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South Africa will pay the price of Ramaphosa’s folly regarding religious gatherings


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

On Tuesday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa undid the past two months of sacrifice and hardship South Africans have been through by announcing a resumption of religious gatherings from 1 June.

It was an almost innocuous tweet from the Presidency announcing a televised briefing on Tuesday evening at 7.30pm. 

It referred to the President leading the call for a National Day of Prayer.  Most were not expecting what came next. After all, Ramaphosa had addressed the nation on Sunday about the move to Level 3 of lockdown. That was calm and reasoned, though at the time of writing some confusion still exists about whether identified hotspots would also move to Level 3.

So when Ramaphosa announced that places of worship could resume gatherings on 1 June, it felt like a bolt out of the blue. After all, had the world not let out a gasp of disbelief when the notoriously irresponsible Donald Trump tweeted that religious gatherings were an “essential service”? 

Ramaphosa stressed that stringent restrictions would be put in place as regards sanitising spaces, the wearing of masks and restricting gatherings to 50 people. 

Thus far, Ramaphosa has led South Africa’s response cautiously and in general, citizens have been supportive of the risk-adjusted approach to reopening the economy. He met the political moment when it mattered and took a bold decision to place us in a hard lockdown in late March. It’s been a truly tough two months for the economy and especially for those who live on the margins of our society. 

We have seen people queuing for food, hollow-eyed and hungry, while the elderly brave the rain and cold for social grants. These are not unusual images for a country as unequal as ours and for one where millions go to bed hungry every night and where millions are unemployed. The pandemic simply laid bare the plight of the vulnerable in our society in the most graphic of ways. 

South Africans rose to the challenge by reaching out to the hungry and by showing extraordinary resilience and solidarity at a time of crisis. Because for all the faults of this place, we can rally together when we must. 

Most reasonable people did their best to help flatten the curve. For everyone, it has meant immense sacrifice. It has come at a cost to the very fabric of our society where families have had to be separated, funerals truncated, and rites of passage cancelled. The cost of the lockdown has been felt with every business that has had to close its doors during this time, and every waste picker, casual worker and itinerant who lost the ability to eke out a living. 

The police and SANDF have also enforced lockdown regulations with ferocity. Collins Khosa paid with his life. Some were beaten and sjambokked into submission. 

We must never forget. 

On multiple occasions, Ramaphosa has been clear to point out that government was following the science and, important, that South Africa was watching carefully what was happening in the rest of the world. 

No government has dealt with this pandemic perfectly and our government has been no exception. One can traverse the territory regarding various ministers and incompetence on display and then one could set aside a special category for Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and Ebrahim Patel for their own brand of communication and mistakes. But throughout that a case could still be made that what they were saying and doing was in line with a risk-adjusted approach to reopening the economy.

On Tuesday night, however, Ramaphosa undid the past two months of sacrifice and hardship South Africans have been through. As former Mail and Guardian editor Nic Dawes tweeted afterwards, Ramaphosa drove a horse and cart through the scientific approach to the pandemic. 

Ramaphosa’s announcement makes no sense if one is taking a scientific approach to the pandemic and if one is watching closely what has happened elsewhere in the world. Germany, a country far more disciplined and developed than South Africa, has been starting a typically careful reopening. Since 1 May lockdown restrictions have been eased and places of worship reopened. German authorities are now trying to trace everyone who attended a church service in Frankfurt on 10 May; 107 people who attended the service have tested positive for the coronavirus.

There are several similar examples from around the world, most notably in South Korea. In a country like ours where we are battling to test, trace and isolate those who test positive and where we have not yet reached the peak of infections, it is difficult to make the case that Ramaphosa’s decision was a rational one. 

Ramaphosa has appealed to faith leaders to assist the government in ensuring that the restrictions are adhered to. Who will ensure that the 51st worshipper is turned away? Who will ensure the sanitisation of spaces and will police minister Bheki Cele send his charges to break up religious gatherings of 51 people? In a Christian context, what precautions can be taken regarding Holy Communion for instance? Already, some church leaders have said that the limit on 50 members is too small and one bizarrely added that his church would seek “compensation” from the state for the months of closure.

One can speculate about the immense pressure Ramaphosa has been under from religious groups and we also know that the faithful are an important voting bloc for the ANC specifically as the 2021 local government elections loom. These are reasonable things to speculate upon because what is clear from experiences around the world is that this decision will place more people, specifically the elderly, at risk and it will result in a surge in infections. 

If it is so that Ramaphosa felt pressured to reopen places of worship ahead of the 2021 election, then the decision was cynical and unprincipled.

The problem for Ramaphosa is that every word he says in relation to the pandemic from now onwards will carry less weight and less credibility.  Every time he appeals to the better angels of our nature so that we continue to hunker down, South Africans will pay little heed. 

Ramaphosa has undermined his government’s cause and the price will be all of ours to pay. The added problem too is that the Disaster Regulations are now ripe for challenge in more obvious ways. 

Why would a religious gathering be an “essential service” when around the country restaurants, hairdressers, nail bars, gyms and other businesses remain shut? Every single one of these can make a similar case to reopen with strict safety measures in place. Businesses are shutting down and people are losing their livelihoods while places of worship will pose a greater risk to our collective well-being.

After Ramaphosa’s announcement, the ACDP’s leader, Rev Kenneth Meshoe, enjoyed wall-to-wall television coverage stating that he had been “vindicated”. Ironically, Meshoe himself tested positive for Covid-19 after attending a church gathering in Bloemfontein. It is worth remembering of course that at the time Meshoe seemed to question his positive test result, saying, “I am considering going for another test to bring this matter to closure because I can’t on paper have documents that say you’re positive yet I am feeling as good and healthy as I have ever been.”

Meshoe clearly hadn’t read that one can test positive and be asymptomatic.

On Tuesday evening he was equally vague when asked how Holy communion can be practised safely in the church context. 

This is precisely the sort of uninformed leadership that we do not need during a pandemic of this nature.

At times of crisis, principled leadership is rare, but it can still be found in some places. In response to Ramaphosa’s announcement, the Jesuit Institute released a brave, strongly worded statement questioning the ethics of reopening. 

In ethical situations where there are no good options, an ethical response should err on the side of caution. Sadly, we do not believe this does.”

In South Africa, faith communities have had a history of either fractured relationships with the government of the day or as purveyors of warped ideology on behalf of the state. 

If faith leaders are to take a principled stand and truly want to act as responsible citizens, then they should make clear to those they lead that staying at home is the safest thing to do right now. 

Just because the President has taken a politically expedient position does not mean that faith leaders have to follow suit.

This government has now abandoned science and kowtowed to the loudest, uninformed voices. 

We will all pay the price for the folly of Ramaphosa’s Tuesday night statement. DM


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