Thuli Madonsela on faith and its role in society

When she was appointed public protector in October 2009 Thuli Madonsela could not have predicted the dark times she would face when her investigations brought her face to face with the highest power in the land: the president of the republic.

Her report two years ago into irregular upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s home in Nkandla, Secure in Comfort, saw Madonsela and her office come under severe attack from various quarters. She would go on to be vindicated in February this year when the matter reached the Constitutional Court and Zuma offered to pay back a portion of the money.

Those were dark times that saw her dig deep into her spiritual reserves – and the support of others. “Literally every day, people send me spiritual texts on emails, direct messag[ing] and on the Twitter account,” she said in an interview.

“It’s not always religious, it’s not always verses from the Bible. Some send spiritual messages from other religions. I am Christian, but I do embrace other spiritual dimensions.”

One message that struck her was by the late and popular preacher Myles Munroe of Bahamas Faith Ministries the day before the Secure in Comfort press conference.

“You are strong and you’ve been placed where you are for good reasons. You have power, use it compassionately, use it justly and remember to temper justice with mercy,” he wrote to her.

With a background in human rights and constitutional law and as one of the people who helped draft our Constitution, Madonsela is clear about the separation between religion and state. “I’m very aware of the fact that while our Constitution recognises God (the preamble says “May God Protect our People”), it does not exalt any religion above others,” she once said to a gathering of Christian leaders.

We asked Madonsela a few questions about faith and her take on its role in society.

What does Easter mean to you?
Easter means a time for reflecting on my relationship with my creator, meditating, precious moments with family, including an Easter egg hunt, and joining others for spiritual revival and gratitude activities.

What is the role of faith in South African public life?
While faith is a personal choice and a human right guaranteed under section 15 of the Constitution, it has a potential for contributing to shared societal values that promote social cohesion. Such values include respect for human dignity and human life, social justice, human solidarity underpinned by compassion for fellow human beings and other elements of Ubuntu, justice and forgiveness.

Why do you think South Africans are able to coexist in relative harmony religiously with a large Christian majority, sizeable Muslim, Hindu and Jewish communities and vocal atheist, agnostic and other groups?
I think the coexistence is possible because there are common values in South African society that have evolved over the years and which transcend religious or faith boundaries. Key among these are, according to the Constitutional Court in State vs Makwanyane, the values of human dignity and Ubuntu.

South Africa is a secular democracy with a very religious population. What, in your view, allows these two seemingly contradictory aspects of our society to hold?
I believe that respect for the right to choose one’s faith is part of the answer, and the state’s respect for all faiths is another. It must be said though that the South African Constitution recognises the existence of God as reflected in the constitutional preamble’s reference to “God Bless South Africa”.

I further believe there is also a core set of transversal values and traditions that have emerged over the years that transcend religion and operate as the glue that binds society together. One of these is “civility”.

You were one of the people who helped draw up our Constitution, which upholds secular values. Why is it important that we do not enshrine religious values in the laws of our land, as other religious countries do?
It is important that we do not embed religion in laws: that would violate freedom of religion and, invariably, one religion would inform such laws.

Second, religious laws themselves may be oppressive as each religion depends on the interpretation of religious precepts by various religious authorities, whose interpretation may be liberal or draconian.

How has your faith as a Christian helped you in the work that you do?
Although I do not impose my faith on others, or mix religion with my interpretation of facts and regulatory prescripts, my Christian faith informs my commitment to values such as truth, integrity, fairness, compassion and a balancing of justice and mercy in my work.

What is your favourite Bible verse?
Psalm 23.

What is your favourite hymn or worship song?
Amazing Grace.

What values do you most admire in faiths other than your own?
Human solidarity and generosity in Judaism, compassion in Hare Krishna, faith in Islam, love and forgiveness in Buddhism and peace in Hinduism.

What is your message to South Africans over the Easter period?
Whatever your faith, take time off to reflect on gratitude for your life. Whatever you have, give or do whatever you can to diminish human suffering in the world even if it’s simply a smile. Play your part in promoting social justice, peace and an end to hatred and harm to fellow human beings and in preserving our planet.

May love, peace and joy fill your holiday and beyond.

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