In 2006, then-president Thabo Mbeki seemed to reach what theological scholars would later describe as a turning point. For years he had in effect ignored religion, as could be expected from a man embedded in an intellectual culture where religion was, at best, frowned upon as a vice for the weak-minded. When he referenced religious texts at all it was nearly always to question their irelevance.
Then, in February 2006, Mbeki framed his State of the Nation address on the biblical book of Isaiah, putting it next to Nelson Mandela as a source of inspiration, without any cynicism. Theological ears pricked up.
“Absent here is any backhandedness,” said Gerald West, a professor of the school of religion, philosophy and classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in a 2010 analysis of Mbeki’s interaction with religion. “The Bible has taken centre stage with Mandela, offering a vision that can be embraced by all South Africans, even the masses.”
Later in 2006, Mbeki delved even deeper into the Bible, seemingly wrestling with it to find a context for South Africa’s development. At times he was self-deprecating, joking about not becoming a priest, and at times he was clearly embarrassed to be doing so before cynical, well-heeled audiences. But he stuck with it.
After a long post-1994 drought, religion had returned to the public realm.
This was a welcome development for churches that had long argued that the separation of Bible and Constitution was unhelpful, and that trying to reconstruct South Africa while ignoring the spiritual dimension would be futile. Even if Mbeki was using religion in what some saw as a mercenary fashion to capture the imagination of the masses, they mused, it was still a step in the right direction.
But the ANC was not about to embrace churches uncritically, even if its president had started spouting chapter and verse. In a seminal 2007 ANC discussion document, The RDP of the Soul, the party had harsh words for religion, especially fundamentalism, describing it as antitransformation.
“Many religious communities excuse themselves from involvement in the programmes of national, provincial or local government ‘because you must not mix religion and politics’ (a totally ungodly antihuman colonial doctrine),” the document reads. “Many still pursue the attitudes of the Crusades, mediaeval religious wars, the battles of Reformation, or the attitudes which rejected recent scientific developments. Such religions are barriers to transformation, not the means of it.”
But some of the harshest criticism in the document was reserved for the very “wealth churches” that the ANC is now much closer to – a relationship that is driving a wedge between itself and the conventional churches’ umbrella body, the South African Council of Churches (SACC).
According to The RDP of the Soul, Pentecostalism had created a gap for right-wing fundamentalism, in which “the salvation of the world is replaced by the salvation of individuals; health and wealth will be provided in response to the faith shown in supporting the church through donations”. It approvingly quotes warnings about such “hawks and charlatans”, and religions in which, “in a very short time, the preacher who promises prosperity for everyone gets richer and the congregation gets poorer”.
The ANC, the document said, “has a major responsibility to spell out the dangers when people promote organisations which are opposed to the spiritual or material development of our people, whatever religious credentials they may claim”.
The Bible may have made its way back into the state discourse, but the ANC would guard the ramparts against “fraudster preachers” and their promises of riches through prayer.
By 2010, it was clear to analysts of the interaction between religion and government that, if any faith group could influence the ANC and the state, it was popular religion, and Pentecostal Christianity in particular. The more staid churches, and those who believed they should guide the government not only on matters moral but also on economic and political found themselves relegated to the background.
Jacob Zuma made no secret of his Pentecostal leanings before becoming ANC president, but embracing that strain of religion in his official capacity still took some aback.
“[On April 12 2009] ANC president Jacob Zuma accepts an invitation to the Easter service of the International Pentecost Church,” West wrote in a 2010 analysis of Zuma’s religious interactions. “That he accepts an invitation to a Pentecostal church is itself significant, as it is somewhat at odds with the orientation of the ANC’s The RDP of the Soul document.”
In other churches, and speaking to other religions, Zuma seemed unable to connect with the congregations or not to grasp the tenets of the religions, West found. But he is at home in the context of modern charismatic Christianity.
President Jacob Zuma, ANC chaplain general Vukile Mehana and Kgalema Motlanthe at a rally. (Simphiwe Nkwal, Gallo)
“In his choice of religious sites, he tends to favour Christian faith communities, preferring Pentecostal-charismatic churches. Here, it would seem, is a constituency in which he not only feels comfortable but which he [also] considers politically important … there are signs that, under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, the ANC will endeavour to co-opt the vast swath of evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity that pervades and cuts across the myriad of Christian churches of all kinds in South Africa,” West wrote.
More traditional churches saw things a little differently. It was not the reach of charismatic – and “wealth” – churches that the ANC sought, they believed, but their willingness to remain quiet on thorny issues facing the government, and Zuma.
“There is a worrying trend within the ANC to co-opt and promote church leaders who clearly do not have a liberatory perspective (but who might be involved in charity or development or be willing to uncritically bless the ANC),” wrote the progressive ecumenical Kairos group of Christian leaders in a message to the ANC in late 2011.
Trend of ‘reward’
The signatories, including names well known to the ANC, such as Allan Boesak and Frank Chikane, said they had noticed a trend “of reward for those who support the ANC, especially during elections”, and of church leaders who were at the service of the party rather than at the service of the people.
“As we enter into the second century of the life of the ANC, we hope that the ANC will learn that a church that collaborates uncritically with the party or the state can be of no use to the party in terms of its national strategic objectives,” the Kairos group wrote. “A national democratic revolution requires constructive critical voices within civil society to save the very revolutionary objectives of the party, which is always at risk as our human nature tends to slide into sectarian and self-interests in contrast to the interests of the people, especially the poor.”
After that document became public, the African Federation of Churches, made up of charismatic, Apostolic and Zionist churches, came to Zuma’s defence, organising a march to support him and saying his administration had been installed by God.
In December 2012, shortly before the ANC’s Mangaung elective conference, the SACC wrote Zuma a blistering open letter. The country had “begun to stray from the path of building a united, nonracial, nonsexist and democratic South Africa”, it warned, and political leaders had “largely lost their moral compass”.
The National Interfaith Leaders Council, which claims to co-ordinate “all faith-based organisations in South Africa”, responded to that criticism by saying religious, not political leaders, were responsible for the national moral compass.
The pattern of criticism by one group of churches met with dismissal or praise from another would continue unabated for the next two years. In March 2014, charismatic church leaders in the North West told Zuma, campaigning before the elections, that he should simply ignore a damning report into his Nkandla homestead by public protector Thuli Madonsela.
In sharp contrast, two weeks later the Catholic Church issued a statement saying Zuma’s lack of a prompt and comprehensive response to that report “undermines both the public protector’s office and Parliament” – and that he should pay back the money spent on Nkandla.
Most South Africans profess to be Christians
Even though South Africa is a secular state, the ANC’s prioritisation of Christianity could be ascribed to the fact that the majority of country’s citizens are Christians.
According to Statistics South Africa’s General Household Survey 2013, an estimated 85.6% of South Africans are affiliated to the Christian religion, and 5% professed to follow ancestral, tribal, animist or other traditional religions. Two percent of the population considered themselves Muslim, but 5.6% did not follow any religion in particular. Only 0.2% of individuals were estimated to be Jewish.
The Northern Cape had the largest concentration of Christians at 98.2%, followed by the Free State with 96.9%. KwaZulu-Natal had the lowest at 77.6% with Limpopo at 78.8%. None of the other provinces scored below 80%.
The highest number of Muslims – 7.4% of the country’s population – are in the Western Cape, followed by KwaZulu-Natal(2.6%). The highest percentage of Hindus was found in KwaZulu-Natal (3.9%).
Those who do not follow any other religion are the highest in Limpopo (15.2%) followed by Gauteng and the Eastern Cape with 7.1%. – Mmanaledi Mataboge Source: Statistics South Africa’s General Household Survey 2013