Why churches dumped the ANC

The Waaihoek church where the ANC was founded in 1912. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

The Waaihoek church where the ANC was founded in 1912. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Relations between the ANC and South Africa’s mainstream churches have reached an all-time low under the Zuma administration. In a report by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe to last month’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting, he admitted that there were severely strained relations between the party and the South African Council of Churches (SACC). The Methodist Church has withdrawn its ministers from acting as chaplains in the party.

So concerned was Mantashe that he invited four senior leaders of the council to a recent meeting to try to mend fences.

“The SACC is of the view that the ANC is more comfortable with wealth religion and those who are not critical of the ANC,” Mantashe wrote in the NEC report. “Considering the somewhat distant relations we have had with the SACC, this was a difficult meeting. Many issues were touched on without delving into it. This debate was deferred to a later date, as it was clear that there is [a] need to first clear the air.”

The ANC, which was founded in the Waaihoek Wesleyan church outside Bloemfontein in 1912, has always had a close relationship with the clerical elite, but under President Jacob Zuma has moved closer to the “wealth religion”, as Mantashe termed it, of some charismatic churches.

Acting general secretary of the SACC Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, who was at the meeting with Mantashe, told the Mail & Guardian that the council’s relationship with the ANC was one of “critical solidarity”. 

“There is a tendency of leaders wishing to have a prophet that speaks their language. To say, ‘yeah you are right’. We cannot have that,” Mpumlwana said. He added that when Mantashe sought to address the tension between the ANC and the SACC Mpumlwana’s own response was that perhaps some leaders were uncomfortable with a critical church.  “When you perceive distance there must be a reason why you are so uncomfortable.”

Umbrella body
The SACC is the umbrella body for 27 of the country’s most prominent churches including the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Apostolic Faith Mission, Baptist and Lutheran churches.

These strained relations with the SACC have not been the only setback the ANC has had on the religious front in the last quarter of this year.

In September, the conference of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa resolved to bar, with immediate effect, all its ministers from being chaplains of political parties.

This was a blow to the ANC because the party has a chaplain general and provincial chaplains, even though it is a secular “broad church”. “The implications of this is that the chaplain general and other provincial chaplains should relinquish their ­chaplaincy to the ANC immediately,” read Mantashe’s report.

The party’s chaplain general, Reverend Dr Vukile Mehana, was forced to step down. He told the M&G: “The view was that the church remain in a mediatory role that is independent of politics ... This was a blanket decision taken by the Methodist Church for all political parties.”

‘We will engage’
Mpumlwana said the SACC would not merely endorse the ANC without being critical. “We will engage. Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t but our responsibility is to raise these matters,” Mpumlwana said, adding that it is the council’s

“divine imperative” to speak out against any leadership that stood in the way of the dignity of all South Africans. “When we speak out against certain matters it is simply reminding the ANC of the accountability they have to the people.”

The relationship between the SACC and the ANC stretches back to the struggle against apartheid – the churches’ support of the liberation movement was part of the global endorsement from the World Council of Churches.  “But with 1994, with the ANC being in the seat of government, there could not be a simple blanket endorsement,” he said.

The SACC has become much more critical in recent times, and was one of the organisations at the forefront of opposing e-tolls in Gauteng.

‘Sorry state of affairs’
Methodist lay president James Nkosi said at the church’s September conference that “we have the sorry state of affairs where millions of our people are still in dire need of basic services like water, electricity, sanitation, housing, etc, the list is endless”.

Yet, Nkosi said, referring to Zuma’s private Nkandla home in KwaZulu-Natal, “the state is able to spend more than R246-million in upgrading, not building, the private residence of one person who, incidentally, gets the fattest cheque every month, and will continue doing so until he goes to the grave”.

At that conference, the Methodist Church agreed that if the church is silent on such critical issues “the stones will cry out”.

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, political analyst at the University of Pretoria, said the ANC had for a long time tried to control the organised church. “The Constitution has become a major tool they’ve used to manage religion. We can always ask the question: Has it gone any deeper than the public space?”

Maluleke refused to speak for the SACC as he is no longer a council leader. He said the ANC’s way of keeping the SACC in line was to give council leaders government positions. “Desmond Tutu [was given] the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair position, Frank Chikane a position as director general in the presidency and Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa the mayorship of Tshwane. This was a strategy to keep the SACC, the radical left churches, under control.”

‘Odd’ that secular ANC has a chaplain general 

According to the ANC’s constitution, the chaplain general of the party, a national spiritual leader, should lead the party’s delegates in prayer at national conferences, besides providing spiritual leadership. Each province of the ANC also has its own chaplains.

The decision by the Methodist Church in September to stop providing chaplains to the ANC was welcomed by many.

Dr Renier Koegelenberg of the National Religious Association for Social Development lauded the decision, saying church leaders should not blindly defend politicians.

Koegelenberg said no political party has a “right to God”.

“Churches should not be in the service of any political party. Being a chaplain for a political party opens a situation of misuse; it can be said that God is on their side.”

The University of Pretoria’s Professor Tinyiko Maluleke said the church took a “brave stance” by stopping its ministers from holding positions in political parties.

Maluleke said the fact that the ANC had a chaplain general was “a bit odd for an organisation that claims to embrace all religions. It clashes with the professed secularity that it’s a broad church.”

He also added that for the ANC, having a chaplain general who is a Christian had “sat uncomfortably with other parts of the ANC. The ANC is not as secular as it would like to believe because South Africans are not secular”.

Fortunately for the ANC, it has “navigated this from one contradiction to the next for the past 20 years”.

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice.
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