As outrage mounted on Monday over President Jacob Zuma’s promise of a place in heaven for African National Congress (ANC) voters, the ruling party’s chaplain general sprang to his defence.
“We are taking a view that people are taking that statement out of context,” said Reverend Dr Vukile Mehana.
“The president was using a figure of speech, he did not mean it in a literal sense,” he said.
A Democratic Alliance (DA) transcript of Zuma’s remarks during a voter registration drive in Mthatha on Saturday claimed he said: “When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people.
“When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed. When you get up there, there are different cards used but when you have an ANC card, you will be let through to go to heaven.”
The DA called for an immediate apology, describing Zuma’s remarks as “incendiary and dangerous” and condemned them as “an act of shameless political and religious blackmail”.
It was the sort of “political skulduggery” that may be the norm in autocracies, but which should be anathema to South Africa’s constitutional democracy, the DA said.
The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) also felt Zuma owed the nation an apology.
“Now [the ANC] wants to mobilise support along religious lines, by blatantly lying to the nation that a vote for the ANC is a ticket to heaven,” said IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
The Christian Democratic Party (CDP) said Zuma should know better by now, after previous comments that people’s forefathers would haunt them if they did not vote ANC.
“The appalling tendency of President Jacob Zuma to use religion as an instrument of intimidation to coerce people into voting for the ANC borders on blasphemy,” said CDP leader Reverend Theunis Botha.
The African Christian Democratic Party said nobody could get into heaven because of their political party and to suggest that angels in heaven wore ANC colours “is nothing but blasphemy”.
The United Democratic Movement (UDM) drew on a previous comment by Zuma that “the ANC would rule until Jesus comes back” to say that it too considered the latest statement blasphemous.
“The UDM views this as a serious matter; the president is the custodian of the country’s Constitution. Such careless statements are in direct opposition of the freedom of expression and freedom of association guarded by our Constitution.”
‘Sweets from heaven’
The ANC chaplain general responded that there was no way the president could ever insult the religious community “because we respect it”.
“The ANC respects very much the religious sector and we can never dream of insulting the church,” said Mehana.
“People must not be so sensitive to those things. He did not mean really, literally, that the ANC is so powerful. Mr Meshoe knows, as a pastor he should know, that nobody can wear the colours of the ANC [in heaven].
“There is no provision in the Bible for that. In Revelations chapter seven, verse 13, he talks about people wearing white gowns, part of those ascending into the heavenly banquet. They are not wearing the colours of the ANC,” said Mehana.
ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said that if the word “heaven” was inappropriate in a figurative sense, expressions such as “marriage made in heaven”, “heavenly voices” and “sweets from heaven” would not exist
“South Africans, both black and white, fully understand the use of figurative expressions and the context in which our president used ‘heaven or hell’ in figuratively expressing himself over the weekend,” he said in denying that Zuma’s comments were blasphemous.
“We are also of the view that those who are ‘alarmed’ by his expression are probably driven by jealousy for not having thought of the expression.”
‘Quoted out of context’
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) hoped to meet Zuma over the “problematic” statement.
“We work on a daily basis with scores of people who are hungry, unemployed and homeless. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ who look at political leaders with great expectations, said SACC president Jo Seoka.
“Offering heaven to these people while their suffering continues here on earth is escapist. We [as church and government] are expected to transform the livelihoods of all — and especially the poor — for the better.”
SACC general secretary Eddie Makue said it was banking on the maturity of electorate not to let such statements influence them, but to “vote on the basis of what their experiences are”.
The South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) has blamed the saga on the SABC’s misunderstanding of Zulu idiom.
“In Zulu idiom and culture, when a person has got a nice house, and when you enter the house you say it’s beautiful, like heaven, which means something nice,” said Sanco spokesperson Dumisani Mthalane.
“When something is something bad, you talk about Satan, not really meaning Satan,” he said, maintaining that Zuma was “quoted out of context”. — Sapa