In South Africa, Religion has Been a Force for Good in Politics

President of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Jacob Zuma (C) kneels as a pastor prays for him at a church in Phoenix, April 14, 2009. REUTERS/Rogan Ward.
President of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Jacob Zuma (C) kneels as a pastor prays for him at a church in Phoenix, April 14, 2009. REUTERS/Rogan Ward.

In many countries religion crossed with politics leads to a toxic mess. Look at the wars over abortion in the US or Ireland, or culture wars everywhere. To make matters even more interesting, one man’s religion is often intertwined with that man’s culture. But in South Africa, religion has generally been a force for good in our politics. It’s impossible to forget the role the Catholic Church, and how the Anglican Church gave Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu the platform he needed to help fight Apartheid from within. It’s impossible to forget the role people like Bishop Huddleston played. There are signs, now, that religion, and particularly organised religion, is about to step back into the political arena.


Priests played a key role during Apartheid. Whether it was actively participating in the Struggle in some way, shape or form, like Father Michael Lapsley (who lost his hands and the sight of one eye to a letter bomb) or those who allowed funerals to be used for political reasons, people of faith mattered. Whether their hierarchies did enough is still a point for debate, but the fact is that they mattered. Considering the evil that was Apartheid, that was right and proper.

Then, it seems, religion seemed almost to step out of politics. Whether it was because Nelson Mandela played such a strong role as a father to the whole nation, or whether they became more involved in the new struggle for reconciliation, generally speaking, priests and politicians started to see less of each other.

Within government circles, there even seemed to be a slight change in the politics within these different groups. The older, established churches seemed very comfortable during the Mbeki era (don’t forget, the famous Mbeki quote on Jackie Selebi “trust me”, was never actually uttered by him, but by Hindu leader Ashwin Trikamjee after a meeting with Mbeki). That seemed to change slightly when President Jacob Zuma took over. The newer, more businesslike churches seemed to grow more in stature, led by Rhema’s Ray McCauley.

And when politicians and religious leaders did meet, it often seemed to be to support Zuma in some way. Who can forget that he himself was ordained as a lay pastor by one congregation, while the image of him standing with head bowed surrounded by robed men laying their hands on him has been repeated several times. Particularly at moments of high crisis.

This all seems to be changing.

Over the Easter weekend two separate events occurred that signalled this. The first was on Saturday, when Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba led a march to Parliament, demanding that Zuma take responsibility for the Nkandla scandal. This was no one-man mission; his predecessor Njongonkulu Ndungane was with him, as was the man still referred to as “The Arch”. Along with around a thousand people of different beliefs. As a symbol, it matters, but it was not unexpected. Groups like the Anglicans were always going to take a dim view of someone like Zuma, with his, um, lifestyle, and the persistent claims of corruption hanging around him.

What came like a bolt from the Almighty himself, though, was the report in The Star on Wednesday, claiming that Zionist Christian Church Bishop, Barnabas Lekganyane, had told his particular flock not to vote for “embezzlers”. He was also quoted as saying people should vote for “clever and educated” politicians.

This is miraculous stuff. The ZCC is not just any flock; it has a total membership of around twelve million people. Many, perhaps most of them, live in South Africa. What makes this all the more interesting is that the ZCC has remained staunchly apolitical until now. Even during the dark days of Apartheid it didn’t seem to step on anyone’s toes. It was the one organisation that seemed to have enough members that if it had wanted to, it may have been able to put serious pressure on the National Party government.

Click here to continue reading…

SOURCE: The Daily Maverick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s