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South Africans would do well to advance modernism and republicanism and keep theocrats at bay

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

The idea of taking pride in one’s ethnic heritage is relatively harmless – until it is used as a weapon for exclusion and exceptionalism. The drip of religious traditions is of greater concern, and ought to be stopped before it reaches a torrent.

Of the many discussions among scholars and public intellectuals there is probably none as utterly confusing, misunderstood, misused (interchangeably) as modernity, modernisation and modernism. At any given time each one may be tied to some ideological programme and/or condemned as a fig leaf for some kind of grand exploitative conspiracy.

What I want to do is use the term “modernism” to mean something very distinct and apply it as the processes which “liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”. In this respect, modernism breaks with some outdated practices and traditions that are retrogressive and hold society back.

The opposition to vaccinations is somehow part of this because it by and large rejects science and some of the anti-vaxxers are snake oil peddlers – notwithstanding the advances in science that have eradicated so many diseases over the past century or so. The other embrace of “traditionalism”, as opposed to the modernism that secular democracy brings with it, is the emergence in South Africa of a mild theocratic movement, and a growing retreat into the comfort or safety zones of ethnic or racial traditionalism. In both cases – the anti-vaccination and the slow drip of theocratic thought and practice – there is the danger of South Africa moving away from republican constitutionality and fraying into several strands of the weave of a rather worrying tapestry.

The idea of taking pride in one’s ethnic heritage is relatively harmless, until the point where it is used as a weapon for exclusion and exceptionalism. The drip of religious traditions is of greater concern, and ought to be stopped before it reaches a torrent.

The role of formal religion and the church in a constitutional democracy

A most recent development – over the past decade or so – has been the creation of political parties that are dedicated to particular religious doctrines. Most notable are the African Christian Democratic Party and Al Jama-ah. Both parties canvass for support with respective focus on Christian and Muslim sentiments.

This seems harmless enough, in the sense that people can vote for whomever they wish in a democracy. There is a danger, however, when, as it has been reported over the past two weeks or so, former chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng wants to run for president in 2024, “if God wants him to”.

Couple this with the growth of large charismatic churches and pastors across South Africa, the most nefarious of which has been Shepherd Bushiri of the Enlightened Christian Gathering Church. Let’s set aside for a moment his mounting financial problems.

Now add the distinctly anti-scientific traditionalism of Zwelinzima Vavi of 2015, following the unearthing of Homo naledi, when he went on social media to proclaim that “no one will dig old monkey bones to back up a theory that I was once a baboon… I am no grandchild of any ape, monkey or baboon – finish en klaar. Now prove to me scientifically that I am.”

And then there are the untouchable “traditional healers”, the plethora of “traditional leaders”, and the alignment of kings and royalties with political parties. All of this could turn into a witch’s brew that is corrosive to any progressive polity that the country has been striving for since the early 1990s.

Secular progressive democracy is the way forward

Mogoeng is on record for having said “I am ready to do whatever the Lord wants me to do”; that he was waiting for a signal from his god and, in response to a request by Joe Mojapelo of the Independent Citizens Movement that the former chief justice lead them, replied in the affirmative: “Yes, if it’s me I would… But let God decide who it should be… [if] God wants me to do it, I’ll accept.”

While Al Jama-ah has little to no chance of ever gaining 10% of the vote, and the ACDP is likely to scrape more than 10%, this retreat into faith-based politics is detrimental to democracy. Political leaders should, ideally, avoid the anti-modern turn (modernism as defined above) and once and for all break with the growing appeal of faith-based politics. The only way that progress is possible is for South Africa to strengthen its secular progressive democracy, and for the media to highlight the dangers of theocratic rule.

Embedded “traditionalism” runs deep in South Africa. The High Court in Mpumalanga heard last month how a 13-year-old girl with albinism was kidnapped from her home in Hlalanikahle, Emalahleni in 2018. Her private parts, heart, skull and pieces of fat were used to make muti which the murderers believed would make them wealthy.

One research project published by Forensic Science International found that across southern Africa human body parts are sometimes used for medicinal purposes – so-called muti murders. One such murder was uncovered when the remains of two individuals were found in a traditional healer’s home. Osteological analysis revealed that the remains probably belonged to a young adult male and a juvenile.

Another research project by Wits University found that “some traditional healers have adopted the practice of using human body parts in muti” and that they believed “that different human body parts have different ‘powers’”.

Between the retreat from republicanism – a political system that protects emancipation by incorporating a rule of law that cannot be arbitrarily ignored by a government – and secularism coupled with the persistence of “traditional” customs, South Africa faces a challenge to democracy and the modernisation which (at least according to the Frankfurt School) should help us “break from the circumstances that enslave us”.

We should be aware of the dangers posed by theocratic rule in places like Iran, or religious fascism as expressed through Hindutva in India (which is different from Hinduism), and the persecution of groups of people sanctified by one or another religious belief.  

On a personal note, I am perfectly happy to concede that religion and morality rarely fail to address the real world in any successful or even workable manner. DM

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All Comments 9

  • I’m not quite sure why the dig at anti-vaxxers is relevant here. My perception is that the science has been undermined by the politics in that all discussion (which is necessary for science to prevail) has been completely shut down by politics, not traditionalism. In a broad perspective, simply ask who is behaving like an autocratic tyrant (govt) and who is actively facilitating such behaviour (the media)?

    Nevertheless I do agree that we all should, on principle alone, be opposed to theocratic involvement in all political spheres. Liberal politics is incompatible with religion just as it is incompatible with communism since all far left ideologies have disturbing similarities to religious zealotry (the fundamental commonality being a collectivist mindset). The global history of the human species gives us a plethora of evidence in support of this.

    I also agree that it is absolutely imperative that all religious belief be kept as far from the legal system as humanly possible. Religion will corrupt and undermine liberal politics but it is utterly poisonous to a legal system.

    I personally believe religion should be practiced in the home and nowhere else. It has no business in ANY public sphere if we are to adhere to liberalism in any honest form. If instead we are to keep religions as public organisations, then they should at least pay the same tax that businesses do. For that is precisely what they are.

  • A pity that you add the religion and morality right at the end. I think it is more central and beneficial for the good of society. Pope Francis
    @Pontifex
    ·
    Nov 16
    Dialogue between members of different religions does not take place simply for diplomacy, courtesy or tolerance. The goal of dialogue is to establish friendship, peace and harmony, to share spiritual and moral values and experiences in a spirit of truth and love. #DayForTolerance

  • I am fascinated by the broad acceptance, fueled by much of the media world, that people opposed to mandatory Covid 19 vaccination are branded as “anti-vaxers”. Many of the most vocal opponents of Covid vaccination are highly educated specialists in the field of immunology and virology. Most if not all of these specialists state that they are not opposed to “traditional” vaccination, but they are opposed to these new vaccines that potentially affect the DNA of the virus. The feeling is that insufficient data about long term effects has been collected.

    • No true “expert in the field of immunology and virology” would agree that mRNA vaccines can change human DNA. The “m” in mRNA stands for “messenger” because all it does is deliver a virus ‘identikit’ so the body’s immune system ‘primes the pump’. It cannot change DNA. It’s a technology not a conspiracy.

      • You forgot to note Desmond’s ‘escape’ route in his argument … about some ‘experts’ view about the new vaccines “POTENTIALLY” affecting the DNA of virus ! Also note there is no claim of the extensiveness of how many of these ‘experts’ exist – just ‘many’ !

  • Thank you. The harmful effects you speak of are known in the academy as “dominionism”. It’s a sneaky fad with dubious origins that has inexplicably become mainstream with the rise of abortion politics that US republicans have coddled since Reagan. Not surprised the well-funded ACDP would adopt such socially backward ideas when they believe in talking serpents.

  • Don’t be surprised if our ex CJ suddenly decides or discovers that he indeed is ‘God’ !
    A well reasoned take on the ‘exclusionary’ role that most traditional religions play in society .

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