is a good place to start.

The ancient call “where will our help come from?” of the psalmist in the much loved Psalm 121 surely seems applicable for our nation at this time. It expresses something of a yearning in desperation, almost on the brink of despair.

For some time we’ve been warned of the ticking time bomb we’re sitting on in South Africa. And here and there we’ve experienced the time bomb of inequality coupled with high rates of youth unemployment already exploding during continual service delivery protests across the country. Local communities like Masiphumelele, Noordhoek, and Imizamo Yethu, Hout Bay, seem to be in different stages of disintegration.

Elsewhere, a psalm advises not to trust princes, which is equally advisable in the South African context. Our political leadership is continually failing us although this phenomenon is not just limited to our nation.

One only has to look to the United States to at least be encouraged that we’re not alone in having to face this dilemma. The global leadership vacuum is now bearing its tragic fruit with exceptions at least in Canada and France. But a collection of bully leaders in Russia, the US and South Africa have too devastating an effect around our globe.

While some are still struggling to decipher the writing on the wall, for others it’s been clear for a while that doing business as usual in the South African context is simply unsustainable.

It seems we have to commit to at least two things simultaneously: saving a failing state in the absence of leadership which decisively uproots corruption and to foster social cohesion, and responding to poverty with political conviction, probably by simply implementing the National Development Plan.

The question indeed begs: In which direction should we be looking for help? The robustness of the media and our courts have been encouraging over the past months, with Parliament showing signs of bouncing back and civil society regrouping in new formations, including the South African Council of Churches (SACC) finding its voice again.

Political analyst Dr Somadoda Fikeni says South Africa suffers from an “honesty deficit” and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledges that the ANC must regain its “moral power”. According to Ramaphosa, at its recent policy conference the ANC was reminded of its “true nature and character”. He continued that the church community through the SACC report on state capture was calling the ANC back to its “true tradition and values”. In the process of looking for a moral compass, returning to basic values is indeed a good place to start.

Since the Zuma presidency has, from the beginning, been based on corrupt compromises, the ANC brought the moral crisis we’re now facing upon themselves and on the country as a whole by allowing the rot from the top to become pervasive in many sectors of society.

Corruption has been role-modelled to the nation from above for many years now. President Zuma has also done much to undermine ecumenical religious structures like the SACC when they became critical of him. A parallel structure named the National Interfaith Leaders Council (NILC) was established which in essence became praise singers for the Zuma regime.

Ramaphosa rightfully acknowledges the church’s role in being bearers of the values one wants to see furthered in our nation, despite South Africa’s identity being that of a secular democracy. He would also have thought back to the fact that the ANC, which once firmly occupied the moral high ground, was established in church buildings in Bloemfontein.

The above-mentioned collusion of certain religious groupings with the powers-that-be testifies to how vulnerable a relationship religious institutions have with power, and how often they fail to maintain the right balance. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation which is celebrated this year furthermore testifies to that.

But how to regain a moral compass? Churches and other religious institutions are not by all means the only carriers of the values we so desperately seek, but they form an important part of the fabric of society (with mass grass roots support) and can indeed contribute to the recovery of certain values.

The challenge to them would be whether they can so universalise some of the specific values from within their particular faith traditions in order to equally meet other traditions, including people subscribing to no particular faith. And in the process they’ll still have to maintain the necessary distance to the powers-that-be so that their prophetic witness isn’t undermined in the process.

We’ve had excellent examples of this in the past, not only of how it has been practically lived out in multi-faith communities like District Six, but also how the anti-apartheid struggle succeeded in galvanising energy from different traditions to make common cause. Post-apartheid we’ve however also found how difficult it is to maintain cohesiveness in the face of the multiplication of struggles and the pull to return to denominational silos.

We’re reminded that the type of Christianity President Zuma subscribes to is seemingly not the version which helps him to live an integrated, honest and trustworthy life. This is a sobering reminder that not all versions of faith are so helpful or constructive. To the opposite, faith can collude to maintain the status quo if it preaches abstinence from political engagement and only promotes a false, otherworldly piety.

With all this said it wouldn’t be as simple a solution to now turn towards the church or other religions for an easy fix for the moral dilemma we find ourselves in. Moral veracity and resilience isn’t something which can be tendered out to another institution in sudden desperation. It is something nurtured over significant time and will not be achieved overnight.

While the SACC has realised that the country’s future cannot be left in the hands of the ANC any longer, as a country we’ll have to take a hard look into the mirror to establish what has brought us here. This has to do with our apartheid and more recent past which have somehow produced people who have lost the connection with their own humanity and with that of others, from the top echelons of power downwards. We need therefore to take up individual and collective responsibility from a sense of healthy pride in who we are.

And we need to make that accessible to one another in a healthy service to one another, for the greater good of all and not merely for personal interest and enrichment and the survival of the fittest. DM


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