/ 26 May 2015

ANC hopes Methodists will minister to them

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.

The ANC hopes the Methodist Church of Southern Africa will soon reverse its decision to bar its ministers from serving as chaplains for political parties.

A report presented at an ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting in March held that the church may “revisit” the ban.

The Mail & Guardian has seen minutes of that meeting, which said “the Methodist Church had been engaged and there are signs that they may revisit their position on the chaplaincy”.

Secretary general Gwede Mantashe told the meeting that relations were being “rebuilt” with the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the party was “initiating a process on appointing a chaplain”.

In September last year, 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 decision applied to all political parties but affected the ANC the most because it had appointed a chaplain general and provincial chaplains as office bearers. 

The ruling party lost its former chaplain general, Reverend Dr Vukile Mehana, who was forced to step down by the church. Provincial chaplains were also affected by the decision.

The Methodist Church has however denied it was reconsidering its resolution of barring priests from holding political office. Presiding Bishop Reverend Ziphozihle Siwa told the M&G on Tuesday that “no, we are not engaging on that matter. I wonder where that [ANC report] comes from”.

Siwa, who is also SACC president, said “the whole of the church must minister to all people equally. The church cannot be seen to be partisan”. He said ministers can preach to political gatherings, as long as they do not hold office. “They must not take an official position, but they can minister to people both inside and outside political parties.”

Siwa added that holding political office “becomes worse if there are political factions or a conflict between political parties. A minister should be above that”.

Strained relations

The M&G reported in December that relations between the ANC and South Africa’s mainstream churches had reached an all-time low under the leadership of party president Jacob Zuma.

In his report to the NEC in November, Mantashe admitted relations between the party and the SACC were severely strained. Mantashe had already started facilitating meetings to try and repair relations at the time that he presented the report in November to the party’s highest decision-making structure between conferences.

At the time Mehana told the M&G that the Methodist Church wanted to remain “in a mediatory role that is independent of politics”. Referring to discussions that had taken place between the SACC and the ANC last year, Mantashe said the church council was of the view that the ANC was “more comfortable with wealth religion and those who are not critical of the ANC”. 

“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 was founded in the Waaihoek Wesleyan church outside Bloemfontein in 1912 and has always valued a close relationship with the clerical elite. But last year’s decision by the Methodist Church meant that this relationship was no longer as close as it was before. “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.

‘Sorry state of affairs’

Methodist lay-president James Nkosi said at the church’s conference in September 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, said Nkosi, referring to Zuma’s private home in Nkandla 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”.

The SACC is of the view that the ANC does not want to be criticised and that some leaders desire “a prophet” who “speaks their language”, acting SACC general secretary Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana told the M&G in an interview in December. He called the council’s relationship with the ANC one of “critical solidarity”.

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.

On Tuesday Siwa said that while the SACC had met the ANC, the talks were “not about any particular matter, it’s just about leading together”.

“Just before 1994 the SACC asked itself how we are going to work together with the democratic government because we had been supporting all parties that fought for liberation. We said we must be in a relationship of critical solidarity. 

“We must support them where they need spiritual support and criticise them where they do wrong.” 

ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa did not return calls for comment or respond to an SMS.

  • An earlier version of this article, published under the headline ‘The Methodist Church may no longer forsake the ANC’, may have given the impression the church was considering lifting its ban on ministers serving as party chaiplains. The church however says it is not reconsidering the ban.