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 In this respect, modernism breaks with some outdated practices and traditions that are retrogressive and hold society back.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