It may be said that 24 November 2017 marked a historic day in the life of South Africa’s constitutional democracy. As with matters involving religion and state, the significance of the recently held Parliament Prayer Day is bound to be discrepant and resonating differently across the country, from being an act of divine intervention in matters of state, for some, while for others representing an affront to the constitutional integrity of the country. Irrespective of where one may be placed along this spectrum of divergent positions it is undeniable that this event has raised a set of crucial questions on the nexus of religion and state and what this may mean for the broader principles of tolerance and accommodation central to our Constitution.
It will be important to clarify that this was not a general call to prayer, inclusive of all religious groupings; it was specifically a call by Christian leaders for a day of Christian prayer. On the face of it there is nothing which appears problematic about this call as people of all faiths are praying every day for a better society, country and its leadership. The Parliament Prayer Day of the 24th was, however, exclusively Christian with a specific Christian agenda. “Spiritual leaders from all denominations are going to pray in Parliament concerning non-Scriptural and harmful legislation of past and present.” [Facebook Page of SA’s Parliament Prayer Day, dated 9 November 2017]
To promote this objective, the keynote speaker and prayer-in-chief, Angus Buchan, did not disappoint. In fact, he exceeded the expectations of the event planners and spilt the beans on what was truly behind this event.
For all intents and purposes, the South African Parliament on the afternoon of 24 November became a Christian church. From the opening prayer and address of Christian supremacist Reverend Kenneth Meshoe to the closing address and prayer of evangelist Angus Buchan, it was patently obvious that this was about power and matters of public policy in the here and now. From Reverend Meshoe declaring that “this place will never be the same again” to the preaching of Pastor Angus Buchan in his address, “I don’t know another nation in the world who can take over Parliament and repent for three hours… It’s time for Christians in this nation to stand up and be counted… There is not another government that will allow Christians to dominate Parliament.”
Said straightforwardly, this had less to do with issues of freedom of religion in a democratic state, but everything to do with the privileging of Christianity and the domination of Christianity in the public affairs of a nation. While much has been mentioned about the unverifiable claims by Pastor Buchan on his raising of the dead to life and his blessed assurance of dams in the Cape being full by March next, the greater significance of the parliamentary events of the 24th was that this was advocacy for a Christian theocracy, writ large.
Now, we have been down this path before: it was called apartheid. Within which Christianity was all pervasive. From being enshrined in the country’s Constitution, to being central to Christian National Education, to being the religious lifeblood which supported apartheid and rent peoples and community asunder, we know what the dominance of religion looks like. Spin the scenario around and pause to consider for a moment the possibility in Parliament of a Hindu nationalist majority calling for a public order based on Hindu precepts for South Africa, or for that matter a South Africa based upon Zionist principles, or for Muslims calling for an Islamic caliphate. Religious theocracies, Christian or otherwise, do not square with the South African Constitution and are a bad idea. Period.
More than the letter of the law, the very spirit of the Constitution and the intense process which gave birth to it is marked by the precepts of tolerance and accommodation of all religious groupings, structured such that the country should never again experience the domination of one religious sect over another/others.
As opposed to the principle of the separation of religion and state which one may find in the US Constitution, or the institutionalisation of the Christian faith within the state as one would find in England, the 1996 South African Constitution drew upon the rich tapestry of our religious and cultural diversity to give hope for a new and fully inclusive post-apartheid social order.
The Preamble reads: “We the people of South Africa believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.” Which guarantees the “fundamental human rights” and in which, “every citizen is equally protected by law”.
Ours was not and is not a constitution which can ever align with the religious totalitarianism which was clearly advocated and prayed for in Parliament by Pastor Angus Buchan, Reverend Meshoe and their praise-singers.
In terms of the Bill of Rights upon which our country is now built, it should matter nought to a Christian whether I am accepting or not of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. To my Hindu neighbour, my inability to understand or accept the divinity of Lord Krishna and Lord Ganesha should have no impact upon her practice of her faith. The important point is that there must be room at the constitutional table for all to sit, equal before the law, and freely practise their faith.
The constitutional stance adopted for South Africa, that of religious accommodation, does not, however, guarantee Christians or any other religious or non-religious grouping for that matter an unfettered right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion [s15]. As with every other right in the Constitution, Section 15 is to be forever held in balance/tension with the Limitations of Rights Clause [s36], thereby protecting every one of us from having our religious or non-religious beliefs and opinions violated by, or foisted upon, any other grouping, irrespective of any grouping’s majority or minority standing in society.
One does not need to be a scholar of Constitutional Law to understand that the strength of a constitution and the judicial system which carries this mandate is often determined by how well it protects the country’s minorities. For Pastor Buchan his claim that 80% of South Africans are Christians is taken as his licence to enter Parliament and proclaim his brand of religion as the nation’s salvation.
It may not be a stretch to suggest that the very event of 24 November in Parliament, especially in the light of the preachments now on record, stands contrary to the spirit and letter of the Constitution and that this Parliament-sanctioned event represents an abuse and therefore a violation of the rights described at Section 15(1) and (2).
Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that:
36. Limitations of Rights. (1) The rights in the Bill of Rights may be limited only in terms of law of general application to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom, taking into account all relevant factors.
The privileging of Christianity within the highest institution in the country is now clear, through the granting of permission for the event and for what actually transpired throughout the event itself. This, accompanied by the spoken word of Pastor Angus Buchan and others present, that of “domination” by Christianity of Parliament, represents an abuse of Parliament and a violation of the Constitution.
Besides the theocratic smackdown of constitutional proportions that this event became, it points to a deeper loss for our efforts at nation-building. In an instant it puts paid to every good effort since 1994 at building bridges between religious groupings and fostering inter-faith dialogue in the country. More important, the privileging of one belief system over the others within the highest state institution in the country signals the ease with which we are prepared to forfeit the gains of years of reconciliation across faith groupings and thereby turn our backs on the genuine promise of a society which embraces a plurality of cultures and religious/non-religious diversity.
Our inability to shake off this Christian normativity will ultimately deny us the dream of a truly diverse yet reconciled community; or as our Muslim sisters and brothers dream of it, the realisation of a true Ummah (community), that which was central to the ministry of the Prophet Muhammad [Sallallahu alayhi wa Salam]. The institution of Parliament and our Constitution are our surest basis of this reconciled community and our greatest protection against the imposition of any religious theocracy. To meaningfully enjoy such protection we must reciprocate and be prepared to protect our Parliament and our Constitution. DM
Patrick Pillay has enjoyed a diverse career which journeyed through being a laboratory technician in a chemical factory to a long career within the finance and banking sector, to private business development consulting. Patrick holds a Bachelor of Commerce Degree, a Masters Degree in Theology and a PhD (Religion and Social Transformation) from UKZN.
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