The French existentialist philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre pointed to the dilemma of God and belief. “That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.”
Belief is not the sole province of believers. There are circumstances that propel a whole people to cling to belief with all their might because the alternative is far worse to contemplate.
Right now, South Africa is in the grip of a deep social, political, economic and ethical malaise. It’s not new; it’s only that it has reached a breaking point. The nation needs a messiah – any messiah – who can step forward, perish on the cross and save us from the agony of the hopeless existence we face.
The mushrooming of evangelical churches with their promise of salvation through manufactured miracles is a product of a social, economic and political dislocation. The promise of salvation is the promise of material sustenance: the pastor who makes us eat rats or drink petrol or dip our hands in boiling water is not about a better life in the hereafter. They say: “Vaka imali uzobona [Show us the money and you will be sanctified].”
Salvation through a better life right here on Earth, right now, is exemplified in the life of the pastor himself, who drives into dusty townships in a convoy of flashy cars. The exaggerated wealth of the pastor is evidence that he has been blessed. You, too, can be blessed, if only you can believe, offer sacrifices and buy the anointed candles, holy water and soap. These items are bought at your nearest supermarket, but are now sold to you at triple the price because the pastor has blessed them.
To be authentic, the pastor must perform miracles and undergo some kind of a test, from tax problems to other legal challenges. His sermons must be able to induce hysteria and hold the audience spellbound for hours. He must speak to the lack of work, love and luck. The acoustics must be of the right kind too. A little help from technology hastens the process of belief.
Thousands of the wretched of the Earth flock to church services every day of the week and reach the zenith at Sunday sermons. However poor you are, you bring something to offer because you believe. The conventional churches can no longer serve the spiritual needs of those who know subconsciously that their spiritual poverty is merely an expression of their material want. The desperate need earthly deliverance.
The smart politician has been observing the pastor. If the pastor can fill stadiums on the promise of something intangible, how can the politician use the same method to garner votes and be in on the political junket? So the more enterprising politicians convert themselves into the high priests of poverty and desperation. They promise to fight and bring economic freedom and other goodies in “our lifetime”.
The political rally is nothing but an evangelical crusade replete with shrieks and stomping of feet. Enemies are conjured, promises of their obliteration follow the same tempo as the defeat of evil promised by pastors peddling holy water.
The political faithful, no matter how poor, are obliged by party doctrine that emphasises loyalty first and foremost to the supreme leader, the secular pastor. This means they must buy the mandatory articles of worship, otherwise known as party regalia. No self-respecting party member is without party uniform. Like the holy candle, the party has the sole rights to sell party paraphernalia. This is how the party makes its first cash before the donors come flocking, attracted by the numbers in uniform. After all, in politics as in church, numbers are everything.
This existential crisis has been stalking Africa without a pause for the past four decades of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s structural-adjustment programmes, which have destroyed the state as the symbolic entity that provides against poverty and hunger.
When the state abandoned its role as a provider, the people had to find a new one – and the Pentecostal church stepped in.
South Africa has been undergoing “home-made structural adjustment” for almost two decades. Things are getting more and more desperate and, in tandem, the desperate seek salvation from the miracle of the pastor and the politician.
This madness was long identified by the Martiniquean psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who attributes it to the cowardice of the colonised people. Fanon suggests that when colonised people resolve not to fight the colonialist, they turn towards the occult and towards themselves.
Merchandise is a useful source of income for political parties. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
The poor and excluded, who are not yet ready to fight to change their desperate conditions, outsource the responsibility of changing their circumstances to religious, spiritual or political messiahs.
This process happens before they come to self-awareness and take responsibility to change things, instead of hoping the leader, pastor or sangoma will be their saviour.
According to Fanon, the cowardice of the natives at the initial stages, before they become authors of their own destiny, results in the creation of phantom monsters who are bigger and scarier than the coloniser. The popularity of the Daily Sun among the poor is because it feeds them stories of zombies and tokoloshes that are scarier than the white man who stole their land.
These scary, otherworldly creatures can only be held at bay by the pastor or the hysteria-inducing political rally of thousands. Exorcism, not revolutionary confrontation, is preferred at this stage.
We can substitute the colonialists in Fanon’s theory with white capital and its black defenders, for in our country decolonisation is a question of land and economy.
The people are desperate and frightened because they lack access to both land and the economy, which are locked up in the hands of the white owners of capital.
Fanon tells us, at this moment of avoiding battle with the colonialist, the native conjures up mythical things: “Maleficent spirits, which intervene every time a step is taken in the wrong direction, leopard-men, serpent-men, six-legged dogs, zombies – a whole series of tiny animals or giants which create around the native a world of prohibitions, of barriers and of inhibitions far more terrifying than the world of the settler.”
Fanon’s “prohibitions” drive the desperate to the evangelical tent perched in the middle of a dusty township or to the stadium where the politicians pontificate change that doesn’t entail confronting the reality that created the desperation in the first place.
The church service, with its props of miracles, just like the exaggerated promise of obliterating political enemies, functions as a meditation of transcendence. Those in attendance are emboldened to confront their monsters, but it takes a few steps away from the tent and stadium for the placebo effect to wear off and the poor and desperate can’t wait for the next fix of delirious hope.
So long as there is poverty, hunger and desperation, the idea of a god who is not there is an invitation to descend below the line of the possible. So long as there is no movement that is fighting to change the circumstances of the people through their own efforts, the pastor and the politician stand in for the absent state. These proxies perform the role of providing fake hope to help minimise the burden of hopelessness created by the reality of white racism.
The interesting contradiction is that the pastor and the politician need poverty and desperation so that the faithful can continue to bring offerings of tithes and votes.
As we know, no condition is permanent. There will come a time when the poor despise being bamboozled and simply throw off their backs and souls the weight of fear and cowardice, and shout past the pastor and the politician and say: “Thy will shall be done!” At this point the faithful substitute loyalty to the pastor and politician with the healing and liberating force of collective action and wisdom.
The former cowering masses now boldly proclaim the right to be free and share in the wealth of the nation. At this point they are one with a living god and every step proves that salvation lies not in the empty promises of the miracle man or the bellowing politician, but in taking responsibility for their own self-actualisation.
Yes, in the intervening period between the onset of colonialism and the rise of the masses to reclaim their humanity, to question God is to be cruel, because as Sartre writes: “My whole being cries out for God.”
God ends when the material and spiritual needs of a people are nourished, and when oppression, which breeds a permanent state of tension, has been obliterated. Until then, the pastor and politician will continue cashing in on the desperation of the victims of the impersonal forces of neoliberalism and the markets.
Andile Mngxitama is the national convenor of the Black First Land First movement.