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‘Worst mayor’ in history of Rio de Janeiro, known as ‘the Calamity’, appointed as South African ambassador

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Benjamin Fogel is a historian and contributing editor at Africa is a Country and Jacobin.

What has South Africa done to deserve Brazil sending a racist figure such as Marcelo Crivella, who has been accused of running a criminal organisation out of Rio City Hall, to serve as its ambassador to a supposedly key diplomatic partner?

South Africa and Brazil were supposed to have many agendas in common in the context of deepening North-South inequalities. These supposed BRICS allies could have been working towards a new global vaccination scheme that included the removal of industrial patents and an international stimulus package for poorer countries. 

Both countries share a history of racial oppression and authoritarian governments and there is much to learn and share in terms of overcoming the continuing challenges of inequality, environmental destruction and poverty that plague our nations. However, none of this seems to matter for the increasingly authoritarian Bolsonaro government, which has just appointed Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical bishop and the worst mayor in the history of Rio de Janeiro, as Brazil’s new ambassador to South Africa. 

Crivella is not only totally unsuited for such an important diplomatic posting, but he is also facing ongoing criminal charges relating to allegedly running a criminal organisation out of Rio City Hall. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he has repeatedly made openly racist sentiments about South Africans and Africa. This begs the question: what has South Africa done to deserve Brazil sending such a figure to serve as its ambassador to a supposedly key diplomatic partner? 

Who is Marcelo Crivella?

Crivella is an evangelical pastor, ex-minister of fisheries and senator. He served as mayor of Rio from 2017 until 2020. During his time as mayor, Brazil’s “Marvellous City” faced an unending series of overlapping economic, social and environmental crises. Crivella is widely regarded as the worst mayor in the history of the city, and Rio has more or less only known terrible mayors. The scale and number of scandals over the decades involving Crivella are enough to fill several books. His time in office was so nightmarish that many Cariocas, as Rio’s residents are known, referred to him simply as “the Calamity”. 

Rio, a city renowned for its open and cosmopolitan culture, became better known for religious fundamentalism and the collapse of basic services. Crivella, elected on the promise of cutting skyrocketing debts, more or less, slashed all public spending for basic services except contracts for his cronies, leading to the collapse of transport infrastructure, sewage systems and serious environmental disasters. Then there are the criminal charges; prosecutors allege that Crivella was the head of “a well-structured and complex criminal organisation… that had acted in city hall since 2017” and received millions of dollars of bribes. In fact, there was even an office set up in city hall known as “the bribery HQ”.

If that wasn’t bad enough, he handed over key public positions to the churches, pastors became powerful public officials, members of his church were allowed to cut lines in the waiting list for surgeries and public space was used for religious events. He slashed funds for all public services and in essence refused to govern the city. And of course, lucrative contracts were given over to his religious allies. 

Crivella’s project constituted a form of “state capture” for the evangelical churches. Crivella declared war on Rio’s world-famous carnival, cutting funding to the city’s most cherished institution and waging a puritanical crusade against the festivities. He even went as far as to attempt to ban a comic book featuring a gay kiss because of the alleged threat it posed to public morality. 

Crivella barely escaped impeachment one year into his term as mayor by buying off centre-right politicians with positions in his administration and left office with almost universally negative approval ratings. Of course, he also did an atrocious job of handling the pandemic; his cuts to health spending left the hospitals in terrible shape and he followed Bolsonaro’s example by prematurely ending all social isolation measures leading to possibly thousands of deaths. During the height of Brazil’s first wave, goons dubbed “Crivella’s Guardians” were allegedly paid with public money to prevent journalists from reporting on the city’s collapsing health system.

Eduardo Paes, a scandal-plagued former two-term mayor, was returned to office in 2020, almost solely on the basis that anyone was better than Crivella. During his victory speech, Paes declared that, “Rio is free of the worst government in its history — of its most negligent, most unprepared, most prejudiced government. I want to tell all Cariocas that today — whatever your faith, orientation or skin colour — you are free.” Now, this plague has been exported to South Africa by the Bolsonaro government.

Crivella’s sole qualification for a diplomatic posting is he spent time in South Africa during the 90s trying to evangelise the population. He wrote a book about his experiences in our country titled Mutis, Sangomas and Nyangas: Tradition or Witchcraft?. In the book he expresses numerous racist views including that African “misery and poverty” is a product of their “satanic” religious practices; Hindus practice “child sacrifice”; animal sacrifice is “demonic”; homosexuality is produced by demons and that “oriental” religions are similarly “demonic”.

In the book, he advocates cutting health spending and says governments should instead focus their public health efforts on expelling demons from the bodies of citizens. These are openly racist and bigoted views, that stand in direct opposition to South Africa’s democratic values. Furthermore, the ambassadorship will grant him diplomatic immunity. 

Evangelical State Capture

The reasons for the appointment are as obvious as they are detrimental to relations between Brazil and South Africa. Brazil has one of the largest evangelical populations in the world that is one of the key backers of the Bolsonaro government.

The Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (IURD), or the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, headed by billionaire pastor Edir Macedo, who also happens to be Crivella’s uncle, is the most powerful evangelical church in Brazil. While it unanimously voted for Bolsonaro in 2018, it is threatening to support former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s candidacy in next year’s election as the government’s approval ratings slide to record lows — and Angola is the reason behind this potential political U-turn.

Bolsonaro is finally facing the political consequences of leading the world’s worst response to Covid-19. Nearly 500,000 Brazilians are dead, millions more are impoverished, hunger is now a serious problem again and the government is facing a congressional investigation that is exposing its mishandling of the pandemic. The continued support of the IURD, along with Record, the second-biggest TV channel in Brazil that it controls, will be crucial to his re-election hopes in 2022.

Angola’s MPLA government is for change on the right side of history and waging a political war against the IURD, accusing the church of numerous abuses including open corruption and authoritarianism. The church cannot afford to lose Angola in the context of a changing and ever more competitive religious environment in Brazil, where churches compete in a ruthless battle for profits and power.

Bolsonaro has already tried to react by pressuring the Angolan state, so far to no avail. Under his government, the Brazilian state has to all intents and purposes extinguished its African policy: shutting down public credit lines, discouraging private investment and discontinuing diplomatic cooperation. Isolated and unprotected, the IURD has lost much of its bargaining power in Angola and Mozambique. The church has already been expelled from Zambia and is facing new charges of abuses in South Africa, including forced sterilisation

For the Bolsonaro government, the goal is to use the prestigious diplomatic position in South Africa to solve a domestic problem. Crivella would work as a special envoy for evangelical questions, who would give little to no attention to bilateral relations.

A quick look at his resumé confirms this. While he has travelled to Africa as a missionary in the past, his experience with foreign policy is nonexistent. The message that the Bolsonaro government is sending to South Africa is unequivocal: African policy has been negotiated with the IURD in exchange for domestic support. This represents a form of state capture in which a church can use important diplomatic postings to pursue its own private interests through the Brazilian state. 

South Africa deserves better than that. The South African ambassador spent two hours with Lula in Brasilia in early June. He is well aware that Brazil has a vision for Africa and there are still fond memories of solidarity and cooperation between our two nations during better times.

The South African government should refuse to accept Crivella as Brazil’s chief diplomatic representative. Given that South Africa’s constitution is based on founding principles of opposing racism and protecting religious diversity, it is an insult to our nation to send an ambassador who not only has made numerous statements contrary to the foundational values of South African democracy, but also stands accused of numerous serious criminal charges. 

The IURD is facing serious charges of abuses in South Africa, and the church should answer these accusations. Instead of sending a professional diplomat to foster relations and solidarity between our countries, Bolsonaro has sent us a Brazilian TB Joshua fused with Zandile Gumede.

The South African government should not only act against this appointment, but launch a serious investigation into the Universal Church’s activities in the country. DM

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All Comments 6

  • A host country has to agree to accept a diplomatic appointment. Called agrément. SA can simply refuse to agree.

  • SA and Brazil now officially has another similarity: corruption. Both countries excell in this most popular pastime.

  • In Afrikaans there is a lovely saying: :Soort soek soort”, which I find difficult to translate. However, maybe this will be understood: “the corrupt will seek out the corrupt”. And maybe those corrupt within our ruling party can learn from this chap Crivella, as like in Brazil, the corrupt are often appointed as ambassadors in other countries

  • From the article it seems as if he will seamlessly blend in with the criminal and racist government that runs SA. Birds of a feather.