Council of Churches in the wilderness

Ideological tension between its national executive committee members, a crisis of authority and dwindling funds are some of the reasons for the drive to restructure the South African Council of Churches, which sources say will lead to retrenchments and possibly closure of the organisation.

The internationally revered 44-year-old council, which was intricately involved in the struggle against apartheid, has 26 member churches.

Employees in the organisation’s national and provincial offices have not received salaries for February and have been ordered to take “paid” leave for March because those salaries are also not guaranteed.

The Mail & Guardian is in possession of a “notice of intent to restructure and possible retrenchment” dated March 5, which states that the “implementation of possible retrenchments” will take effect on April 1. The last day of April will be the last working day. “Future re-employment will be considered,” the letter states, “should the council maybe again operate on a sound financial footing.”

Mixed messages
Employees have complained of receiving mixed messages from their bosses, leading many to believe that the organisation is closing down. “How do you retrench all the staff?” said a staff member speaking on condition of anonymity. “It means they are closing down the organisation.”

The council employs almost 40 staffers in offices in seven provinces.

General secretary Mautji Pataki said it was too early to say the organisation was downsizing. “There are many options to pursue in restructuring that do not necessarily involve cutting down staff,” he said, but he pointed out that there were no guarantees in terms of when salaries or severance packages would be paid.

Although the organisation’s leadership has blamed dwindling funding for the situation, saying it is par for the course for organisations reliant on donations, insiders believe that political irrelevance and ideological differences have contributed.

Sources linked to the organisation believe that its “strategic capability to be critical has been depleted” and its political leverage and influence have wilted under President Jacob Zuma’s government. As a result, its currency locally and internationally has depreciated.

Enjoyed Mbeki’s attention
Zuma snubbed the traditional churches that comprise the council in favour of those preaching “the gospel of prosperity”, leaving the council without the ear of the president that it had enjoyed, to a greater extent, during Thabo Mbeki’s tenure.

Prior to the 2009 elections, Zuma visited Rhema Church to ask for prayers for peaceful elections. Subsequently, the National Interfaith Leadership Council, which was formed by pastor Ray McCauley and included four ANC MPs among its ranks, announced that it would “play a role” in revisiting legislation legalising abortion and gay marriage.

In 2009 the M&G reported former council general secretary Eddie Makue as saying the purpose of the interfaith council was unclear to the religious fraternity.

Sources in the council alleged that, in general, white churches such as the Dutch Reformed Church had been nonchalant about the council’s fate. The Dutch Reformed Church was welcomed back to the council fold in 2004, but its relationship with the council has largely been regarded as one of convenience.

In a paper titled “The political role and contribution of churches in post-apartheid South Africa”, Tracy Kuperus quotes Coenie Burger, a former Dutch Reformed Church moderator, as saying: “I knew we lost credibility due to our support for apartheid, so we had to change tactics. There were some political issues that arose and I often took the issue to the council, so they could ‘speak’ for us.”

Council president Jo Seoka was terse when asked about what its new mandate would be. “We are relocating it within the churches so the churches can take ownership of the council,” he said. “It will maintain its prophetic voice and continue to engage in sociopolitical issues.”

Seoka would not discuss the council’s finances.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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