A woman speaks truth to the prophets

Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva: "“We are working in a sector that is not friendly to women in leadership." (Photo: Gallo Images)

Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva: "“We are working in a sector that is not friendly to women in leadership." (Photo: Gallo Images)

Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva is looking decidedly relaxed for someone faced with “unprecedented attacks” on herself and the work of the commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.

“You have to roll with the punches,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, chairperson of the commission, says smiling.

The punches are being thrown by some religious leaders objecting to the investigation the commission conducted into the commercialisation of religion and the abuse of people’s belief systems and its recommendation that every religious practitioner be registered.

Critics of the process have been unrelenting in their attacks on both the commission and Mkhwanazi-Xaluva herself. Her fiercest critic is Prophet Paseka Motsoeneng, also known as Pastor Mboro.

Aside from issuing Mkhwanazi-Xaluva and her fellow commissioners with an August 3 deadline to resign “or else”, Motsoeneng has also instructed Mkhwanazi-Xaluva to kneel before him, begging for forgiveness, clean his church and polish his shoes.
He also called her corrupt, an anti-Christ and a liar who is targeting him because he is not requiting the love he says she feels for him.

The investigation was the result of “recent controversial news reports and articles about pastors [that] have left a large portion of society questioning whether religion has become a commercial institution or a commodity to enrich a few” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said at a media briefing in July to announce the completion of the investigation and its report.

The report recommended that all religious practitioners should be registered with the commission through an accredited umbrella organisation of their choice. These umbrella organisations would, in turn, adhere to a code of conduct, have capacity-building programmes and put disciplinary procedures in place.

“This was necessitated by the fact that currently there is no comprehensive register where the communities can verify who is a bona fide religious practitioner.

“This register will also ensure that the religious leaders are compliant with the various laws of the country,” the report noted.

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said the commission’s recommendations were based mainly on information gathered during the hearings, a process she referred to then as “a long, arduous, painful journey”.

She says most religious leaders and institutions co-operated with the commission’s investigation; others displayed “varying degrees of resistance”.

Prophet Samuel Radebe, head of the Revelation Church of God and one of the commission’s most outspoken critics, told the Mail & Guardian that the commission “does not have authority to meddle in the financial affairs of churches”.

“Legally, there is no reason, nor necessity, for the commission to require such records,” he says, adding that “out of my own volition, my church has, since inception, been audited and continues to be”.

Radebe says consultation with religious leaders was inadequate.

“Indigenous religious church leaders were never consulted for their views on the chairperson’s report. She also did not hesitate to unconstitutionally and unceremoniously summon these leaders to her office,” he says, adding that “the entire investigation lacked a clear direction”.

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva was well aware that the investigation would ruffle some feathers. “I didn’t come into this naively,” she says.

The level of attacks have, however, surpassed even her predictions.

“I thought the most that would happen was that maybe the [investigation process] would be delayed,” she says.

But “long, arduous and painful” as the investigation process may have been, it ran relatively smoothly. Yet critics of the process have been unrelenting in their attacks on both the commission and Mkhwanazi-Xaluva herself.

“When I first heard [Motsoeneng] say I should kneel before him and polish his church and cry and feel sorry for myself, I thought, ‘okay, here we go again’,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva says. “You see, when you are a woman, you come into any position with baggage.

“What I knew for sure was that a male would not have been asked to kneel and cry and clean and polish.

She describes thinking that “women are these less-than kind of things” is misogynistic behaviour.

Being a “less-than kind of thing” has come with the territory for Mkhwanazi-Xaluva. “We are working in a sector that is not friendly to women in leadership. In many churches, it’s men who are leaders. And in some, women are not allowed to be. In the cultural sector, it is still a difficult thing for women.

“I came in not naive. I knew that, as a woman, this is breaking new ground in this country that never had a woman lead this particular chapter 9 institution. The issue [of my gender] has always been raised. You try to do an investigation into initiation and the first thing traditional leaders tell you is ‘we don’t discuss initiation with women’. So, you know, you get this kind of problem everywhere.

“But I think when you’re breaking new ground there will be resistance. You just have to push through.”

On the afternoon of August 3, when Mkhwanazi-Xaluva and the other commissioners had not met his resign “or else” deadline, Motsoeneng appeared at the commission’s office with armed guards in an eight-car fleet. “I assumed it was to fulfil the ‘or else’ threat,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva says. Although Motsoeneng and his armed entourage were not allowed onto the property, the show of force was taken seriously be Mkhwanazi-Xaluva. On August 8 — a day before national Women’s Day “and my birthday, by the way” — she laid charges of intimidation, crimen injuria and incitement against Motsoeneng.

“We live in a very violent country,” she said at the media briefing. “So when a man says he is going to hurt you, believe him.”

She will also apply for a protection order against Motsoeneng: “I believe that, if left unchecked, he will physically harm me or, worse still, kill me or incite his congregants to a stage where they will harm me.”

Koabeng Qhobela, from Radebe’s Revelation Church of God, is serving a three-year prison sentence after he interfered with the work of the commission, tried to intimidate Mkhwanazi-Xaluva and labelled her a “servant of the Devil”.

Radebe would, however, not be drawn into responding to Mkhwanazi-Xaluva’s allegations of incitement: “The commission’s chairperson is better placed to respond to this since she has portrayed herself in the media as a victim in this process.”

Says Mkhwanazi-Xaluva: “[I have heard things like] ‘tell that woman to lower her tone … She must remember she is a woman in Africa’. This was right at the beginning of the hearings when [people came to] protest against the summons given to Prophet Radebe.

“The fact that I keep on being referred to as ‘that woman’ clearly shows me that I am being harassed, threatened, insulted and undermined because I am a woman who dares to speak truth to power.”

The threats have affected not only her work — “I only go to places I think are safe, so it restricts my movements professionally” — but also her family life.

“The normal things you do as a family — going out, going shopping, spending time with your husband — is restricted. You’re safer behind locked doors than doing what normal people do. A simple thing like going to church is like, ‘heh, I don’t know how safe this thing is here’.

“You worry more about your children … because you don’t know when people who have access to a million or more congregants — and they are complaining about you all the time to their congregants — how creative those people will be.”

Attempts to get hold of Motsoeneng were unsuccessful. But, speaking to the SABC, he denied claims of intimidation. “My lawyers are busy with the papers. I’m going to sue her, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m praying and calling on all Christians to fight this anti-Christ, anti-Church. I’m not going to kill her, I’m not going to fight her physically. I’m not a killer, I’m a worshipper, I’m a prophet who changes people’s lives.”

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva says she will not be deterred: “The job will be done. It has been hard for a very long time, but we’ve finalised the report; we’ve handed it over to Parliament. What needs to happen will happen. I’m not going to resign.

“You see,” she smiles, “if you remain intimidated and afraid, the work will never get done.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian 

Carl Collison

Carl Collison

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. He has contributed to a range of local and international publications, covering social justice issues as well as art and is committed to defending and advancing the human rights of the LGBTI community in Southern Africa. Read more from Carl Collison

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