The National Interfaith Leadership Council, formed by Rhema church leader Ray McCauley and closely associated with President Jacob Zuma, flew its conservative colours this week, saying that it wants to revisit laws legalising abortion and same-sex marriages.
Last week the council (NILC) entered the debate about the Judicial Service Commission’s decision to drop its investigation into Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe. It attacked the challenge to the JSC by Freedom Under Law, chaired by former Constitutional Court judge Johann Kriegler, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s support for it, saying it could ‘only serve to further erode the integrity of the judiciary and undermine the confidence of the people in it”.
‘For us, the ruling signified closure on this sad chapter and paved the way for the judiciary to heal and move forward,” the NILC said.
Nthabiseng Khunou, an ANC MP and member of the NILC secretariat, told the Mail & Guardian that the council would ‘play a role” in revisiting legislation legalising abortion and gay marriage.
Khunou, a pastor, said the laws were very unpopular in South Africa’s churches: ‘I know most churches want them abolished, so the reason for NILC is to give a voice to people who don’t have it.”
Khunou revealed that the NILC had recently discussed the possibility that South Africa might legalise prostitution, ‘saying: why has the church been so quiet about it? We must play our role here.”
Interviewed this week McCauley, the council’s national convener, denied any formal links between the organisation and the ANC.
But at least four members of the 20-odd group of religious leaders are ANC MPs, including heavyweights such as ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga and former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool.
McCauley insisted the group was open to other political parties. But no religious leaders who support opposition parties have joined.
‘The NILC does not consult with the ANC, although there are people there who are part of the ANC,” he said.
Motshekga said the ANC insisted that the party accorded the NILC no special treatment.
‘We’re on record as supporting [the] council and noted what it said about Judge Hlophe, but it is not for us to approve or disapprove.”
McCauley was not speaking for the ANC, but for his own constituency.
The M&G can also reveal that the NILC uses the ANC parliamentary caucus’s communication facilities to communicate with the media. The two NILC press statements were sent from the ANC’s offices in Parliament.
Motshekga claimed to be unaware of this, while McCauley said the statements ‘should not have been sent from the ANC”. Khunou said ANC MPs are free to use party email facilities for any purpose they saw fit.
Other ANC sources point to the close relationship between Motshekga and McCauley through which the idea for a new religious formation was hatched.
McCauley controversially gave Zuma an exclusive platform to speak in his Johannesburg church during the ANC’s election campaign this year.
Vusi Mona, at that time the Rhema spokesperson, defended the church’s decision to invite Zuma to address the congregation, and not leaders from other parties. Mona quit Rhema shortly after the elections to join Zuma’s presidential communications team.
Self-confessed frand convict Carl Niehaus was also a Rhema spokesperson before his stint as ANC spindoctor during the election campaign.
In August the NILC met Zuma and pledged its support in helping the government deal with service delivery protests.
Other religious leaders have been caught off guard by the decision to launch the NILC. McCauley is a leader of the National Religious Leaders’ Forum (NRLF), which includes representatives of all the major faiths practised in South Africa.
He did not attend an NRLF meeting on Wednesday.
The general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Eddie Makue, said the purpose of the NILC was unclear to the religious fraternity. The SACC is set to meet NILC leaders before the end of September to clarify matters, he said. He added that the Dutch Reformed Church, formerly linked to the apartheid government, was also considering joining the NILC.
Makue said the SACC decided in 1995 to embark on ‘critical engagement” with the government: ‘We took the view that governments come and go, but the church will always remain.”